Will Call: Stop making cents
The decision to add some diversity to the faces on our currency inspired plenty of celebration and a few ruffled feathers last week.
Personally, as long as they steer clear of the likes of Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace, it makes very little difference to me who they put on our money. That’s one luxury of being a heterosexual, cisgender white man — a demographic so ubiquitous in every facet of our society that those of us within it need never look far for an example of how much we can achieve. For the underrepresented, it’s a major step forward in the cultural battle that often precedes practical change.
While we’re thinking about our currency, however, I’d like to call some attention to another absurdly outdated element of our system: the penny.
You’ve probably heard that despite our attempts to produce coinage with the cheapest metals possible, our one cent piece is more valuable melted down and costs almost twice as much to produce as it’s worth. You may also have encountered some video by a bored journalist who spread a bunch of pennies on the ground and then filmed people not picking them up. You may even be aware that, since the elimination of the half cent coin in 1857, inflation has gone up by a factor of 25 — meaning that what you could buy with a penny then would cost you a quarter now.
Really, though, do we need these illustrations to tell us the penny is worthless?
I can’t think of anything I can buy with a single penny, and if I gathered enough of them together to purchase something I’d be viewed with pity or downright hostility. They are most useful to people who want a passive aggressive way to pay their parking tickets or make it clear they didn’t just forget to tip.
The rest of us try to get rid of them as quickly as possible. When my grandfather and uncle would present me with a jar of change, I would count it and take it to the bank to see how close I was, not keep it around for sentimental reasons. The fact that no one has denounced penny jars as creeping communism should tell you how little value people see in change. Meanwhile, we continue to mine zinc and copper at economic and environmental cost.
Many of the same arguments apply to nickels, while I’m on the fence about dimes. They at least pay their own way, but their size and denomination strikes me as a unnecessary and awkward in the current system. As a kid, I could get a single Andes mint at the Crystal Theatre with a dime, but that’s no longer the case. The Crystal, like Peppino’s, calculates their prices to round to the nearest quarter after tax. I don’t understand why more establishments don’t do that.
Quarters are, in fact, the only coin that seems to get much use on its own. They’re good for vending machines, car washes and laundromats, while half dollar and dollar coins remain the same sort of novelty as two dollar bills.
Perhaps the loonie and toonie are what saved Canada’s piggy banks and donation drives when they nixed their penny in 2012. Or maybe the opponents who imagine bankrupt nonprofits are just plain mistaken.
In any case, cash is no longer king. You need a credit card to buy snacks on an airplane, and before long I imagine even Girl Scouts and the Salvation Army will be packing card readers.
Before you accuse me of budgeting in lattes, let me assure you that I’m well aware that many Americans lack a checking account. There is a valid concern that the poorest Americans would suffer if the price of everything got rounded up, but for every study suggesting that there’s another that indicates it would just even out.
At the end of the day, the dollar is our fundamental unit of currency. Gas stations advertise prices in thousandths of a cent, and the economy doesn’t collapse when they round up at the end of the transaction. Whether we divide it into quarters or hundredths, our money is still just an arbitrary, abstract, and increasingly digital representation of value.
Congress has twice considered bills to nix the penny, and our president has expressed his willingness to comply. It appears that the only missing ingredient is public support.
Citizens to Retire the Penny suggests a number of ways to get involved — from social media to contacting your legislators — at retirethepenny.org.
If I accidentally swayed you in the other direction, feel free to connect with Americans for Common Cents at pennies.org.
Should we end up nixing the penny anyway, you can always join me in keeping a secret stash for opening battery covers and tossing the I Ching.
Will Grandbois is quite willing to pay a quarter for your thoughts. He can be reached at 384-9105 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.