A Penny’s Value
On one episode of West Wing it was introduced as comic relief; someone was lobbying to get rid of the penny, wasting the valuable time of White House staffers. William Safire wrote a column “Abolish the Penny” last year; pointed, well argued, with a tone of bemusement over thinking that the public would ever take up such a trivial cause.
Yesterday, I was going through the process of trying to turn my small change into real money. I wouldn’t consider dumping it all into the tip box at my favorite coffee shop as it would be insulting, so I decided to distribute the pain. Our banker got a handful. And then I counted out the $2.08 for the copy shop. I had put it on the counter since the clerk was busy. He finished up and we counted it together; and it turned out I was about to stiff him, since what I thought was a quarter was the new nickel.
You see, I knew what a nickel looked like for this last sixty years, and it wasn’t that coin on the left in the picture above. That coin is shiny, with a design I didn’t recognize, so it had to be one of the variants of a quarter. And lying there among the other coins, I didn’t notice it was smaller. I will learn to recognize the new nickel, but there is more mischief ahead. We are about to be challenged with a new dollar coin that will have four different designs each year for the next decade, this while continuing to mint the existing design.
Safire’s article ended on a note of irony, “get out those bumper stickers, “Abolish the penny.” That is not going to happen, and this is why the penny, which is now junk sprinkled among our coinage, will continue to be minted, along with the new “novelty” dollar, imposing a sorting tax of a few extra seconds on every American for every transaction. That’s a lot of seconds.
We shouldn’t need bumper stickers to have a national coinage optimized to achieve its function. This is what we pay our elected officials for, to provide coinage with ease of recognition, security against counterfeiting, and appropriate denominations pegged to purchasing power. Every other advanced country manages to do just this. But rather than make improvements, the rationality of our coinage is being further eroded.
One basic rule is that even the lowest denomination should have a value greater than its transaction cost. A penny, which when first minted got you a newspaper or a child’s smile, now is an insult. A minimum wage worker would be misusing his time to pick one up from the ground.
So as you sort those coins and wait in line at the checkout counter a bit longer, as the job of low paid cashiers gets just a bit more tedious, think about those people whom you elect to federal office. We do not get to look inside the Department of Homeland Security, or really examine how the Defense Department works, but what we do know shows striking similarities with our coinage. Achieving their stated goals are incidental, when there are lobbyists to be appeased, industries to be supported, and connections to be established.
So, I say keep those pennies coming. Each coin, although of little monetary value, provides a priceless symbolic message. Each one illustrates just how little the good of the general public stacks up against the concerted efforts of special interests; and just how far we have to go to get our democracy back.
Labels: Federal Govt.