Notes: The Future of Pennies

An exchange

Let’s Ban Them

BY MY CALCULATION, the penny became what is known in scientific circles as not worth the trouble on March 3, 1984, give or take three or four years. That was when the odds of my bending over to pick up a penny became less than fifty-fifty. As near as I can tell, the only reason to pick up a one-cent piece, as the penny is known in the numismatic business (Britain has a penny, the professionals will tell you; the United States has a one-cent piece), is to avoid getting stuck with four of them on the next trip to the drugstore. The penny’s uselessness is testified to by millions of little bowls sitting next to millions of cash registers, underneath the folkpoetic inscription “Need a penny? / Take a penny / Have a penny? / Leave a penny.

This is doggerel we could do without. It is what is known in literary circles as not worth the trouble. 1 suspect that many Americans feel the way that I do about this. In fact, I know they do. Last year USA Today conducted a survey in which 37 percent of 13,311 people said they favored dumping the penny, and the other 63 percent could hardly have been serious.

Americans who are fed up with pennies—which are not even really made of copper anymore, because they wouldn’t be worth it—have on their side a political movement that is surging through an office on the third floor of a building in downtown Washington, D.C. James C. Benfield. who occupies this office, is leading a lobbying campaign to abolish the penny.

Like a lot of people, I dislike pennies, a lot, as a nuisance, Benfield told me when I went to see him at the lobbying firm of Bracy Williams & Company. “And I started poking around on this thing and said. Let‘s form a coalition to do this.” That was in 1986. Today Benfield is the founder, executive director, and only paid employee of the Coin Coalition. Its agenda is twofold: first, and principally, to replace the dollar bill with a dollar coin, which lasts many times longer and so is much cheaper to keep in circulation; and second, to abolish the penny, whose disappearance would help make room in your pocket for the dollar coin.

“Not only do I hate pennies,” Benfield said, “but I saw that I was in a position to do something about it. I’m lucky. I‘m real lucky. I have the luxury of living in Washington, D.C., where the decisions are made. And I do know enough about the legislative process to know how to put together a movement. And if you do that, you can make something happen,”

Nowadays the Coin Coalition boasts support from the public-transit people, the vending-machine people, the American Council of the Blind, and many others, most of whom are in it mainly for the dollar coin. But not all. The convenience-store people, who ought to know, figure that an average of two to three seconds per transaction would be saved if the penny disappeared. “The cost of handling pennies,” writes Teri Richman, of the National Association (if Convenience Stores, exceeds their value in commercial transactions.”

Just for a little perspective, if the 1936 song “Pennies From Heaven” came out today, it would have to be “Dimes From Heaven” to mean the same thing. Dimes from heaven might be worth the trouble. As recently as the early 1950s a penny was equivalent to today‘s nickel. “We’re dealing with a one-cent piece that has literally outlived its commercial usefulness,” says Representative James A. Hayes, an anti-penny Democrat from Louisiana.

For a little more perspective, consider that last year the U.S. Mint made 11,346,550,443 pennies, not counting proof sets. Of each year‘s shiny new crop, something like half will have disappeared from circulation within a year. Some of them are hoarded, stockpiled, and collected. A lot of them— let‘s not kid ourselves—wind up in the netherworld where paper clips and hairpins and rubber bands go. That seems rather a waste, especially since the mint says that it costs about six tenths of a cent to make a penny— which, by the way, is 97.5 percent zinc, with a copper coating.

The answer is abolition. We can round cash-register totals—after sales taxes—up or down to the nearest nickel. If your grocery bill is $17.62, you’ll pay $17.60. If $17.63, you‘ll pay $17.65. In the long run you will come out even, and so will the grocer. Your old pennies will still be legal tender; you’ll just have to spend them five at a time—except when you write a check or charge something (in non-coin transactions, single-cent denominations would still be okay).

I have been experimenting with this scheme, and it seems to work. Sometimes I buy something and let the register clerk keep the pennies. Sometimes I buy something and the clerk doesn’t insist that I tender the odd penny or two. No big deal.

Representative Hayes supports getting rid of pennies and going to rounding. Of a similar mind is Representative Jim Kolbe, of Arizona, a state where the copper industry is so big that the Arizona state Hag has a copper-colored star in the middle. He is pushing a bill, with backing and advice from the Coin Coalition, alias Jim Benfield, to switch to a dollar coin—which he expects would be made mostly of copper. But he has tacked on a provision calling for a study of getting rid of the penny, and basically he is an anti-penny Republican. “We’re a country that‘s very loath to change our currency, probably uniquely so, he says. “But there’s nothing you can purchase with a penny anymore, or with two or three cents. I just think it’s time to consider making a change in the currency. It‘s a staggering cost to business of handling these pennies. It would save an enormous amount of time and energy.

Kolbe and Haves and Benfield—call them the National front for the Liberation of Rockets, and wish them well.

—Jonathan Rauch

No, Let’s Keep Them

THE PROPOSAL THAT the United States get rid of pennies is, like many proposals that smack of cool-headed, cold-blooded pragmatism, one that should be implemented on another planet. It is the kind of apparently sensible yet hugely disruptive reform that a wise society will treat with the same disdain that America has already shown for the metric system and phonetic spelling.

Should we stop making cents? The penny we now have was issued in 1909 to celebrate the centennial of our sixteenth President‘s birth, and its name and ancestry go back to the eighth century. From the start the penny’s biggest foe has been inflation, which has for centuries threatened to render the coin valueless. And yet monarchs and prime ministers have deemed this insufficient cause to rid themselves of it, preferring to let the penny be and to invent higher denominations of currency—as when Edward II established the groat. Indeed, by its continued existence the penny has served notice that the value of money cannot be infinitely debased, that the monetary systems of the English-speaking world have an anchor, albeit a shifting one. As long as the penny exists, there w ill be things you can buy with one or two or three or four of them. Get rid of it and nothing will cost less than a nickel.

That is the economic defense of the penny. Pennies also serve important social functions. They inform millions of children who may have been exposed to nothing but textbooks that there once was a man named Lincoln who occupied a position of some importance. They are responsible for initiating millions of conversations in stores every day between people who otherwise would complete their transactions in anomic silence. From time to time these transactions are punctuated by mild bleats of satisfaction—“Wait, I have a penny!” Such moments, occurring all across the nation and around the clock, contribute modestly but directly to social comity.

Pennies, moreover, are so deeply embedded in our culture that extracting them would leave small emptinesses in the very substance of life. Pennies help to mark the stages of man. They are the first allowance we receive. Later we put them on railroad tracks, and later still in loafers, and later still in fuse boxes. Inevitably the day comes when a penny falls from the hand and one decides not to pick it up. In the mature adult this prompts a fleeting sense of contentment, for he has acknowledged the fact of his own security. We wish on pennies at fountains and wells, knowing that dimes and nickels won’t work. In a pocketful of change pennies serve as an essential garnish, relieving an otherwise drab monochrome like radishes in a salad. And in our language they are called upon liberally when precepts of formidable consequence must be conveyed. “Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.” “A penny saved is a penny earned. Thanks to exhortations like these, it may very well be that if all the pennies hoarded in bowls and jars were taken into account, the often maligned U.S. savings rate would approach that of Japan.

The elimination of the penny might afford some slight physical convenience, but the total social cost exceeds what a liberal democracy ought to countenance. It would be nothing less, one might say, than penny-wise and pound-foolish.

—Cullen Murphy