In praise of the penny

It seems like the easy way out. It isn't.

Every few years it seems, somebody -- usually a politician, occasionally a writer -- will come up with the notion that the United States should abolish the penny. It makes sense at first. After all, what can you buy with a penny? Pretty much, um, nothing. It seems like forever since I've even seen bubblegum machines offering their wares for a penny.

And, of course, because nobody uses the penny, and they pile up so quickly when you're given change, they end up infesting empty jelly jars, the tops of dressers, the insides of sofas and other random places.

The latest buzz that the penny should be dropped apparently started from this New Yorker article, which was titled, "Penny Dreadful," with the subhead: They're horrid and useless. Why do pennies persist?

I have to admit, the author makes some good points. I couldn't help but be impressed when David Owen wrote, "During the past thirty years, the U.S. Mint has produced something like half a trillion coins, most of them cents, yet the Mint estimates that only about three hundred billion coins are currently in circulation. This estimate is probably high, since it includes coins that haven't budged from their coffee cans in years." So, what's the big deal? Well, Owen concludes, "Pocket change leaks from the economy the way air leaks from a balloon, and most of what leaks is pennies."

Ah, ha. The penny is responsible for our current economy...But all I can think is that if the penny disappeared, it would be something of a tax. After all, if someone is selling hamburgers, and they conclude that they can make a pretty good profit by selling them for $1.57, they're almost certainly going to round up the number to $1.60. Owen admits that this is what a lot of critics say, and he dismisses it by noting that it is, when you think about it, just a matter of pennies, and given that many Americans happily give up 8% of their money when feeding their coins -- most of them pennies -- they probably aren't going to quibble over a few cents. And I wouldn't, if we were just talking about my hamburger, but we're also talking about my electric bill, my water bill, my mortgage, the groceries my wife bought today, the gas I filled up my car with today -- that's a lot of extra pennies I'm likely to lose -- every day.

Sure, eventually we'd get used to it. The half-cent, Owen points out, hasn't been around since 1857, and I suspect there aren't too many of us who miss it.

This is an argument that's been going on for years, of course. William Safire wrote about it for The New York Times in 2004, coming down in favor of getting rid of the penny. The Los Angeles Times had a story about the mint considering getting rid of the penny in 1976 (you can click on it and see the headline, but you have to pay for the entire article). I suppose eventually it's inevitable that the penny may go, but then what's next? The nickel? The New Yorker alludes to that possibility and even jokes that while we're at it, get rid of the dime. It's dizzying, and if nothing else, think about Coinstar, the coin counting company -- are we really going to eliminate the penny and thus eliminate an entire business? Oh, sure, the founder's plenty rich, but what about his descendants? You want them shivering out on the street?

OK, not a strong enough point that would get me points in a debating competition. I'm getting a little emotional here. But look at it this way -- think of all those sales where small businesses promote a product as being just 99 cents, or just $19.99, or just $1999.99. They all do it, because they know that we Americans, always looking for a bargain, are going to say, "Wow, that's just under a dollar," or, "Wow, that's not even $20," and so on. We get rid of the penny, and those sales tactics are gone.

Of course, one could argue that businesses, in order to get us excited about a sale, will lower their prices to 95 cents, $19.95 and $1999.95, which would end up saving the customer four cents. Maybe. But all that would do for me is remind me that our penny is no more.

Still, that's also not a great argument, is it? Well, what about this? The expression, "that's just my two cents," will eventually cease to exist. Think about it. We'll keep saying it for awhile, but in 20 or 30 years, when we're talking to the younger generations, we'll say something like, "That's just my two cents," and there will be a blank look. "Two cents? What's that?" And what if that younger person is your boss? And suddenly your younger boss thinks you're no longer hip, and you're fired. You ever think of that, David Owens or William Safire? I thought not!

OK, maybe after my fear of a tax round-up, my arguments aren't rock solid. Maybe I am a nostalgic freak and hate the idea of no longer finding a penny on the sidewalk, with the Lincoln side up, and saying, "Heads -- that's good luck." But I don't care. There's something priceless about the penny, even if it's only as a counting tool for kindergarten kids learning how to count money. Please, if the Secretary of the Treasury happens to be reading this, don't change my change.

Geoff Williams is a business journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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