Why Is the U.S. Making Money Nobody Wants?

One dollar coin
One dollar coin

A billion dollars in unwanted American dollar coins sits in specially-made vaults the size of soccer fields in Texas and Baltimore and other undisclosed locations. They're heavily guarded -- according to NPR's Planet Money team, even journalists must be watched carefully as they check out the "clear plastic bags piled high on sturdy metal pallets that looked like baby cribs," 1,000 coins per bag, about 35 pounds a piece.

But why are they just sitting there? A recent example from my own life illustrates the problem.

A few weeks ago, I got a dollar coin as change from a farmer's market stand. "I'm sorry," said the cashier. "It's all we have." It was special enough to keep, but one day I needed $2.05 for the bus and could only find a dollar's worth of quarters in a rush. Dropping that gold coin into the fare box may have been the last time I'll see one of those for weeks -- or longer.

Even though I love them ("No apology necessary!" I had said to that cashier, taking the legal tender eagerly), I seem to be in the minority -- the demand for dollar coins over the past several decades has continued to underwhelm experts in monetary policy. The fact is, people just don't want them.

And the demand -- or rather, the lack of it -- is one half of the reason those coins are just sitting in vaults, collecting dust.

The other half of the equation -- the supply side -- goes like this: Congress passed a law.