A TREASURY Department task force recently reported that the government could save $50 million a year if the dollar bill were replaced by increased production of the new Susan B. Anthony dollar coin and the old $2 bill. The task force also proposed the eventual minting of pennies out of aluminum instead of copper, which is fast becoming prohibitively expensive.
Given the popularity ratings of the Anthony coin and the $2 bill, you can imagine how far the dollar idea will go. But the penny recommendation stands a reasonable chance. On the surface, it sounds eminently sensible to produce pennies cheaper than we would otherwise.
Apparently, though, the panel did not give much thought to the most money-saving possibility of all -- to eliminate pennies entirely.
Admittedly, the notion carries a radical ring. The penny is a venerable component of our coinage system. How can we do without it? The answer: easily. The truth is that the penny has become a nuisance.
They are a bother for merchants and customers alike. The collective time and patience lost in the nation each day at cash registers is staggering. on a personal level, pennies clutter our pockets, purses and dresser tops. They have become so commonplace that even small children won't bother to pick them up from the sidewalk. (a friend claims that not long ago he offered his boy a nickel if he would pick up a penny he spotted on the street. The boy refused.)
There was a time, of course, when pennies served a valuable purpose. Children were able to buy a decent stock of candy for a penny. Adults, at least in New York, could quench their thirst with a "two-cent plain." for years after World War II you could buy a newspaper or mail a letter for less than 5 cents. How many items can you think of today that cost less than a nickel? Even those chocolate-covered mints at restaurant cashier counters now rarely sell for less.
The penny has reached the point where its only function is to make up the cost of odd-priced goods and services. Considering the coin's proud heritage, one that was able to spawn maxims on both the virtues and pitfalls of thrift ("a penny saved is a penny earned" versus "penny wise and pound foolish"), that's not much of a role. Better the penny should be gracefully retired.
With the penny gone, sellers of goods and services would be required to round off their prices to the nearest nickel. The 72-cent toothpaste would go to 70 cents; the 73-cent toothpaste would be marked up to 75. Sales taxes would be similarly rounded off. Over the long haul, it should average out; we would be no better or worse off than we are now.
Cynics would presume, of course, that in a world without pennies the businessman would always price his products upward. But the drug store with the 70-cent toothpaste would have a 5-cent difference to advertise.
What would we do with the pennies we have? We'd take them to a bank and redeem them for rounded denominations of coin or currency. The most any of us will be stuck with is 4 cents. Those pennies we can save for our grandchildren.
Removal of the penny would leave a vacancy in our coinage system. To fill it, I propose the minting of a new coin -- a 15-cent piece, to be made from aluminum. Just as inflation has reduced the need for pennies, it justifies the introduction of a 15-cent coin, though far fewer would be needed than our current massive stock of pennies.
Hundreds of thousands of pay phones in the country require 15 cents for a local call. Many newspapers cost 15 cents. A 15-cent piece would combine nicely with nickels and dimes to meet the exact purchase price of countless other items.
Finally, a 15-cent coin would serve a historical purpose. With the penny gone we would have somewhere to place the likeness of one of our most revered presidents.