WHEN REP. Jimmy Hayes (D-La.) proposed legislation last year to abolish the penny, people in his office didn't expect it to draw much attention. Pennies don't buy much nowadays. Consumers drop them and keep on walking, stores keep cupfuls of pennies on the checkout counter to facilitate change-making, and 2 billion pennies a year disappear without a trace -- out of 91 billion pennies in circulation at any one time. The idea of phasing out pennies has turned up dependably over the years, usually in some form similar to the Hayes proposal, which calls for rounding prices up or down to the nearest nickel. Just as dependably, it regularly gets shouted down by people who are afraid it will speed inflation, cheat them out of hoarded millions and otherwise bring dire consequences too numerous to mention.
The response to Rep. Hayes' measure, which reached the Banking Committee last week, was no exception. The proposal got scorched on local news shows and jeered on "David Letterman." A General Accounting Office report found "limited popular demand" -- a polite way of saying none -- for any legislation affecting coinage, whether for scotching the penny or for an accompanying bill to create a dollar coin. A Gallup poll echoed with 62 percent opposition to penny-killing. The subject continues to strike a populist nerve.
Why? Admittedly, there are rational arguments against keeping the penny in circulation. The main one is the prediction that by the year 2001, at current inflation rates a single penny will be worth less than the cost of minting it. But these concerns are no match for the widespread opinion expressed in polls that eliminating pennies from pricing would speed up inflation. The argument carries a ring of unrebuttable good sense: maybe not that many shopkeepers these days would raise their prices from $1.72 to $1.74, but why create the temptation? There's also a psychological dimension. "People just can't stand the notion that a coin that was worth something in 1892 isn't worth anything now -- that's something that happens in other countries, not this one," hypothesizes a Hayes staffer.
An interest group called "Americans for Common Cents" argues that affection for and attachment to the penny are anything but frivolous, that, indeed, the penny is a traditional symbol of frugality and good value. We'd tend to agree. Pennies' cultural resonance has some pragmatic benefits too: charities, for instance, do extremely well with people's stray change. But the pragmatics are the least of it -- pro or con -- and we venture to predict they won't be enough to sink this durable coin.