Americans have a troubled relationship with the penny.
John Oliver once said the copper-plated zinc disk “hangs around for no reason, like an appendix.” President Obama has called the penny a “metaphor” for the government’s inability to get “rid of things that don’t work,” and there is even an organization dedicated to retiring the little guy.
In a YouTube confessional titled “I HATE PENNIES!!!!” John Green, the author and vlogger, became so enraged by the topic he leaned back in an office chair, waved his hands furiously in the air and shouted: “I am turning into a giant squid of anger!”
And on Thursday, for 13 hours, drivers in Delaware learned to loathe the penny, too.
At 1:53 a.m., a tractor-trailer carting 45,000 pounds of them overturned on Interstate 95 and caught fire, spewing the shiny bits across the road and ensnaring traffic for 13 hours, Delaware State Police said. The pennies, still blank, were en route to the Philadelphia Mint to be stamped with President Abraham Lincoln’s face and officially made into money.
State police said the crash was caused when the driver, Stefan Marinkovic, 25, of Chicago, veered the tractor into a concrete barrier, and it’s unclear why that happened. Marinkovic was able to escape from the burning tractor and was later transported to a hospital with injuries that appeared to be not life-threatening. He was cited by troopers for inattentive driving.
While waiting for traffic to clear, drivers pulled off into gas station parking lots, reported the News Journal, and one woman opened all her car doors, climbed into her trunk and read a paperback book.
“Now those delays make cents,” one person wrote on Twitter.
“Why do we still have pennies again?” comedian Rory Albanese tweeted.
“Who even uses pennies anymore?” Carrie-Ann Williams told the News Journal, shaking her head.
“Had they been $100 bills, they would have been cleaned up much faster,” Alain Kornhauser, director of the Transportation Program at Princeton University, told the News Journal in jest.
Photos show cleanup crews using hand brooms to shove the coins into piles.
For more than a decade, economists have been futzing over the penny, some arguing it costs the United States nearly a billion dollars each year and is an unnecessary currency, more often than not relegated to seat cushions and sidewalk cracks.
According to the website Retire the Penny, founded by MIT professor Jeff Gore, “right now, a penny doesn’t even buy a penny.”
It continues: “According to the U.S. Mint’s 2014 annual report, the current cost of a penny is 1.7 cents per coin. With nearly 8 billion pennies minted in 2014, the U.S. spent almost $132 million to produce less than $50 million of circulating currency. When production cost is added to the opportunity cost of using the penny economists say that the penny drains almost $900 million from the national economy every year.”
A Washington Post story from 2014 estimated a much smaller loss, closer to around $105 million, which included the production of nickels.
Even so, in a country constantly squabbling over the budget deficit, it seems even pinching pennies could help.
Those opposed to eliminating pennies argue the solution — rounding up or rounding down to accommodate payment with a nickel — would cost businesses and consumers money. In 2006, The Washington Post reported that was unlikely to happen. Robert M. Whaples, a Wake Forest University economist who also supports Retire the Penny, analyzed 200,000 transactions across seven states and found that purchases at gas stations and convenience stores were just as likely to land at $7.02 as they would at $6.98. Rounding up and rounding down, The Post reported, could cancel themselves out.
In an interview with NPR last year, Francois Velde, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago, said it’s simply tradition that is making Americans cling onto the spirit of the penny — even if they drop them out the window each time they pay in the McDonald’s drive-through.
“American society is very innovative and forward-looking in many ways, but in a few other dimensions we tend to be quite conservative,” Velde told NPR. “And interestingly, the currency is one of those areas. You look at the design of our currency. It’s been the same dead presidents on the bills, on the coins for almost a century, and we’re rather attached to that I think.”
But 2016 will go down in history as the year Harriett Tubman kicked Andrew Jackson off the front of the $20 bill, so perhaps there’s some wiggle room with America and the penny.
More from Morning Mix: