PENNIES FROM HEAVEN

 

by Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.

for the Sunday Gazette

 

For a myriad of reasons, most of which I do not agree with, there seems to be a growing movement advocating abolition of the penny. The coin is often considered a worthless nuisance, one not even worth bending over to pick up. But the need to abolish the penny is important national problem number 1,356, well behind the more urgent need to abolish the designated hitter.


Think of what damage it would do to our linguistic and musical heritage if there were no longer any such thing as a penny. Thoughts would cost at least a nickel. “Nickels from Heaven” just wouldn’t cut it. (Sorry, Bing.) Penny loafers would become dime loafers because a nickel wouldn’t fit in their slots. And we’d have to buy them at J.C. Nickel.
 

          Relatively, pennies have the same value as they always did, namely, a hundredth of a dollar. But the claim that one can’t buy anything for a penny isn’t quite true; sample the used book section of Amazon.com and you’ll find hundreds of books, good copies too, on sale for one cent. (Postage extra, of course.)


Yes, pennies do tend to accumulate. Like hangers in the closet, I think they propagate when left overnight on the dresser. But we must not deprive our kids of the pleasure of rolling fifty to a paper cylinder, twice, to make a dollar. I had great fun when I was nine or ten helping my grandfather do this at his confectionary in Troy. He saw me counting them out and then said “Here, there’s a much faster way. You don’t have to  count them.” He proceeded to weigh out 50 pennies on the store scale and then showed me that the scale was perfectly able to detect the two percent difference between that weight and that of a clump of 49 or 51 pennies. Thereafter, no counting, just weighing.


In those days, there was the added fun of coming across an Indian Head Cent now and then. No more, of course; people would be foolish to part with pennies that are now worth between one and four hundred dollars each depending on date and mintage.


There are many things the individual can do to minimize accumulation of pennies. For those things paid with a check or debit card, amounts owed that are not divisible by five are no problem. Some cities even have parking meters that accept debit cards. Not Schenectady, of course, so I must carry quarters (and nickels and dimes for when I park on Liberty opposite the library), and no one has proposed abolishing those.


In anticipation of small purchases, I try to remember to put three pennies in my pocket each morning. That way, I am more likely to get rid of one, two, or three when I buy something and yet don’t mind gaining one more if some purchase requires an extra four cents.


Other things that would help require either governmental action or, less effectively, voluntary changes in pricing policy by businesses. Some would not oblige. But items subject to sales tax are a complication. There is no sense rounding a price to the nearest five cents if the added sales tax would throw things off, and if rounding is done after sales tax is added, there might be state or county complaints that they were being short-rounded.


But there was one attempt in that direction. In 2002, Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe sponsored the Legal Tender Modernization Act, which would have phased out the penny by specifying that cash transactions be averaged to the nearest nickel, with the rounding done such that it favors neither the customer nor the retailer.  Pretty good trick, but the legislation died aborning.

 

I have always thought it ridiculous that so many prices are set to end in 99 cents, or in the case of gasoline, nine-tenths of a cent. Do retailers think that we consumers are too dumb to be fooled by such practices? Don’t answer.


Australia and New Zealand retired their one-cent piece without any problems. But perhaps because Americans favor retention of the penny by a 76% to 13% margin, there is no current legislation in the United States to retire ours. We have had practice discontinuing usage of coins of a certain denomination, however.  Early in our history, the U.S. used a half-penny coin, but it was retired in 1857. I think it was John McCain who sponsored the needed legislation.

 

And more recently, perhaps only thirty or so years ago, there must have been a secretly-convened convention of almost all U.S. citizens, one that I wasn’t invited to, that decided that there we would no longer use the fifty-cent piece. There is no need to punish violation; try and find one. Such coins must be stashed away somewhere with the two-dollar bills.


There is a whole national society dedicated to the abolition of the penny. One of their arguments is that it costs more than a penny to mint a penny. But, as Dick Cheney is prone to say, “So?” Another is that penny handling takes a few extra seconds at the cash register. Big deal.

 

The most complete rationale for abolishing the penny of which I am aware was made by David Owen in a very interesting and informative article in the New Yorker of March 31 (see www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/03/31/080331fa_fact_owen). Two days earlier, a voter at Senator Barack Obama's town hall meeting in Greensburg, PA asked whether he would consider eliminating the penny. He answered "We have been trying to eliminate the penny for quite some time—it always comes rolling back. I need to find out who is lobbying to keep the penny." I wrote and told him that I was one of them.


Next year, 2009, is not only the bicentennial of Schenectady County, it will be celebrated more widely as the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, both born on February 12, 1809. Darwin has been honored on British and Australian coins of high denomination, but we honor Lincoln more through use of his portrait on the coin we handle most.

 

In December 2005, Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois introduced the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial One-Cent Coin Redesign Act (S-341) which proposed issuance of several one-cent Lincoln coins of varying design in the bicentennial year. The bi-partisan bill was co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Jim Bunning, Richard Lugar,  Evan Bayh, and……..Barack Obama! It passed both the Senate and the House, and I am delighted that Barack has stopped flirting with abolition of the penny.

 

Moral: Save your extra pennies in that urn on your desk. A penny saved is a penny urned.

 

Edwin D. Reilly, Jr., a sporadic numismatist and philatelist, lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the opinion pages of the Sunday Gazette.