Death to Lincoln: Why the Penny Must be Killed to Save America

I love Abraham Lincoln.

He was — I don’t really think anyone’s arguing this point, but I believe it pretty strongly so I’ll go ahead and say it — one hell of a president.  Navigated the whole Civil War / country-being-torn-asunder thing pretty well, all things considered.  Saved the Union.  Killed vampires dead.

And so, before I say anything else, I want to say that if there’s anyone in American history who deserves to be immortalized in currency, it’s Abe.  Honestly.  And the U.S. did just that — in 1909, the hundred-year anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, the penny was printed with its familiar bearded visage on it, the first U.S. coin to depict any real person (Lady Liberty was the norm).  Ever since, the penny’s been a cherished part of U.S. currency and history, honoring a man who steered our country through tumult and turmoil.

But Lincoln has the five.  And it may be time to give up on the penny.

Let’s recap some of the things the penny is good for:

  • Really insulting tips
  • Aggravating shopkeepers who must accept sockfulls of pennies as legal tender
  • Wish-granting fountain fuel
  • Empire State Building urban legends
  • Those flattened penny machines at zoos

And a fun fact: every penny costs way more than 1¢ to mint.  The U.S. Mint puts the average cost during the 2011 fiscal year at $0.0241 per coin, and minted 4,938.5 million pennies in 2011 — a total cost to taxpayers of $119.1 million.

Clearly, this flagship of the U.S. currency fleet is sinking.  It’s like the Titanic, if the R.M.S. Titanic consisted of a thin copper coating around a solid zinc core instead of a thin steel plating around a solid core of stupidity and hubris.  Rising metal prices are the iceberg that crippled the penny, and it’s going to be re-released in 3D and… and you know what,  I’m going to move on from this metaphor before it becomes even more convoluted.

There’s a predicament with the penny.  So what do we do with this problematic yet emblematic aspect of numismatics?  What is the world without our penny-based aphorisms and idioms (“a penny saved is a penny earned”, “penny for your thoughts”, bad pennies, lucky pennies, pretty pennies)?  Without a multicolored currency collection?  Without a physical representation of something so utterly worthless that the average American worker earns it in roughly 1.5 seconds?

I’m tempted to say we let it die.  Inflation has wounded it — and it’s time to let it go peacefully.

I’m not advocating for a society that eliminated the hundredths decimal place.  I’m fine with credit cards and checks retaining the use of the $0.01 denomination.  But why not let every cash purchase be rounded up or down?

There are opponents to such a move — mainly arguing doing so would somehow increase prices — but that seems to not be the case (and to me, it makes sense that this must wash out to a zero sum game).  The fact of the matter is that one cent has become a tiny amount of money, and insisting on continuing to mint the penny seems to be, at its core, illogical.    The coin represents a net loss to the U.S. government, it’s inconvenient for the populace, and every argument for its continuation seems to be based on some form of nostalgia.

Lincoln legacy or not, the penny’s legacy is rapidly fading into frustration.

* * *

Now, some perspective amid my hyperbole: the cost of minting every single penny that went into circulation in 2011 was just north of $119 million.  A single F-22 fighter jet costs the government $150 million.

Clearly, the penny is not the biggest issue facing the nation.  But it illustrates a point — if the coin costs the government money, why is the penny still around?

Part of the answer may be lobbyists.  Jarden Zinc Products, the company that supplies the U.S. with the zinc blanks that become pennies, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying Congress to keep the penny alive.  But I think a bigger issue might just be the sense of nostalgia that swirls around the penny.

There’s an enormous amount of inertia in the U.S. that resists change about anything: Social Security, Medicare, healthcare, slavery, equal rights, the metric system, and, of course, change itself (coins, that is).  I’m not sure how much of this is due to lobbying and how much is actually just due to a pervasive tendency for the U.S. population to like things to stay the way they were.  No one wants Social Security to work differently for them than it did for their grandparents — but it’s going to have to, in some form.  Slavery was tabled for decades because a consensus couldn’t be reached — until the country went to war over it, or at least using it as an excuse.  American cars were always about power and muscle, even as the rest of the world began focusing on fuel efficiency — and while this is starting to turn around, it was a long time coming.

My point is this: if we can’t change something as small as small change, how can we ever hope to tackle the massive infrastructure changes our country is going to need?  The electricity grid needs to be overhauled to make use of renewables.  Social security needs to be remedied to provide for a new generation.  The tax code needs to be reformed to ensure people who make absurd amounts of money don’t pay less than manual laborers.  Science and space exploration need to be funded.  I hope healthcare reform stands, but if not, healthcare needs to be reformulated to care for our country’s wellbeing.  All of these things require compromise, which in the current political climate is unfortunately tantamount to saying none of them will ever happen.

This country has done great things (cf. moon landing, defeat of fascism, birth of democracy, etc., etc., etc.), and I believe it will continue to do great things.  But change needs to come from somewhere.

Why not begin with the penny?  Maybe it’s not the absolute best place to start.  Maybe it’s not the most important issue.  Maybe it’s not even a good idea.  But it’s something — and I’m sure that Abe would understand.



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