Tuesday, March 13, 2007

REACT: In Defense of the Penny ... or boo to you Neil Steinberg

Chicago Sun-Times columnist, Neil Steinberg, has come out against the preservation of the penny. He employs the usual arguments. It’s worth less than the cost of production. It is not used in commerce—at least not necessary. No vending machines use it any more. They just wind up collecting in jars.

True, it costs more than a penny to make one. No longer used in commerce? Why do I always wind up with pennies in my change from the store? And, there ARE still penny gumball machines here and about. One major grocery chain features a penny mechanical horse ride near the check out counter.

All this aside, our buddy Neil misses the true value of the penny.

First of all, it is the only coin with the image of the most revered President, Abraham Lincoln. As the 16th Chief Executive might say, “it is altogether fitting and proper” that his image should be on the most humble of coins, to symbolize his own humble nature. It was the first U.S. coin to feature a President.

Northerners complained that such a great President should be honored with a coin of greater value. Southerners complained that such tributes were for tyrants -- which they viewed Lincoln to be. Still, when introduced in 1909, the Lincoln penny was so popular that long lines formed at the mint, and citizens were limited to one dollars’ worth. People were immediately selling them on the street – three pennies for a nickel. Compare that to the recent releases of the highly touted dollar coins. The face of the penny is said to be “the most reproduced piece of art in the history of the world.” Originally minted in pure copper, it was the most unique U.S. coin.

Should we do away with the penny, what do we do with Lincoln? The absence of a Lincoln on our coinage would be a disgrace. So who goes? Washington booted oft the newly designed quarter? Jefferson off the nickel? Roosevelt off the dime? No larger coin would do. Any Lincoln coin must be in widespread use. Perhaps the most appropriate option would be to replace slave-owning Jefferson with the Great Emancipator. Jefferson still has the two dollar bill. To completely remove Lincoln from coinage of common circulation is unthinkable.

It is true. The penny does wind up in the family coin jar more often than any other coins. In our case, all pennies are put into a coffee tin in my son’s room. Pennies add up. For my son, the can is usually worth up to $10 by the time the copper coins are redeemed at the bank. Alex can then buy something special, or save up for a more expensive item. So, try convincing kids like Alex that pennies are worthless.

And pennies do not add up just for Alex. Did you ever notice all those pennies in the charity jars at the Seven-Eleven counters? If Neil has his way, the needy will have to do without the benefit of a ton (literally) of pennies.

Think about all those kids who start their coin collecting careers with a penny book. They meticulously look through hundreds of pennies to find a 1943 “steel” or those old “wheat” backs. Many kids cannot afford to set aside nickels and dimes for their collections.

I have been told that in some parts of America, “pitching pennies” is still a pastime. And what about all those machines at amusement parks that let you elongate a penny, or “stamp” it into a new inscription of one sort or another. These “elongated” pennies (pictured) are a big business and sought after by avid collectors. (Check out http://www.pressapenny.com/ or http://www.squashedpenny.com/).

I suspect that the inventor of the penny-stretching machine was a kid, like me, who occasionally placed a penny on the railroad track in anticipation of the train that would turn it into a misshaped piece of copper. Not a pastime of which my parents would have approved, although I suspect they knew from whence came those pancaked pennies in my dresser drawer.

Without the penny, compulsive gambling would escalate. I am satisfied playing our nation’s favorite card game, penny-ante poker. Suddenly buying into the game would increase more than two-fold, a minimum nickel replacing the traditional two-penny ante. This is the beginning of serious gaming. And don’t try to sell me on the idea of chips. No friendly poker game is worth a bust hand without real money on the table. That “clink” of the coin hitting the Formica is music. And speaking of gambling. In many bingo halls, the penny is still the preferred card marker --- over plastic chips, corn kernels and ink blotches.

Think of the loss to the language. How can one demand to get back “every penny you owe me?” And what can you do with the money when it is paid back? Why, invest it in “penny stocks.” Some things “won’t cost you a penny.” When I buy something, I want it to be worth “every penny I spent.” What is a better word for a miser than a “penny pincher?” We refer to financial subjects simply as “a matter of dollars and cents.” Lost would be Ben Franklin’s sage advice that “a penny saved is a penny earned.” Borrowing from the Brits, you may think of some people as “penny wise, pound foolish.” What is the compliment to be if not telling that little girl she is as “pretty as a penny?” Or course, some desired item could cost a “pretty penny.” How will the gentle lady announce going to the bathroom if not by say she is going to”spend a penny?” If we are nosey, would be no longer able to “stick in our two cents?” Gone is the relevance of Gene Kelly swirling around a lamp post singing, “every time it rains, it rains … pennies from heaven.”

What well dressed man would be without at least one pair of penny loafers, althoughI rarely see the penny imbedded in the front flap any more. Tons of women’s jewelry has been made from pennies.

How about all those penny websites? Want to know how many pennies to re-create the Empire State building? Check out the mega penny project at http://www2.blogger.com/at%20http:/www.kokogiak.com/megapenny.

The penny is the good luck coin. Sacks of pennies have been good luck gifts at graduations, religious holidays and birthdays. Even when I was 18, Grandma Bessie taped pennies to my card – no nickels or dimes, just 18 shiny pennies. Finding a penny on the street is traditionally followed by a self declaration of good luck. Devotion to the penny reaches theological proportions in the Penny Catechism, where the adoration of the Penny God is explained. (See http://nasw.org/users/twoharts/pennycatechism.html.)

And what about the endless practical uses for the penny?

If my screen door will not stay open with the sliding retainer, a wedged penny restores functionality. I have been known to level off bookcases and electronic devices with pennies. They are ideal for scratching off contest cards. They have served as “shims” behind a door lock plate that did not properly catch the bolt. Handicrafters have turned pennies into hot pads, paperweights. Pennies can even be used to make an AM radio. They can be used to replace a burnt our fuse (ok… bad idea. But they can.).

They are a safety tool. Experts tell us the simplest way to check the tread wear of your tire is to stick a penny in the groove, and if you can see the top of Lincoln’s head, you need to replace the tire.

Our friend Neil would cast a side one of retailers’ most honored traditions -- the “almost” price tag. You know $4.98 for this, or $9.99 for that. Of course prices would be rounded off to the next highest non-penny amount. Multiply this by the billions of penny-change purchases and the elimination of the cent adds millions, maybe billions, of real dollars to the cost of goods. Abolishing the penny is a step toward inflation.

Far from being useless, the penny is among the most useful of coins. It is also the only coin that has survived the degradation of the folks at the mint. It is still a real coin – not the “play money” mintings of recent years. It is our most charming coin. It is part of our American culture. So Neil. A penny for your thoughts?

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