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The penny may become an antique

Chicago Tribune
MCT Campus

Nicolas Cage starred in a preposterous thriller a few years back that included a secret clue to riches, the “National Treasure” of the title, embedded on U.S. money. Turns out riches are embedded in U.S. money, specifically nickels and pennies, and there’s nothing secret about it.

Because of the soaring cost of zinc, copper and nickel, it now costs the U.S. mint 1.7 cents to make each penny and 10 cents to make a nickel. The dime and the quarter are still worth more than their cost of production, the dime costs 7 cents to make and the quarter checks in at 10 cents, but that could change if the global commodities surge continues.

Making money that is worth less than the cost of ingredients is a bad deal for taxpayers. U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., chaired a hearing last week on a bill to allow the Treasury Department to change the composition of coins to something cheaper, steel, for example, without prior congressional approval. That could save taxpayers $100
million a year.

But why stop there?

The use of electronic money, debit cards, transit cards, car-operated parking meters, I-PASS, etc., becomes more popular every year, making those jangling coins even less useful or necessary. Why not let this surge in commodity prices be the catalyst to make cheaper coins, and get rid of the penny?

Its ingredients are expensive and its usefulness has all but disappeared. It takes three cents today to buy what one cent purchased in 1979. Pinch pennies?

A lot of people just toss them.

There would be costs to killing off the penny.

Coin-operated businesses say they would have to retool. But in the long run, this would save money.

Feeling nostalgic for the penny? Currency isn’t exactly immune to change. Half-cent, two-cent, three-cent and 20-cent coins were once in circulation in the U.S. They are gone, and the penny deserves the same fate.

Yes, there’s one problem with this. Yes, we live in the Land of Lincoln. We revere Abraham Lincoln. We would lose a symbol of his immense importance to this nation by doing away with his coin, the penny. But Lincoln has a respectable home on the $5 bill, a spiffed up, harder-to-counterfeit version of which was just unveiled by the Treasury Department. Lincoln also could anchor the $1 coin.

We suspect the practical Lincoln would acknowledge it’s not wise to keep the diminished penny in the 21st century, even if it commemorates him.

It costs 1.7 cents to make each penny. Who needs it?

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