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3.6.04

Leave A Penny

It looks like William Safire has hauled out that old staple of feel-good reform: abolition of the penny. It's a convenient cause to champion, since you can tap into a vast reservoir of public annoyance, without having to dip your toe into the divisive and morally challenging waters of social injustice.

I'm personally neutral on the issue, or perhaps mildly in favor of abolition if only to save the nation's public swimming pool snack stand employees the hassle of being confronted by little kids with huge piles of wet pennies after the Fun Day penny-find. But I wonder why the reform has to come from the top. If pennies are such a burden, you'd think private choices would have started to make the penny obsolete.

To some degree this is happening. Every time you drop a penny and don't bother finding it, you strike a blow against the coin. Take-a-penny-leave-a-penny dishes help, as do charity penny collection jars*. But if pennies are such a pain, why don't more people just refuse to take them? Pay to the nearest nickel, say "keep the change," and leave. People occasionally did this when I worked as a cashier, and I simply created an informal take-a-penny-leave-a-penny stash. If more people did likewise, the annoyance of the penny would be greatly relieved. The fact that they don't suggests that, despite the whining, people really do think pennies are worthwhile.

There's room for retailers to take things into their own hands as well. If stores can refuse to take $50 or $100 bills, they can certainly manage to ease pennies out of their system. They needn't even ban pennies outright, as hardly any customer will voluntarily offer pennies if they don't have to. They just need to make a store-wide policy of rounding off prices to the nearest 5 cents. It could be a good advertising gimmick. I can already hear the radio commercials -- a wimpy-sounding man groans under the excessive weight of all the pennies he has to carry, when his excessively perky wife suggests he shop at such-and-such a store, where they don't use pennies. The store could even sweeten the deal by raising their prices a few cents, then pledging to always round down. The main problem here seems to be the vertical segregation of tasks -- the cashiers, who are most aware of the penny problem, have no input into marketing and store-wide policy. Score one for socialism, as collective ownership of the enterprise would make the necessary communication more likely.

These reforms may not cut into the main thing that seems to anger Safire -- the time the mint wastes making pennies (though perhaps reduced demand from stores could help). But it answers the most common source of anti-penny sentiment.

*I don't know how effective these are at raising revenue, but their continued popularity suggests this is one argument in favor of retaining the penny. Indeed, the penny's very percieved worthlessness can be its strength, as it's easy to part with into a charity bucket or a piggy bank, but in the long run it adds up into a seeming windfall.

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