A Nickel For Your Thoughts?

Stacking up the arguments for and against the penny

| October 19, 2006

See a penny on the ground and you might just walk right by. Find one while cleaning and you may even throw it away. Thanks to inflation, it's hard to argue that the penny really has any monetary value anymore. And yet, a heated debate replete with the hallmarks of good political drama is underway regarding whether the penny should be preserved or retired.

It wasn't terribly long after the US penny was first minted in the late 1700s that people recognized the deflating value of small currency. The half-penny, minted shortly after the penny, was retired in less than 70 years. Instead of being phased out like its predecessor, though, the penny stuck around. In a piece for the alt-weekly The Phoenix, Mike Miliard credits the coin's staying power to its embodiment of American virtues like 'frugality and financial smarts.'

Such lofty cultural associations aren't treasured by all, though. In fact, nearly a third of Americans support the retirement of the penny. One of the most vocal anti-penny campaigners is US Representative Jim Kolbe (R-AZ), who has introduced two bills (in 2002 and 2006) to phase out the penny. Kolbe's motives go beyond the banal hassle of being weighted down by useless pocket change. The copper-coated penny is made of 97.5 percent zinc. The nickel, on the other hand, is made mostly of copper. As Miliard notes, it's Arizona, the largest copper producer in the United States, that stands to earn big cash by nixing the coin. (Kolbe is also lobbying for a switch from paper $1 bills to $1 coins, reportedly also to be made of copper.) Of course, the other side of the argument doesn't seem so innocent either. As Miliard reports, 'the pro-penny lobby is indeed funded in large part by the zinc industry.'

Instead of focusing on mineral affiliations, anti-penny groups reiterate that not only is the penny virtually worthless, it's actually an economic drain. In a piece for the Georgetown University newspaper, Hoya, columnist Eric Rodawig points out that the value of the penny is so meager that it's not worth the cost of making it -- about 1.4 cents per coin. In essence, a 50-cent roll of pennies costs 70 cents to produce.

Mark Weller, executive director of the pro-penny organization Americans for Common Cents (also tied to the zinc industry), eschews the mineral turf fight for consumer concerns. 'The whole idea of rounding to the nickel is a real loser for consumers,' he tells The Phoenix's Miliard, arguing that rounding will mean rounding up, which would translate to inaccurate and higher prices. Over on the anti-penny side, people are cheering for the demise of the $.99 price tag. Rodawig suggests that 'stores would most likely be inclined to change such prices to ones that end in $.95,' -- to avoid the psychological $1 hurdle -- ultimately saving consumers money.

As both camps hash out the numbers and rally their sides, the penny appears safely ensconced in Americans' coin purses and loafers. President Bush already has signed into law the redesign of the penny in 2009 in commemoration of Abraham Lincoln's birth. Despite the split views on the coin, its new design will celebrate Lincoln's efforts at creating a united nation.

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