A Thought That's Worth More Than A Penny (Or A Nickel)

By Scott Simon

January 18, 2013

You might want to look at the profiles of presidents — current, past and aspiring — attending President Obama's inauguration on Monday and imagine how they'd look one day on a coin.

But a few voices are beginning to propose that in these times, when newspapers cost a dollar and more, and people pull out credit cards to buy a cup of coffee, small coins may soon be relics.

A penny costs more than a cent to mint and circulate. The nickel costs more than 10 cents. This is not a good business plan for a nation that is kazillions of dollars in debt.

This week, D. Wayne Johnson, historian of the Medallic Art Company, proposed in The Wall Street Journal that the U.S. government get rid of the penny, nickel and quarter. You can't buy a pack of gum with a quarter these days. Pennies and nickels are often just cast into bowls, drawers and jars, useless and unspent.

So Mr. Johnson suggests we round off prices to the nearest 10, and start minting just 10 cent, 50 cent and $1 coins. The dollar coin would replace the bill, which gets worn, wrinkly, and then won't work in vending machines.

It's one of those ideas that sounds sensible every way but politically. And politics is what truly counts.

That's not Larry, Curly and Moe on the penny, nickel and quarter; it's Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington — two founding fathers and the president who saved the Union. Can you imagine any Congress taking those profiles off of coins?

But even if you put those old presidents on new dimes, half-dollars and dollars, you'd have to scrap Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Sacagawea. Half-dollars and dollars aren't used much right now, except by casinos and the Tooth Fairy. But imagine the outcry if Congress proposed removing from our money the president who won World War II, the president who personified youthful vigor, and a woman who helped open the West?

Can you see why when the European Union started minting money, they chose stylized architectural details instead of people?

Reducing the number of coins in America would bring down the number of pedestals on which to put national heroes. But imagine the debates if Congress had to decide whom to put on just three small coins. Martin Luther King or Cesar Chavez? Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs? Jackie Robinson or Jim Thorpe? Sacagawea, Susan B. Anthony or Sandra Day O' Connor? FDR, not Lincoln? Or vice versa? At least after this week, Lance Armstrong wouldn't be in the running.

In a sense, it helps us appreciate that the United States has grown so rich in history, diversity and depth that no three, four, five — or a hundred profiles can express it.

What about Marx — Groucho, Chico and Harpo?

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