As election day approaches, I thought this would a good time to discuss a bloated federal program that wastes taxpayer dollars, annoys the citizenry, and uses up our precious natural resources. I am talking about the minting of coins.
I was reminded of this continuing national tragedy by a post at The Consumerist about a brave grass-roots effort to address this issue. Apparently, there is Dunkin Donuts shop somewhere (for obvious reasons of safety its location was not disclosed) that now rounds all purchases to the nearest nickel. If a customer for some reason actually wants the pennies (the mind boggles) the shop will provide them.
I think this is an excellent first step and one that I hope more courageous shop managers will employ. I am sure this must be a violation of federal law (why else has it taken so long?) but if all stores do it the feds will be overwhelmed. I think the Secret Service must be in charge of enforcing the penny laws.
Anti-penny feeling has been floating in the background of American consciousness for a while now. See, for example, one of my all time favorite video rants, Pennies Are "Bacteria-Ridden Disks Of Suck." I am not so sure that they are any more bacteria ridden than other things in my pockets, but I appreciate the sentiment.
But pennies are just the beginning. I am not even sure they are the worst offenders. Yes, they cost the government around two cents each to make, and as a percentage of face value that is a nasty loss. But nickels set the mint back nine cents each, which is an even larger loss in absolute terms.
And just because the government manages to turn a profit on dimes and quarters does not mean they are a good idea. Firstly, the government does not really profit by selling a metal disk that cost it ten cents for 25 cents. That quarter will come back to the mint someday and will have to be redeemed for face value. It is more like spending ten cents to get a 25 cent loan.
Furthermore, consider the costs borne by the rest of society in handling these metallic anachronisms. Cashiers have to count them out. Store patrons have to wait, not only for their own portion of pocket litter, but for those in front of them on line to get theirs. Retailers and banks spend countless dollars counting coins, rolling them, and unrolling them.
And for what? Consumers don’t really like coins. Is there anything left that you can buy for less than a dollar? When was the last time you bought something with metal, other than a short-term parking space rental? Once in a while I will pay for something with exact change. This gets me an ins’t-that-old-guy-adorable look from the cashier. Mostly coins make their way to a jar on my dresser, which periodically makes a trip to the supermarket where CoinStar charges me to turn it into actual money.
Permit me to make one of my infrequent improve-the-world suggestions. Ditch the coins. They have had a nice 2500 year run, but it is time to put that particular monetary technology to rest. Those who insist on it can still use the relatively newfangled paper money system, but all charges will from now on be rounded to the nearest dollar. (With a $1 minimum. Stuff costing less that 50 cents, assuming it exists, will not be free.)
Bills paid by check or with plastic will still be priced, as necessary, in hundredths of a dollar. Heck, true OCD sufferers can use thousandths if they like. Come to think of it, gasoline has long been priced in thousandths. How come I only get charged in hundredths? Just another way Big Oil is out to get me. Alas, I digress.
It is not just the direct costs of coinage that my proposal would save. Consider the impact on the environment. Minting all those coins consumes zinc, copper, and nickel. Those are minerals that must be mined at great cost to the environment. Paper money, on the other hand, grows on trees and is recyclable.
Why does the federal government continue this terrible waste? I can only assume that there is a sinister pro-coin lobby working behind the scenes, possibly in concert with a powerful mint workers union. If the Tea Party really exists (I am still not convinced) I think this would be an excellent next great cause for them to take up, starting Wednesday.