The penny: Is the day of reckoning near?

  • Article by: JOHN E. SUNUNU
  • Updated: April 1, 2013 - 9:10 PM

The once-copper, now-mostly-zinc coin is inefficient. Just maybe, the reckoning has arrived.

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What does it mean when my 17-year-old daughter and the 85-year-old star of a reality TV show independently come up with the same idea? Is it a sign of the apocalypse, or an important alignment of cultural values that presages hope for the future?

If nothing else, it suggests that government foolishness is the last great transgenerational unifier. For it’s clear to young and old — but not to Washington — that the penny’s time has come.

For months, my daughter Grace had been muttering about her grand plan to melt down pennies minted before 1982. Today’s pennies are mostly zinc; the older ones are almost pure copper, and at today’s market prices they’re worth more as scrap metal. There’s even a website that calculates an up-to-date value of an older penny as spot markets fluctuate. It’s about 2.2 cents today.

Unfortunately, between calculus homework and after-school activities, Grace hadn’t yet tracked down a contract smelter to participate in the scheme.

Along came Richard Harrison — better known as “The Old Man,” the surly shop owner in the unexpectedly popular series “Pawn Stars.” He’s been collecting pre-1982 pennies for years. In one episode, his underlings found a handful of 10-gallon buckets filled to the brim with the copper booty. My daughter howled as her secret plot was revealed to millions.

The blow was softened, however, as Grace and The Old Man simultaneously learned the hard truth: Melting down pennies is against the law.

Formulated in 2006, the current regulations from the U.S. Mint are similar to bans in effect during the metal price spikes of 1967-69 and 1974-78. The government has been down this road before. For the same reason, only $5 worth of pennies can be carried out of the country at one time. Exporting your way around the rules will take lots of trips.

Give the feds credit for at least having a plan. By changing the coins’ composition in 1982, they saved some money on materials. But with energy, labor and distribution factored in, it still costs roughly 2.5 cents today to make a penny. That’s a pretty flimsy business model. Maybe, just maybe, we could live without the penny.

Pennies are necessary only because vendors price to the odd cent. Vendors price that way because pennies exist in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle that does nothing to facilitate commerce.

The anti-pennista movement may not be well-organized, but it picked up steam last May, when the Canadians finally gave in. On one hand, they had been churning out pure copper pennies until 1996, long after America got wise; but by stopping the presses this year, they’ve taken the lead in the battle for common sense.

Could that common sense be contagious? Could this be a watershed year for penny haters across America? Don’t bet on it. Few subjects make members of Congress as queasy as changes to coins and currency. Modifications to paper currency that discourage counterfeiting moved at a snail’s pace, to minimize political blowback. And $1 bills, far more expensive than their metallic counterparts, still stand defiantly in the face of economics.

To be sure, the manufacturers of paper and zinc used for dollars and pennies would lobby Congress with fury if change was in the wind. Yet even the most straightforward legislation can get caught in the riptide of politics.

When I cosponsored a bill with Sen. Harry Reid to place U.S. presidents on a series of dollar coins, similar to the widely successful State Quarters program, the South Dakotans objected. In the House and Senate, they demanded that a proportional number of Sacagawea coins be produced as the price of passage. Collectors loved the presidential coins — even New Hampshire’s own Franklin Pierce — but millions of surplus Sacagawea “golden dollars” crowd the Mint’s vaults today.

So here we are, locked in the status quo. The government can’t even make money making money. Pennies run amok in cash registers far and wide. And my 13-year-old daughter, Charlotte, urges me to take to heart the words of author John Green — “The only thing I hate more than pennies: nickels!”

They cost 11 cents apiece.

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John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire. He wrote this article for the Boston Globe.

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