Our two cents

OLD GLORY HAS LONG HAD its own congressional lobby, ready to protect it from the mere possibility of desecration with a constitutional amendment if necessary. Meanwhile, an equally profound (if less valuable) symbol of the nation gets no respect. In fact, one member of Congress plans to propose abolishing it.

We speak, of course, of the most basic unit of U.S. currency, the penny. Not even the graven image of the 16th president can redeem it as otherwise patriotic Americans curse or discard it as they reach into their pockets and hope to emerge with shimmering engravings of George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, even Thomas Jefferson -- anything but a rusty, off-orange Abraham Lincoln and a few pieces of lint.

No doubt outraged by this disrespect for one of our greatest presidents, Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) is writing a bill that would retire the 1-cent coin. As much as we’re eternally grateful to Honest Abe for all he’s done, Kolbe is right. It’s time to retire the penny.


Kolbe’s reasoning actually rests largely on the complex process of minting coins. Currently it costs more to make a penny -- 1.23 cents, to be exact -- than a penny is worth. Consequently, the U.S. Mint by the end of this fiscal year will spend about 10.7 billion cents to produce 8.7 billion cents.

But the price of commodities such as zinc (trivia question: What is the main ingredient in a penny?) can rise or fall. A better argument for the abolition of the penny is utility, not cost. If the purpose of a unit of currency is to facilitate commerce, then the penny is already obsolete. As more than one economist has pointed out, if people routinely leave a unit of currency for the next customer, it’s a pretty good bet that it is too small to be useful.

Besides, the U.S. has parted with monetary units in the past without much economic trauma. At the time of its demise in 1857, the half-cent piece was worth almost 10 cents in today’s, well, cents. In the 1980s, pennies were eliminated from U.S. military bases overseas without so much as an economic hiccup; there, cash transactions are simply rounded to the nearest 5 cents. Kolbe says his bill will include a similar system for rounding cash transactions here; it will also call for changing the metal content of nickels to reduce their production costs.

Kolbe is in familiar territory. About 10 years ago, he unsuccessfully tried to prod Congress into scuttling the penny. Chances are he’ll come up dry again because most lawmakers are reluctant to tinker with the nation’s currency. In the meantime, why not find a less distinguished president to engrave on something so useless. Warren G. Harding is still available.