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We can no longer afford the penny

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BOB MOON: Next year will mark the hundredth anniversary of the introduction of the Lincoln penny. By some estimates, two-thirds of the pennies made drop out of circulation almost immediately: in coffee cans. In sock drawers. Wedged in with the french fries between the passenger seats in your car. The penny is about as useful as…well, to coin a phrase, about as useful as a penny in a vending machine. Commentator and international economist Dan Drezner says it’s time to make the penny a real collector’s item. Here’s his *address on the subject.


Four score and nineteen years ago, our national mint brought forth on this country a new coin, conceived to honor Abraham Lincoln, dedicated to the proposition that all coins bearing his image would be worth exactly one penny.

Now we are engaged in a great spike in the price of zinc and copper, testing whether this nation, frankly, can afford the penny any longer. In 2006 it cost more money to produce a penny than its face value; the U.S. Mint had to issue new regulations designed to prevent the melting down of coins. With inflation on the rise, the penny cannot long endure its diminished status. Today, a single penny can’t buy anything. It is altogether fitting and proper that we question whether the penny deserves a final resting place. Perhaps it should go the way of other outdated concepts, like the half-cent coin, which was abolished in 1857. Economists across the political spectrum think this is a promising idea.

In a larger sense, however, we cannot determine – we cannot divine – we cannot decide – this question. The historians, who have struggled to burnish Abraham Lincoln’s legacy with, well, Lincolnesque properties, have unintentionally consecrated the penny far above our poor power to debate this issue rationally. Public radio listeners will little note, nor long remember what I say here, but you should never forget the massive amount of change jingling in my pocket. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated now to the unfinished work of bettering the country that Lincoln so nobly advanced. We must be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – the preservation of sensible and sound money. Switching Lincoln’s iconic image to, say, the nickel would ensure that the penny would not have died in vain – that change jars across this nation shall have a new birth of freedom – and that meaningful coins manufactured by a government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

BOB MOON: Dan Drezner is a professor at Tufts University. His most recent book is called “All Politics is Global.”

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