A while ago, the people in charge of important things broached the topic of a dollar coin to replace the paper dollar. Sadly, they have done so with the same government complexity required to put a Pepsi machine on Jupiter. I’m all in favor of this switch and I’ll tell you why, but I’ll also tell you why it won’t work the way they plan to do it. First, some background information because if nothing else, I am all about numismatic research.
Paper bills last about eighteen months in circulation and are easy to counterfeit. Conversely, they’ve found coins on the bottom of the ocean that were probably used in Byzantine Laundromats, so the life cycle of a coin is somewhat longer than a year and a half and unless you can stamp coins on your Epson, they are a bit tougher to counterfeit. It makes economic sense to use coins for small denominations, especially since the government is looking for easy ways to save money and as an American citizen, I’d sure appreciate it if they would stop wasting money. This seems like a simple way to do this and one that both parties should easily agree upon.
Many people are hesitant to accept this idea because they don’t like change, which in this case works on two levels; people don’t like change in their pockets and they don’t like things that are different. In some ways, I understand this, but sometimes it’s worth it to give an idea a fighting chance.
When Mrs. G. and I were in Europe, the first thing we noticed, aside from the weird way people talk, dress, act, live, comb their hair, smell, drive and eat is that they use coins. In fact, they have eight separate coins and seven separate bills. People over there aren’t jangling down the street with ballast bags of coins lashed to their belts. They somehow manage to pay for their beignet and coffee absolutely fine with a combination of coins. I’m no Steven Mnuchin, but it took me all of thirty seconds to figure out how to use euro coins. It’s not that hard.
Closer to home, in Canada, they have seven separate coins spanning from a penny up to a two-dollar coin and they seem to be doing OK in spite of having to bear the burden of paying for their mukluks and earmuffs with loonies. They stopped minting pennies a few years ago, so there is a sound argument for thinning the coin herd at the lowest level, but they still exist, somewhere.
Here in the United States, we have had horrible luck with dollar coins of late mainly because they have all been weird and often look like quarters, but mostly because we still have paper dollars. Remember the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin? How about the Sacagawea dollar coin? How about the more recent Presidential dollar coin? All of these are legal tender, but have you ever received one as change? Ever?
They have 1.4 billion dollar coins in government vaults because people have soundly rejected them all. Not me. I have embraced all of these dollar coins and have actively tried to spend them in spite of being scorned as if I am trying to pay for my items with Cheez-Its.
Clerk: That will be $2.85, please.
Me: (stacking three one dollar coins on the counter) Here you go.
Clerk: That’s seventy-five cents.
Me: No it’s not, it’s three dollars.
Me: Right here in America.
Clerk: I’ll have to ask my boss if I can take these.
Boss: We don’t have slots in our cash drawers for those. Do you have a debit card or maybe some real money? Are you sure you want to spend those? They look like they might be worth something.
Me: Well, I was kind of hoping they might be worth a dollar.
At this point, they’ll take the coins as if they have recently been scooped out of a septic tank, lift the register tray, and plunk them underneath with the large denomination bills. What they should be doing is putting them back into circulation as change, but they are probably afraid they will have to explain that these are legal tender and not tokens for the ball crawl at Chuck E. Cheese. Nobody has taken the dollar coin seriously since they did away with silver dollars, and even those were only used as the official coin of the Tooth Fairy.
The biggest problem with the astounding variety of new dollar coins is that they aren’t considered by the Treasury Department as anything people would want to spend. They are marketed towards collectors and I have a sneaking suspicion that this is just a ploy to take money out of circulation and we are only one coin jar away from a total financial meltdown.
They had various Presidents on the last batch of dollar coins, and these were doled out as some kind of grand event, like the McRib or the Hess toy truck. This was a mistake because it didn’t get people in the habit of spending them. Dollar coins need to be ordinary and utilitarian, not all blinged out for collectors. They need to remind us of those weighty silver dollars cowboy gamblers used to bite into after winning a hand of poker. I hate to say this, but a one-euro coin makes our dollar coin look as if there should be chocolate inside.
Coin size should also be reflective of their monetary value. Since none of our current coins have any significant amount of precious metal in them, they should start out small and get bigger. A penny should be the smallest coin, and so on up the line. A two-dollar coin, for example, should be the size of an English muffin.
In case you’re wondering, we still print a two-dollar paper bill, which people have also rejected even though there isn’t much besides scratch off lottery tickets one can buy with a single dollar. If we’re going to keep small denomination paper bills, a two-dollar bill makes more sense than a one-dollar bill, yet I haven’t seen a new one of these in years. I do have one stashed away from 1963 in my box of weird money but I doubt I’ll ever spend it. It’s there for some kind of emergency where I desperately need a fifty-four-year old two-dollar bill that nobody will take. I’d have better luck spending a Danish krone in Walgreens. The same goes for a fifty-cent piece. The last time I saw one of these, Kennedy was on the face of it. That seems like a coin that might actually buy something, yet they aren’t even minted anymore.
If you want to have some fun, go to your bank—the real one, not the ATM – and get twenty-dollars worth of odd U.S. currency. Dollar coins, half-dollars, maybe some two-dollar bills, and go out and try to spend them. I can guarantee you that cashiers will study the currency as if you are trying to buy that cup of coffee with a doubloon. We are simply a nation stuck in a four-coin limbo wrapped around our love of one-dollar bills.
In order for one dollar and two-dollar coins to work, the U.S. Treasury needs to immediately stop making the paper equivalent and I mean stop the presses tomorrow. In less than two years, paper singles will go the way of analog TV and rotary phones and nobody will complain. The government will save millions of dollars, and they can put this newfound largess under the mattress for a rainy day, fix a bridge or pay down a debt.
I know this won’t immediately save the U.S. a ton of money, but as anyone who runs a household knows, you have to chip away in small amounts to make a difference. Estimates peg the thirty-year savings at $5.5 billion dollars and if that is only a fraction right, that’s still a lot of money for doing next to nothing. To not do this because cash register drawers would need to be redesigned has to be the dumbest thing I’ve heard since people got upset over the prospect of no more Twinkies.