Yesterday, in a follow-up to his State of the Union address, Obama went on Google+ to do a “hangout” where he answered questions from a panel of bloggers and “ordinary Americans” because he is a Hip 21st Century President Who Is Plugged In To Social Media. It was actually more entertaining and informative than the State of the Union itself, because A) Anything would have been more entertaining than the State of the Union, including watching a man explain the strengths and weaknesses of different kinds of cheese graters; and B) The format forced Obama to engage with some of his critics and address issues that wouldn’t normally get brought up. Case in point: Twelve minutes into the conversation, author and vlogger John Green asked Obama why we haven’t eliminated the penny, and the president responded, “I don’t know.”
Taking the penny out of circulation is a weird issue, because nearly everyone who has thought about it agrees that 1-cent coins are terrible and we should get rid of them. Pennies cost more than they are worth to produce, they aren’t accepted as currency by machines that take other coins, and they clutter people’s pockets and change jars. Many economists are in favor of taking the penny out of circulation and rounding all cash transaction to the nearest nickel, which would save the federal government billions of dollars a year. Granted, those billions are small change in terms of the US budget as a whole, but what’s frustrating for antipenny advocates is that the money is right there waiting to be picked up if we were smart enough to stop and think for a second about how awful those tiny coins are. It’s an issue that attracts eccentric thinkers, some of who become overly passionate at how stupid the penny (and maybe the nickel) is—Green went on an angry, nerdy rant against the coin a couple of years ago, and Citizens to Retire the Penny has been telling anyone who will listen how dumb it is that we still make these things.
Obama has actually come out against the penny before, during the 2008 campaign (again in response to someone’s question). And there have been efforts to kill the penny in Congress thanks to Representative Jim Kolbe of Arizona; he introduced bills in 1989, 2001, and 2006 that would round transactions to the nearest nickel, all of which failed. (The 2001 effort was referenced in an episode of The West Wing.) Canada has stopped producing its pennies, and New Zealand and Australia killed their one- and two-cent coins in the 90s—New Zealand doesn’t even have a five-cent piece anymore. And the US has eliminated coins before: Remember the half cent? Exactly. This thing can be done, it should be done, and presumably at some point pennies will become so worthless it will be done. What the fuck is stopping us from killing the penny?
One problem is, Americans like the penny. The only polling I can find on the subject says that two-thirds of the public wants to keep it around. But that poll was conducted by the Americans for Common Cents, a pro-penny advocacy group that’s funded in large part by the zinc lobby. (Pennies are made mostly of zinc.) Presumably, if a poll included the costs of manufacturing pennies, it would get different numbers. Some non–zinc-related arguments for the penny include:
- Business would change their prices so that they rounded up, not down, and this would cost consumers as much as a few bucks individually each year. (Counterpoint: None of the countries who eliminated their one-cent coins have seen prices rise.)
- People like Abraham Lincoln, and he’s on the penny. (Seriously, that’s an argument to keep the coin, despite the fact that he’s also on the $5 bill, which isn’t going away any time soon.)
- We’d have to rely more on nickels without the penny, and nickels are even less efficient to produce than pennies. (In that case, fuck it, why don’t we kill the nickel too?)
In his answer to Green’s question, Obama called the penny a “metaphor” for the government not being able to get “rid of things that don't work so that we can then invest in the things that do.” But in reality the metaphor is even more depressing than that. As everyone should know by now, Congress is too dysfunctional to pass legislation that deals with large problems like climate change, and partisanship has reached the point where Republicans will hold up the nomination of a former Republican senator for secretary of defense. But as the case of the penny shows, Congress can’t—or won’t—get together to pass laws that will save money even on tiny, nonpartisan issues. It’d be one thing if America’s lawmakers were too wrapped up dealing with serious issues to pay attention to the penny. But they’re clearly not handling the important matters, so why can’t they at least help on the unimportant ones?