The Problems With Pennies

Read Daniel Akst's Piece, "Whaddya Zinc? Let's Kill The Penny"

It's time to kill the penny. That's what Daniel Akst argues in a recent op-ed on Newsday.com. "Pennies," he writes, "are a pain in the neck, only more so because they're worthless." While the penny isn't quite worthless, it does cost more than two cents to create each one.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Many people just don't bother with pennies anymore. We toss them into the take a penny, give a penny tray at the gas station or slip them into the tip jar when the cashier isn't looking. Last month, Canada decided to stop minting its penny later this year, and they're not alone. Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Norway, Britain, Switzerland and Finland and, among others, have all dropped their lowest-value coin, and somehow, the sun rose again the following morning.

In a piece for Newsday, Daniel Akst argued that there is no rationale reason to keep the penny. So are you ready to let go? What do you use the penny for, anyway? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website, go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Daniel Akst, a columnist and editorial writer for Long Island's Newsday joins us by iPhone from that newspaper's offices in Melville, Long Island. Dan, nice for you to join us.

DANIEL AKST: Nice to be here.

CONAN: And we should note Canada is not banning the penny. It will continue to be legal tender. It's just not going to make them anymore.

AKST: That's right. Of course, Canada couldn't violate its reputation for tolerance by banning the penny or...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AKST: ...oppressing the penny in any way or rejecting the penny, excluding it. But they do hope you'll turn them in eventually, and they will be melted down, as I said in the column, possibly into peacekeeping helmets. The - but, you know, the whole subject really is one that has brought the pundits out in droves in recent days. And we at Newsday have editorialized against the penny in the past. I wouldn't say we've had a crusade. However, it's certainly something we would like to see vanish, along with the buggy whip and so forth.

CONAN: Why do you think we should go penniless?

AKST: Well, you know, the penny - I actually took the trouble to look up how much value the penny has lost in the last century, and it has lost 96 percent of its value, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' inflation calculator. And so, you know, we've never had a coin in circulation that was worth so little. I mean, it's just preposterous. Another problem is that there's been an estimate that the net cost to Uncle Sam is $60 million because, you know, it costs 2.4 cents to make a penny.

So the thing is a loser in every - and if you - some economists have actually tried to calculate the cost of the time that is wasted counting out pennies and hording them and so forth. And so the numbers are just staggering. And so it's just ridiculous that we should go on with this.

CONAN: Here's some emails that we have. We've asked people how you use the penny. This from Rick: Makes a handy screwdriver for most electronic device battery cases. And this from Kristen in Denver: How do I use them? I throw them away.

AKST: Yes. So it's actually adding to the - well, the government is taking zinc - perfectly good zinc, spending more than the value of the penny making these things, delivering them, and then people are throwing them away, which is just astonishing. And, of course, it must be noted that one reason we have the penny is the zinc lobby, which would prefer to keep making them and claims that all kinds of terrible things will happen if we abolish this wretched coin.

CONAN: Well, it should be pointed out, it costs more to make a nickel than it - than a nickel. Should we throw the nickel away too?

AKST: Well, I, you know, I'm a kind of fire-breathing radical on this front. And I would be happy to attempt to live a life, nickel free. It too has lost, after all, 96 percent of its value. And it's still worth - it's worth just a fraction of what it was when things got going long ago. So, you know, we don't really need either of these darn things. But at the very least, getting rid of the penny would save us a lot of money.

CONAN: Let's see if we get a caller in on the conversation. We'll start with Dan. Dan is with us from Lenox, Ohio.

DAN: Hey. How are you doing?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

DAN: I put my two cents in, OK?

CONAN: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAN: Well, I think we should keep the penny. I mean, obviously, they have a long history. First and foremost, it teaches children money. It teaches children who a president is.

CONAN: Well, one of the presidents, in any case, yes.

DAN: Yes. I have to say that what a lot of people consider as a useless coin would be, you know, someone's trash is someone else's treasure. Look at a kid. The kid isn't going to make money unless he finds it in general. At least my kids won't do work for money, I know that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Well, let's get a response from Daniel Akst the historical value and teaching kids to handle money.

AKST: Well, I mean, tuberculosis has a long history. I mean, that doesn't seem, to me, a strong argument for it. I mean, as far as teaching kids to handle money, I mean, the first thing my sons learned is that pennies are useless, and that they shun them just like everybody else. So, you know, it's - I don't think those are really all that persuasive set of arguments. I mean, it's understandable. There's a certain amount of nostalgia, and one point has been raised by a colleague of mine who is from Illinois and half Canadian who noted that if we lose the penny we lose the coin that bears Lincoln.

CONAN: Well, he's on the $5 bill, so he's not going away.

AKST: That's right. That's right.

CONAN: And on Mount Rushmore and a few other places.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AKST: And we can always put him on a dollar coin.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

DAN: Well, if I can put in another comment please.

CONAN: Go quickly.

DAN: For every penny found by my kid at a grocery store is worth $1 million in memories.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call, Dan. This from Anthony who writes: Absolutely not. Doing away with the penny would just let gas prices rise five cents at a time.

AKST: I think the real issue here that is - I mean, there's no - yeah, it would maybe rise five cents, but they might be stickier because these would be a startling increases, and maybe gas station owners would be reluctant to raise those prices by that kind of an increment. Besides, the (unintelligible) of the plan is to have, you know, hundredth of a dollar charges persist when you use a credit card or pay by check. So it would only be rounding in matters of cash. So I don't think that's a huge issue.

CONAN: Here's one of your supporters. Rob(ph) in Baltimore writes: Not only should we get rid of pennies, we should replace paper dollar bills with dollar coins, which last substantially longer than paper dollars and would save a lot of money on their replacement. And having been in Britain at the time they replaced the pound note, the only way this happens is if you stop making the pound note.

AKST: And you see, this point - that's a good comment because the point is to the really larger issue here, which is that we seem unable to make even the most reasonable basic changes in our society. We have - in the case of the penny, we have the zinc lobby. And, of course, in the case of the dollar bill, there's a paper lobby that is supporting the continuation of the dollar bill and fighting against the dollar coin, which is used in many other countries as you know. And so the dispiriting thing about this is - about the persistence of this darn coin is that, to me, in its pettiness, you know, and its tenacity, it symbolizes our inability to make the basic sensible changes in society. And somehow, the Canadians managed to do that and we can't.

CONAN: Let's go next to Mike(ph), and Mike with us from La Grande in Oregon.

MIKE: Well, hello, Neal.

CONAN: Hi there.

MIKE: You know, this is going to sound probably a little pitiful for most of your listeners and probably penniless as well, but I work in a car dealership and have since 1997. And people, when they trade in their cars, leave some things behind them. A lot of times they leave pennies behind; sometimes just scattered all around, sometimes they're mired in muck in the cup holder. But I work on commission. There had been times, especially during the recession, that the five cents that I find in a car may be all I'll earn for a day or two. So I take the pennies home. If they're really grody, I clean them in Bright Cleaner, and I throw them in a great, big Zabars of New York bucket, and I save them up. And when that bucket's full, I cash them in at the credit union and start from zero.

CONAN: And what's the biggest amount you've ever gotten from the credit union?

MIKE: You know, probably about 13 or $14 at a shot, and that's a full bucket.

CONAN: That's not too bad.

MIKE: No, but it's a little time-consuming.

CONAN: All right. Maybe you'll get it even more in nickels if that's the smallest coin. Mike, thanks very much for the call.

MIKE: Don't count on that.

CONAN: Here's an email from Mark(ph), and Mark writing us from Philadelphia: How do use the penny coin? I take it in loads to any store where I want to annoy the associate, especially if they've been mean to me. They hate it, but they have to take it. The angry look on their face is payback satisfaction. I'm not sure that's a national reason to keep the penny. And this is from...

AKST: Vengeance.

CONAN: Vengeance, yes. Melody(ph) writes: In our household, pennies are my 4-year-old's primary currency. It cost him a penny to bail an offending toy out of jail, to hire mommy to set the table in his place. And every time he kicks the back of my seat in the car, that's right, I collect a penny in wear and tear. No more pennies will rock our household economy. Well, that's another argument for the small child lobby there. Let's see if we can go next to - this Rob(ph). Rob with us from Portland.

ROB: Yeah. Hey. Thanks for taking the call. We came up with a great new use. We replaced the jelly beans in the plastic Easter eggs with pennies, cost about $1.47 per kid and saves hundreds of dollars in dental bills, which is priceless.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROB: We also used an...

AKST: Now, wait a second.

ROB: ...(unintelligible) the grouping.

CONAN: Go ahead, Daniel.

AKST: Wait a second. My wife is a dentist, so I have to object to that. I mean, this is - anything that slows the growth of dental bills would have a major impact on our household. So we can't allow that.

ROB: Well, we can't be catering to all the special interest lobbies, so...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Rob, thanks very much. The zinc lobby versus the dental lobby. Here's an email from David in Berkeley: I think we should keep pennies because they teach people decimals.

AKST: Well, I mean, you know, maybe it is cheaper than the school system. I don't know. I mean, there's, you know, how about this? How about the freshmen at - in the college dorm who need to penny one another into their rooms, you know, where they would lock the doors in that way, and then cover the halls with toilet paper. I mean, there's all sorts of wacky pretext for this, for standing in the way of change.

CONAN: Let's go to Katherine(ph). Katherine with us from Tucson.

KATHERINE: Hi. When I was in Europe 10, 15 years ago, they didn't have the equivalent of pennies in Holland, and they always said that it didn't make any difference when you balance it out at the end of the day. At the most, you would be off two or three cents even for a whole year. So it started making sense to me. When I got home and I saw that my credit union was charging 25 cents per roll of pennies to deposit them, I just started leaving them behind.

CONAN: So just start leaving them - utterly worthless they are to you.

KATHERINE: Yes. They're worthless to me. I'm a cab driver, and I've gotten penny tips and it's like, no, thank you, you know, just don't bother tipping me at all.

CONAN: I can understand that. That's the vengeance part.

KATHERINE: There you go.

CONAN: Katherine, thanks very much.

KATHERINE: Thank you.

CONAN: This email we have from Melissa(ph): How much will our thoughts be worth if we lose the penny? Well, Daniel Akst, I'm assuming we can find some other metaphor.

AKST: Well, I just want to say, my employer has contended for a long time that he could buy my work for a penny, and I've held out. So I like to think that my thoughts are worth just a tad more.

CONAN: And I'd like to thank, on behalf of Ken Rudin, all of our callers and emailers for not noticing that this would only be a small change. Daniel Akst, thanks very much for your time today.

AKST: It's been a pleasure.

CONAN: Daniel Akst, an editorial writer and columnist for Newsday. He wrote the piece "Whaddya zinc? Let's kill the penny" in last week's paper. There's a link to the piece on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And he joined us from Newsday's offices in Melville on Long Island. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you NPR News.

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