Jay Evensen: Coins or bills? The debate will soon be moot

Published: Thursday, Dec. 6 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

This undated photo provided by the U.S. Mint shows the President John Adams presidential $1 coin. With the Federal Reserve pumping billions into mortgage bonds every month, a lot of people believe inflation is just around the corner, which will make the dollar worth even less.

, AP

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A dollar for your thoughts?

The time may have come to update some longstanding American cultural memes related to money. After all, a dollar today is worth only about 4 cents in 1912 values, which, by the way, was the eve of the creation of the Federal Reserve bank.

A lot of songs were written and clichés coined (pardon the pun) over a century, but they have been devalued.

The green no longer seems so mean. It would take a lot of coins these days to nickel and dime someone to death, unless you piled them high enough to impede breathing. And as I said once before in this space, if you get pennies from heaven, it probably means they don't want them up there, either.

With the Federal Reserve pumping billions into mortgage bonds every month, a lot of people believe inflation is just around the corner, which will make the dollar worth even less.

But are we ready to replace greenbacks with something round and painted silver or gold?

Shawn Smeallie thinks so. He's the executive director of the Dollar Coin Alliance, a group that advocates for replacing paper dollars. I spoke to him by phone just before a congressional hearing at which the Government Accounting Office argued that over time —we're talking maybe 30 years — a $1 coin would save the nation about $4.4 billion.

That won't rescue us from the fiscal cliff, but it would make a lot of paper-jammed vending machines happy.

Smeallie seems the kind of guy who isn't going to let a stack of Sacagaweas or Susan B. Anthonys stand in his way, no matter how high you stack them.

Those coins failed, he said, because the government tried to carry on two forms of currency, paper and coin. He wants Washington to stop printing $1 bills completely.

"People don't like change," he said. "When the government forced people to move to digital TV, a lot of people were upset. But when it happened, it was a one-day news story. No one cared."

I'm guessing it's no coincidence he chose televisions as an example and not light bulbs. Pick your government coercion comparisons carefully.

But, of course, old analog televisions were not considered the world's leading currency, the way dollars are. Smeallie takes issue with that perception, too. The leading currency, he said, is $100 bills, and they still would be printed on paper, as would every denomination larger than $1.

"This is a product of inflation," he said, noting that a dollar today will buy about what a quarter would buy in the 1970s. "Would we want to have a paper quarter? At some point it becomes ridiculous to have a paper dollar."

And that's by far the biggest argument in favor of a coin. But, if you've paid any attention to matters of currency over the years, you know that ridiculousness is no deterrent.

Take the penny, for instance. With the rising price of zinc, it now costs more than 2 cents to make one. That isn't the pinnacle of stupidity many assume it to be. Each penny minted will circulate through the economy multiple times, adding more than its weight as it is exchanged for things of value or used to compensate others.

The problem isn't so much how expensive it is to create, it is that its value has sunk to a point at which it is more of a nuisance than a benefit.

People horde pennies because the coins can't be used for much. When you save up enough of them to be of use, the way a Vernal man did last year when he tried to pay a $25 medical bill in pennies, people get angry and you end up on the nightly news.

As with so many things in the modern world, this is a controversy that is being usurped by new, disruptive technologies. More and more people are paying with cards, tapping machines at registers and using their phones.

One way or another, the culture will have to adapt. It's hard to imagine songs about the almighty Paypal app, but if someone finds a catchy tune ...

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, www.jayevensen.com.

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