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Jay Evensen: Time for U.S. to stop making pennies

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 2 2015 4:35 p.m. MDT

A penny for your thoughts?

You believe what I think is worthless?

A penny saved is a penny earned!

Which, if you repeated the exercise 25 times, would give you 25 things you can't stick in a parking meter or a vending machine.

Pennies from heaven!

Apparently, they don't want them up there, either.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about the story of a man in Vernal who was cited recently by police for trying to pay a $25 medical bill in pennies. The story drew a lot of interest nationwide, with a lot of people expressing outrage that someone could be fined for paying with coins that are legal tender.

I've concluded they're all missing the point, which is, why do we insist on making legal-tender coins that are worthless, that no one wants and that will label you as a nuisance or a nut if you try to use them to pay for anything that costs more than 10 cents?

Jason West, the Vernal man, admits he was trying to make a statement when he poured 2,500 pennies on the counter. He had a dispute about his bill.

For their part, police say they didn't cite him for paying with pennies, but for the way he did it.

But without the penny, he couldn't have turned a legal payment into disorderly conduct. Maybe dumping 500 nickels or 250 dimes on the counter would have done the trick, but the penny is the only currency that, if used in amounts necessary to purchase anything of value, draws attention to itself.

By now, you've probably guessed where I'm going with this. But before I come right out and say, "Let's get rid of the penny," consider it has been three years since the head of the U.S. mint told ABC News that it takes almost 1.7 cents to make each one of those little zinc disks. It surely costs more than that by now.

If you ran a business that produced something that cost 70 percent more to make than it was worth, what would you do? How about if you ran a government with an enormous debt problem?

Each time this comes up in Congress, a lot of people of both parties say eliminating the penny is a great idea, and then the bill dies. No one wants to be the lawmaker, or the president, who presided over the demise of a cultural icon, with Abraham Lincoln's head on it, no less.

It may interest you to know we've been down this road before. In 1857, the mint stopped coining half pennies because — surprise! — it cost more to make than it was worth. But according to numerous sources, the half penny at the time was worth the equivalent of 10 cents today. What happened in 1857, then, was the equivalent of eliminating the dime.

I'm not going there, at least not in this column, but the point is the nation never has spent time and money producing a coin as worthless as today's penny.

Opponents will argue that eliminating the penny would drive up prices. Merchants would simply round up the cost of items.

But the effect of this would be minimal. Besides, the market already is in the rounding business. A lot of merchants keep a dish of pennies by the register. If you need a few to round off the price, you just take some.

So, how much is a penny saved?

To answer that, I refer you to the story of Ron England, a California man who, to win a bet, saved 1 million pennies over 30 years. As USA Today reported in 2004, he found he could do nothing with them. The local supermarket had a machine, but it wasn't built to take that many coins. His bank would accept only $100 worth a week, and it wanted to charge him a fee each time.

He told the paper, "I should have saved dimes. I'd have a lot more money, and it would weigh a lot less."

I rest my case. Let's get rid of the penny.

Jay Evensen is a Deseret News editorial writer. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, www.jayevensen.com.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company