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Giving a Damn About a Dollar (Greenbacked)

November 08, 1987|Dirk Olin | Dirk Olin, a former congressional correspondent, is a free-lance writer

WASHINGTON — The greenbacks are going? Maybe. Yet another Washington lobby is trying to replace the dollar bill with a coin.

A congressional alliance led largely by members from Southwestern states has introduced legislation to mint a gold-color copper piece bearing the likeness of Christopher Columbus. The bill also calls for phasing out the paper dollar three years after introducing the metallic dollar.

The advocates have their arguments, claiming benefits for consumers, taxpayers, store owners and the blind. But the group also has at least three big obstacles: recent history, a suspicion of self-serving motives and strong public attachment to the greenbacked piece of paper.

The highest hurdle is memory of that numismatic Edsel, the Susan B. Anthony dollar. Just a few years back, circulation of the so-called Suzie collapsed. James C. Benfield, the lobbyist who serves as executive director for the Coin Coalition, blames bad planning, a coin that was effectively indistinguishable from the quarter. He said that the Columbus piece will be a vast improvement--lightweight, golden, with a smooth edge rather than quarter-style ribbing: "You can't compare this to the Suzie, because with its design that thing was stillborn."

Benfield earlier was chief proponent for the three-week extension of daylight-saving time, approved by Congress in 1986. He noted similarities between campaigns to change time and money: Doubts lingering from the prior folly of year-round daylight-saving hours necessitated Herculean lobbying efforts; now, the Suzie debacle means a like challenge to any new coin proposals. Yet he is not at all convinced that Americans want to stay with paper: "By inaction, we are voting for a system like some of these Third World countries, where you pull out two or three bills for a package of gum."

One look at the consumer price index does indeed demonstrate that today's dollar is the quarter of 30 years ago and the dime of the Depression. So, because he says dollars no longer represent "the threshold of moderate purchase," Benfield stresses many conveniences of a coined form. Tollbooths, mass transit systems, Sunday newspaper vending boxes and long-term parking meters could all be approached without pocketfuls of change.

Thinking bigger, Benfield invokes the Zeitgeist : deficit reduction. Replacing the bill with a coin would save the Treasury between $50 million and $117 million, he says. While paper lasts but 18 months, coins endure for roughly 20 years.

The kicker is compassion and help for the blind. "If there were no dollar bills in circulation," said Benfield, "small purchases by the visually impaired could be made without fear of accidentally spending a large bill or being cheated when receiving change."

The coalition's membership does reflect the diversity of these arguments. Associations for merchandisers and convenience stores are aligned with the RP Foundation Fighting Blindness and something called the National Parking Assn.

Yet members of the Coin Coalition still must demonstrate that they are not simply shilling for the copper industry. The bill's chief House sponsors include Democrat Morris K. Udall and Republican Jim Kolbe, both of Arizona. The coalition's leading institutional members include the Copper Development Assn. and the Copper and Brass Fabricators Counsel. Arizona produces more than 60% of America's copper and the bill requires that the coin have a copper content of "not less than" 90%.

"Yeah, it would help the copper states," admitted Benfield, "but it's not a bailout." To be fair, the coalition also calls for studying abolition of the penny.

Still, if this allegedly latent demand for a dollar coin really exists, why does the legislation demand a phase-out of the paper bill? According to Rep. Frank Annunzio (D-Ill.), who chairs the House subcommittee on coinage, proponents want to ban the dollar precisely because they know that their alternative would be unpopular.

"The American public is generally satisfied with our currency as it is," said Annunzio. "If they don't want a coin, it shouldn't be forced on them." While many other Western countries have forced their citizenries to give up paper bucks, Annunzio asserted that, "Any dollar coin has always been a failure in this country, all the way back to 1794 with the first silver dollar." Nevadans might take exception to that, however, since the old silver dollars were more popular than paper there for many years.

Benfield argues that paper lovers can turn to the $2 note. Such bills, he said, are quite popular in Canada and Australia, where $1 bills have been abolished. What Benfield neglected to mention, however, is that the average life of America's $2 note is 39 years, because people don't spend them--they save them as collectors' items.

Then why are people devoted to our one-buck bill, for both getting and spending?

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