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Thought for your penny

It makes more, ahem, sense to do away with the ubiquitous coin than to redesign it.

September 23, 2008

In honor of the upcoming bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, the U.S. Mint is giving the 100-year-old Lincoln penny a new look. The front will continue to show his profile, but the Lincoln Memorial on the back will be replaced by images that are intended to evoke different aspects of his life, such as a log cabin and young Abe sitting on a log, reading. This is expected to create a big buzz in the coin-collecting world, but in truth, the only makeover the penny needs is a disappearing act.

The shiny copper veneer of pennies made after 1983 hides a heart of zinc, and even so, depending on the value of the metals involved, the cent sometimes costs more than a cent to make. Lincoln, a self-taught man born to poverty, knew the value of a penny back when it had real value, and most likely he would have found its continued existence wasteful and downright silly.

Except as a coin to rummage around for in your pocket or purse -- hoping to come up with the right change lest the cashier dump more pennies on you -- the cent has outlived its usefulness. Phasing it out would require simply that we round amounts off to the nearest nickel, which might sound frightening to those who watch their pennies. No doubt there were similar fears when the United States stopped coining the half-cent in 1857. Even back then, the copper was worth more than the coin itself.

U.S. military bases in Europe eliminated pennies during the 1980s to save the cost of shipping them. The move produced some complaints -- for a few months. Thereafter, the poor penny went unmourned. Yet federal legislation to abandon it has repeatedly been defeated.

For a nation that prides itself on its boldness and innovative spirit, the U.S. can be remarkably hidebound. We'll happily add kilometer readings to our cars' speedometers, but we cling to the pounds, quarts and miles of the so-called English system of measurement. A 2006 poll found that two-thirds of Americans wanted to keep the penny. (The poll was conducted by Coinstar, a company that makes coin-counting machines.)

Think of the penny as an old habit that doesn't work for us anymore. Collect them, admire them as a relic of our past, but like the tradition-defying Americans of Abe Lincoln's era, let's phase out a coin that has no purchasing power left, except perhaps for a wish in a fountain.

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