By Jeff Mullin, columnist
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
President Obama has a lot on his plate these days.
There’s the gun control debate, the looming sequestration spending cuts, the federal budget deficit and the ongoing discussion over legalizing gay marriage.
But the president has taken time to focus on a smaller issue. Very small, like three-quarters of an inch and 2.5 grams small.
Those are the dimensions of the standard U.S. penny.
President Obama, in a recent online chat, responded to a question about why the U.S. has not followed suit with nations like Australia, New Zealand and Canada, and done away with the lowly penny.
“Anytime we’re spending money on something people don’t actually use, that’s an example of things we should probably change,” the president wrote.
Australia has not minted pennies since 1964, while New Zealand dropped its penny in 1990.
As of Feb. 4, Canada is no longer distributing pennies. The coins will continue to be legal tender, but no Canadian pennies have been minted since last May.
Now the U.S. penny is in the cross hairs, largely because of cost. In 2012, every penny minted in this country cost 2.41 cents, according to the anti-penny group Citizens to Retire the U.S. Penny.
Granted, eliminating the penny won’t make much of a dent in the nation’s budget deficit.
It cost $58 million to churn out pennies in 2012, which is about what the president’s re-election campaign spent last June alone.
Many people are down on pennies for other reasons. Citizens to Retire the U.S. Penny says fishing in one’s pocket or purse for pennies adds about 2 to 2.5 seconds to each cash transaction each day.
That, according to Robert Whaples, professor of economics at Wake Forest University, adds up to some $300 million per year for the U.S. economy.
Who knew the lowly penny could have that much impact?
Without pennies, retailers would no longer be able to advertise items for sale at $59.99. Instead, they would have to round up to $60, or down to $59.95. Army and Air Force Exchange Service stores overseas already do that, chiefly because of the high cost of shipping the coins to other countries.
Personally, I like pennies. I am perhaps one of the few people around who will still stop to pick up pennies when I spot them on the ground.
I once spied a couple of pennies on the floor in the atrium of New York City’s Trump Tower and stooped to pick them up, risking getting run over by a half a dozen hurried, harried New Yorkers.
More recently, I stopped to pick up a penny while crossing a street in downtown Oklahoma City, risking getting run over by a car.
The penny is more than part of our monetary system, it is part of this country’s popular culture.
Should the penny go the way of the 8-track player, what will become of the phrase “A penny saved is a penny earned?” How about “In for a penny, in for a pound,” “A penny for your thoughts” or “Penny wise and pound foolish.”
And what about songs like “Pennies from Heaven?” Will future generations have to ask what in the heck the lyricist was referring to?
There is something familiar and comforting about the penny.
For one thing, there is the visage of Abe Lincoln on the coin’s obverse side. Would we relegate arguably our most popular and admired president ever to the scrap heap of monetary history?
Not that everyone is against the penny. There is a group called Americans for Common Cents, in fact, that is very much pro-penny.
They point out that most merchants would round up, rather than down, and Raymond Lombra, economics professor at Penn State, told a Congressional committee that rounding cash sales to the nearest nickel would cost American consumers some $600 million every year.
A 2012 poll conducted by Americans for Common Cents found that 67 percent of those surveyed favored keeping the penny in circulation.
I agree. Don’t deprive us of our freedom to pinch pennies, or pitch them, for that matter.
When pennies are outlawed, only outlaws will have pennies.
I will give up my pennies only when you pry them from my cold, dead hands (or out of my piggy bank).
Which brings me to my favorite penny saying, “See a penny, pick it up, all the day you’ll have good luck.”
Unless you get trampled by a bunch of cranky New Yorkers, that is.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.ꆱ