Will the United States join other developed nations and . . . get rid of those beloved yet pesky dollar bills? Past attempts at US$1 coins did not do very well. The Eisenhower dollar coin made for a great saucer or frisbee but usually sat in a bowl on someone’s dresser. The 1979 Susan B. Anthony dollar coin was a polite nod to the women’s liberation movement of that decade but ended up less popular than Jimmy Carter. Sacagawea’s mug shot made for a pretty gold tinted coin that was popular in casinos, transit systems, and Ecuador, but was still a flop. Finally, the presidential dollar coin has done a solid job in remember past presidential greats like Rutherford B. Hayes, but has proven less popular than the U.S. state quarter dollar series.
Now Congress again is mulling another attempt at rolling out dollar coins. The Currency Optimization, Innovation, and National Savings Program, or COINS Act, was introduced last week by Arizona Republican David Schweikert. At at time when the federal government is looking to cut costs just about everywhere, Schweikert suggests that the legislation to phase out $1 bills will reduce waste, figuratively and literally.
But could it work?
Plenty of countries have phased out currency notes of smaller denominations and have managed to function. In Japan, for example, the smallest note is a ¥1000 note, about US$7 to $12 depending on the Yen-Dollar Exchange rate. The beauty of Japanese currency is that vending machines happily eat those excess coins, and it is perfectly acceptable to buy a pack of gum with a ¥10,000 note. On the other side of the globe, the Euro zone’s smallest note is a five Euro bill– €1 or €2 comes in the shape of the shiny (yet boring) coin. And north of the border, Canadians have long ditched small notes for the single “loonie” and two dollar “toonie.” Considering the state of American politics, the Canadian term for its single dollar coin is nothing short of perfect.
But here’s the catch: the only way a dollar coin would work is if the US$1 note is completely eliminated.
Would Americans part with the dollar bill and all its symbolism, culture, and history? After all, despite disdain for pennies, Americans are resistant to part with the copper coin even though it is so useless, even penny candy usually costs a nickel. Never mind that current costs are about 1.8 cents to make one penny, not to mention the waste and toxins associated to mint them. Still, most likely the penny will not disappear anytime soon.
The biggest complaint about dollar bills is that they are hugely inefficient. Heaps are shredded annually and sent to landfills. Their shelf life is about 18 months, as opposed to years for coins. And to address the claims that we will be saddled with more heavy coins, the fact is that if dollar bills are phased out, those coins will disappear quickly as we will carry fewer quarters. Finally, despite the banks’ threats to charge fees for debit card usage, most of us carry less cash anyway. Naturally, Massachusetts politicians are upset, as a local company, Crane & Co., supplies the paper needed to print the measures. But the arguments of senators Scott Brown and John Kerry ring hollow as they are more interested in protecting a local New England business rather than doing what is right.
In the grand scheme of things, the financial and environmental costs and footprints of printing versus minting dollars are small. But if common sense and convenience rule, the paper dollar should be eliminated. One thing is for certain: a modest stimulus will result for some businesses as vending machines and cash registers need to be redesigned–and strong bodies will be needed to empty vaults that house dollar coins that currently are not in circulation.
And here is an idea–instead of the usual presidents, let’s have some past writers, scientists, artists, and cultural figures boast their profiles on these new coins–and show our visitors that we are more than Washington and Lincoln, but about Babe Ruth, George Washington Carver, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, too.