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Why minting pennies makes no cents


I have no idea what songwriters Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke were smoking when they wrote "Pennies from Heaven" in 1936, but Bing Crosby's version claims that long ago "no one appreciated a sky that was always blue," and so from time to time nature would vanish and people would have to scoop up pennies that rained down from above in order to purchase back amenities like "sunshine and flowers."

Nature is vanishing for other reasons now and can't be purchased back. Even heavenly pennies can't pay away the heavy metal tailings that result from mining required to make pennies from Earth. Johnson and Burke's 75-year-old lyrical myth may be the penny's last homage now that it costs far more, both economically and environmentally, than it's worth.

The zinc mining lobby, not surprisingly, is one of the groups arguing to keep the penny. "If it takes a lobby group to continue doing something, then I'm usually suspicious of the merits," says Michael Visser, assistant professor of economics at Sonoma State University. The penny, according to Visser, is produced at a loss and has limited utility. "Research suggests," Visser explains, "that eliminating the penny would not result in higher prices." (The arguments for and against elimination of the penny are fairly represented, Visser claims, on the Wikipedia entry for "Penny debate in the United States.")

Moving ahead while others argue, bicycle shop Mike's Bikes recently decided to ban pennies at all of its nine Bay Area locations in a program it's calling "Letting Go of Lincoln." Cash transactions are rounded down to the nearest nickel in the customer's favor, and reasons on the company website include the actual cost to produce one penny ($1.79), the subsequent cumulative waste to taxpayers last year ($32 million), the hours per year the average American spends handling pennies (12) and the Red Dog Mine's EPA pollution ranking (No. 1) for the toxic waste created in mining the zinc which makes up 97 percent of each "copper" penny made.

Visser claims that when legislation is proposed to eliminate the penny, representatives from Illinois (and, of course, zinc lobbyists) routinely block it. "Continuing to mint pennies," says Visser factitiously, "seems to be a subsidization of Illinois tourism.

If they want pennies to continue to be in circulation, ask them to foot the bill."

Lincoln is honored in many ways, but in the 21st Century, the penny is no longer one of them. I suspect he'd feel shamed knowing his face adorned a pointless coin.

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