Stale Metal Money Needs New Mint Freshness

Let's stop worrying about the stock market and focus on a more fundamental economic issue: The US is mired in a coin crisis. Sorting through pockets and purses used to be fun, but not anymore. Metallic currency is thoroughly boring. Our coins have the numismatic indifference of the Stepford Wives.

This is a national disgrace. The money supply is a basic connection between the federal government and all citizens, especially young ones. As a kid, coin collecting was (to use the modern terminology) my gateway hobby. It led naturally into other areas of inquiry, such as history, geography, and politics.

Luckily for me, there was still a wide variety of coinage in circulation when I started. It wasn't impossible to turn up a 1918 Mercury dime or a steel penny from World War II. Those little relics were tangible links to the distant past, treasures washed ashore on the beach of American life.

Unfortunately, anyone looking at coins these days might assume that our country's history only goes back three decades. Like the Iron Curtain that divided Europe, a copper-nickel curtain fell across the monetary system in 1965. Silver dimes, quarters, and half-dollars were soon driven out of circulation by the new "Johnson sandwiches" (so nicknamed because of the copper color around the rim).

Try finding a penny dated prior to 1959. The old "wheat pattern" versions are long gone from daily commerce. Nickels can offer an occasional glimpse into the late 1940s if you're lucky.

What this means is that an entire generation of Americans has grown up with coins that are less inspiring than bus tokens. Oh, there was some tinkering with the reverse sides during the bicentennial, but it was a half-hearted effort. Now there is a plan to start introducing commemorative patterns on quarters, featuring a different pattern for each of the 50 states to be spread out over a number of years.

Yawn.

Here is a simple suggestion that will pump up the national interest. During the past few years, professional teams have worn special throwback uniforms to celebrate the colorful heritage of major league sports. Why not produce throwback coins? The US Mint could start by issuing a replica of the buffalo nickel, appropriate because 1998 marks the 60th year since the coin was discontinued. Other designs that deserve a second life include the Walking Liberty half-dollar (1916-47) and the Indian Head penny (1859-1909).

Some critics will say my ideas are backward, that we should continue moving toward a cashless society. They'd like to reduce each of us to bar codes and magnetic strips on thin plastic. I disagree. I think it's important to feel the pain of each spending decision. And the thought of my little daughter using a debit card to pay for candy or gum is a nightmare beyond Aldous Huxley's wildest dreams.

Come on, Washington, give throwback coins a try. It isn't rocket science; it's small change.

* Jeffrey Shaffer, a Portland, Ore., writer does commentary for Oregon Public Radio.

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