Making a case for saving the penny

Pennies. they jingle in men's pockets and bulge in women's coin purses. They pile up on bedroom bureaus and fill piggy banks and jars. They even accumulate in saucers next to cash registers, tossed there by customers who regard them as the pariahs of the coin world, a nuisance, chump change not worth pocketing.

Now, if Congressman Jim Kolbe (R) of Arizona has his way, the penny will all but disappear from circulation, although it would continue to be minted. Last month he introduced a bill, the Legal Tender Modernization Act, that would allow merchants and restaurateurs to calculate costs to the nearest nickel for cash transactions. A meal costing $5.42 would be rounded down to $5.40. A bill totaling $5.48 would be rounded up to $5.50. These additions and subtractions would all equal out, he says.

Probably so. But wait. Not so fast. For those of us who still maintain a fondness for pennies, the bill does not necessarily come as great news.

The lowly penny can, after all, claim a noble heritage. It was the first currency of any kind authorized in the United States. Benjamin ("A penny saved is a penny earned") Franklin suggested the design, and a private mint struck the first one-cent coin in 1787. During the early 1790s, Paul Revere even supplied some of the copper.

Since 1909, the penny has carried the image of our most beloved president, Abraham Lincoln. Who better than Honest Abe, he of humble Midwestern origins, to grace the smallest monetary unit? With Lincoln's magnificent profile on the front and the Lincoln Memorial on the back, testifying to his ultimate greatness, the coin offers a reminder of the potential inherent in modest beginnings.

Yet, how attitudes about money have changed since the days of Lincoln and Franklin. Today, even children often cannot be bothered to pick up a penny.

In an age besotted with bigness, from McMansions and SUVs to skyscrapers and the mammoth Mall of America, big enough to house a roller coaster inside, the penny stands as a reassuring reminder that smallness still has a place. It also serves as an object lesson in exactitude.

Even the public debt is ultimately calculated down to the penny - $5,738,213,090,042.93 as of Aug. 10.

There is also something engaging, almost melodic, about the word for penny in various languages: centime, centavo, centesimo, pfennig, kopeck.

In a slender book published two years ago, "The Power of a Penny: Little Ways Our Lives Can Count for Something Big," Glenn Dromgoole poses an intriguing question: "What if, instead of doing away with pennies, we decided to give away our pennies?" Everyone's pennies, collected over a year's time, would count for something, he says.

In a city of 100,000 people, he explains, if every person put one penny a day in a jar and then donated it to a good cause at the end of the year, it would add up to $365,000. For a million residents, the total would be $3,650,000. "Serious money," Mr. Dromgoole observes.

Then he translates pennies into intangibles. If 100,000 people "passed along one compliment a day or did one kind deed a day, in a year's time that would be more than 36 million compliments given or kindnesses done."

The penny may already be doomed. Still, it's not too late for penny lovers to make their voices heard. Think about bumper stickers: "Save the Penny" and "I Stoop for Pennies." Even favorite old phrases just don't have the same ring without the penny: Nickelwise and pound foolish? Dimes from heaven? A quarter for your thoughts?

No, thanks. Little things, as they say, still mean a lot.

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