Drop Greenbacks for Dollar Coins? Better Issue Suspenders

WASHINGTON bureaucrats have posted mixed results in campaigns to win America's hearts and minds. The winners: zip codes and seat belts. The losers: the metric system and the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin. Now they are resurrecting with optimism and enthusiasm the notion of a dollar coin, forgetting all the deja vu they ever knew.

In 1978 the Metric Conversion Act was passed - the sensible thing to do. American business was losing money because foreign countries discriminated against our products and their incompatible measurements. We have the only nonmetric system in the industrial world; it's more whimsical than useful.

But feet and yards, pints and quarts, have the force of natural law. We wouldn't touch liters and kilometers with a 10-foot pole.

We tried. We changed the readings on gasoline pumps. Some interstate road signs showed distances in miles and kilometers. Banks added Celsius figures to their temperature signs. Schoolchildren went home from metric classes and taught their parents. Insurance and real estate agencies distributed millions of "easy-to-use" metric conversion charts.

Remembering those heady metric days of the '70s, G. T. Underwood, then director of the Office of Metric Programs in the US Department of Commerce, said, "We made a mistake in 1975 by trying to jam metric down the throats of people."

After 20 years only 25 percent of US manufacturers have gone metric. After 20 years all we can do is buy soft drinks in liter bottles and watch 100-meter sprints.

Stella B. Hackel, the director of the US Mint in 1979 at the introduction of the Susan B. Anthony dollar, supported the new coin with vigor. Practical, convenient, and clean, she said.

It seemed like a good idea at the time - the sensible thing to do. With a portrait of the famous suffragist on one side and an image of an eagle landing on the moon on the other, it was historical and patriotic. By replacing paper with metal the US would save about $50 million a year in printing costs.

Unfortunately, whenever Ms. Hackel paid for something with an Anthony dollar, she had to say, "This is a dollar, not a quarter."

In Congress Frank Annunzio, then a Democratic representative from Illinois, said, "If we do eliminate the dollar bill and instead use the dollar coin, the Treasury would be required to issue every American a pair of suspenders."

"Susies," the term coined by collectors and disparagers, are available. The US Mint has 120 million of them, spending $35,000 a year for storage. In 1981 the "Susie" went out of production.

Subcommittees in both chambers on Capitol Hill are examining a proposal to mint a new gold-covered dollar coin - a sensible thing to do. The US is one of the few big-league countries in the world where the principal unit of currency is not a coin.

In the budget-crunching Congress an idea that would save $395 million a year over 30 years is pretty high up the flagpole. It costs 3.8 cents to print a paper dollar that lasts about 18 months, but a coin costing 8 cents has a 30-year circulation expectancy.

Other supporters include mining companies, coin-collecting groups, video game arcades, mass transit concerns, vending machine operators, and the American Council for the Blind. (Suspender makers have not been heard from.)

Support is not unanimous. "They want to raise the price of a can of Coke to $1. That's what this is all about," counters Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D) of Massachusetts.

Prices at parking meters, laundromats, and other vending machine operations would increase, predicts David Ryder, former director of the US Mint. "They will have to refit the machines, which will be a cost passed on to the consumer," he said. "Products that cost less than a dollar will have their prices raised."

Before, we had a choice: Use the wrinkled dollar bill or the bright, jangling Anthony coin.

This time around the General Accounting Office suggests that the paper dollar be withdrawn from circulation. There will be change! Or else! This time we're serious!

Remember the $2 bill? Now that was sensible.

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