My vote for common cents

Big issues always get the big-time coverage. Right now most of the national headlines are dominated by tensions in the Middle East, proposed tax cuts by the Bush administration, and submarine safety procedures.

With so many pundits devoting all their attention to the high-profile stuff, I find myself drawn toward compelling topics that never seem to find any traction on our information superhighway.

The ongoing but seldom-reported penny controversy is a prime example.

Back in early December, when most of us were distracted by holiday shopping and the Florida recounts, a story about pennies popped onto The Associated Press wire like a flashbulb and then vanished into the darkness of media indifference. The story focused on a professor at Penn State who claimed that if pennies were eliminated, prices on small items would be rounded upward. A toy costing 98 cents, for example, would get bumped up to a dollar. The professor said that such a penniless economy would end up costing American consumers an extra $600 million a year.

It was truly a George Santayana moment; I had forgotten the past and was suddenly re-living it. But it was an honest mistake. Who would have thought four decades ago that we'd still be having this debate at the start of a new millennium?

Back around fourth grade, I distinctly remember seeing an article in the Weekly Reader that showed a proposed hexagonal plastic one-cent piece that was intended to replace the metal version. Nothing ever came of that plan, and I assumed the whole concept of penny replacement had been tossed into history's waste basket. Instead, it went on the back burner and still simmers.

The Penn State study was funded by Americans for Common Cents, a group that advocates continued usage of little Abe's coin, and is backed by zinc companies. Zinc, of course, is the main ingredient of modern pennies. An opposing viewpoint is held by the Coin Coalition, which wants prices on small merchandise to be in multiples of five, so pennies would no longer be needed. The coalition is reportedly supported by retailers, along with operators of vending machines.

Do these groups hold regular meetings? Why do they never show up on "Crossfire?" I want to know what happens when Americans for Common Cents get together. I envision a group of disgruntled people sitting around sorting through their loose change and bitterly denouncing the demise of penny parking meters and gumball machines.

But don't get the idea I support the Coin Coalition. The idea of rounding all prices to multiples of five seems like a veiled insult to my intelligence. If they succeed in making the US a no-penny zone, what's next? Will they go after all coins, and then start rounding prices off into multiples of dollars? Somebody check the Coin Coalition membership list; I feel like Denise Rich must be lurking around here somewhere.

We should all be thankful that outgoing presidents don't have the power to abolish coins with the stroke of a pen as they exit the White House. This issue may not be headline news, but it hits every American at pocket level.

Before any final decision is made, all of us should have a chance to put in our two cents.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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