The Great Penny Debate


Over the years, media coverage occasionally ramps up around what I think of as the Great Penny Debate: whether to discontinue the U.S. one-cent denomination. The issue was covered on 60 Minutes a few weeks back, and now it's showing up in an excellent New Yorker article. The heart of the issue is that pennies cost more than one cent to make, so why not stop making them? There's also some disagreement as to the efficiency (and thus cost) of counting out change using pennies -- wouldn't rounding to the nearest five cents be faster? Given the prevalence of "take-a-penny" dishes at many checkout counters, it seems that cashiers already prefer rounding than dealing with pennies.

Countries (including the U.S., with the 1857 elimination of the half-penny) have discontinued low-denomination coins before, so it's not a far-fetched notion to think that the penny's days are numbered. But the actual issue aside, this whole penny discussion is jam-packed with trivia about coins and metallurgy. The New Yorker piece linked above brings us some great tidbits. I've gone ahead and collected some of its best factoids for your reading pleasure:

A penny minted before 1982 is ninety-five per cent copper -- which, at recent prices, is approximately two and a half cents' worth. ...More recent [pennies] are ninety-seven and a half per cent zinc. Nickels, despite their silvery appearance, are seventy-five per cent copper. Canadian five-cent coins ... were a hundred per cent nickel most years from 1946 to 1981. Primarily because zinc [in addition to copper] has soared in value, producing a penny now costs about 1.7 cents. ...The Treasury incurs an annual penny deficit of about fifty million dollars -- a condition known in the coin world as "negative seigniorage." Breaking stride to pick up a penny, if it takes more than 6.15 seconds, pays less than the federal minimum wage. ...Eliminating pennies would increase our reliance on nickels, which now cost almost ten cents to manufacture....

There's much more to the article than these bits of trivia, so I encourage you to read it in full. Also, the article mentions people "throwing away" pennies. Really? Dear readers, please tell me if you've been throwing away pennies. I toss mine in a jar, but never the trash.