Another Preordained Dollar-Coin Failure?

Once again the US Treasury is planning a new dollar coin. Ever since the Depression ended and inflation took hold, one of the most inconvenient things about quotidian life in the US has been the necessity for one-dollar bills. Yet, as with more urgent matters like health care and global warming, the US has been and remains well behind the times in pocket-change convenience.

Contrary to what some say, the failure of dollar coins to catch on cannot be ascribed to a recalcitrant public. The blame rests primarily with poor coin design. I vividly remember my first trip to the UK after the introduction of the one-pound coin. Unlike the Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea $1 coins, the thick, heavy pound – though small in diameter – cannot be mistaken for any lesser coin, either singly in the hand or jumbled in the pocket. It’s a perfect little coin. Using it instead of a pound note is a joy.

Since coins last longer than paper money, replacing dollar bills with coins would save the Treasury a lot of money – according to an estimate that goes back as far as 1997, $150 million a year. Still the Treasury hasn’t taken this common-sense step.

Another roadblock to widespread adoption of a dollar coin is the business interest of Crane & Co., the politically powerful Massachusetts firm that manufactures the linen for US currency. One should never underestimate the power of one or two beholden US Senators.

Nonetheless, upon the introduction of a well-designed dollar coin, public demand would militate in its favor and against further use of the dollar bill, which would die out, and rather quickly, as people discovered how much more convenient it was not have to go into their wallets for day-to-day purchases of gum, newspapers and beer.

Instead, we are getting more commemorative collectibles. The Treasury will raise a bunch of money in one burst, as with the 50-state quarters. Machines will dispense the new coins as change, but hardly anyone will use them otherwise. Inertia will reign once again, and we’ll continue to fish for those filthy little pieces of paper every other minute.

Thanks a lot, Uncle Sam.

Now, about those pennies…