Canada pitches pennies -- could the United States be next?

When was the last time you got excited about finding a penny?

Probably when you were about the same age as my 8-year-old daughter. While she was participating in the annual Lakeside Panther 5K in Evans last weekend, she stopped her forward movement very briefly to pick up a penny – still shiny but chewed up like it had been run over a few thousand times.

If she hadn’t seen it, it probably never would’ve been picked up.

I mean, who needs pennies anyway, right?

Canada doesn’t – at least according to its Finance Ministry. Starting this past week, the Royal Canadian Mint has stopped distributing its 1-cent pieces to financial institutions. Electronic purchases still will be rounded to the nearest cent, but merchants are being encouraged to round all cash transactions to the nearest nickel.

So now Canada has followed Australia, the Netherlands, Norway, Finland, Sweden and a few other countries in eliminating the penny, or whatever they call a penny in Norway. (Whoops. The “øre.” Thanks, Internet!)

So here you are, reading this column – sitting atop your crate of hand grenades in your underground bunker, fretting anew about the intrusiveness of our federal government – and your gaze falls upon that big jar of pennies you’ve been saving for years.

Your knuckles whiten. Is America next?

Could be, citizen. That’s the word on the street.

I also asked Steve Damron of Clein’s Rare Coins in Augusta. What’s the chance of the United States – so to speak – pitching the penny?

“It could be very high, because the cost of making the penny is prohibitive,” Damron said. “Now that they’re making them out of zinc, they don’t last very long.”

Until 1982, U.S. pennies were copper. But when the price of copper in a penny soared above 1 cent, the U.S. Mint switched to copper-plated zinc. That wasn’t exactly a money-saver, either. Now it costs about 2.4 cents to make one penny.

So should we get rid of the penny?

“Not necessarily,” Damron said. “I mean, financially, it probably makes sense for the country to just drop the penny.”

How about sentimentally?

“Yeah, that’s where I’d say no,” he said. “We’ve always had a penny in this country, since colonial times.”

And that, friends, is where the battle line is drawn.

In this corner, you have the nonprofit Citizens to Retire the U.S. Penny, and the group has spent years honing its argument: Making pennies wastes money. Spending them – even handling them – wastes time. Pennies don’t really facilitate commerce because you really can’t buy anything for just a penny any more.

In this corner, you have the nonprofit Americans for Common Cents, and the group has spent a lot of pennies honing its argument: Eliminating pennies means rounding prices, meaning unscrupulous merchants will raise prices to make the roundings go in their favor. That, in turn, will affect the poor the hardest. Besides, people love those little metal discs. Poll after poll reveals a majority of Americans want to keep 1-cent pieces in circulation.

I should mention here that the pro-penny ACC is run by the main lobbyist representing America’s zinc industry, which rakes in millions in federal contracts to provide zinc for the production of pennies.

And one of the most recent polls – bragging how Americans love pennies – was commissioned by Coinstar, the money-changing company built on the backs of people who lug their pennies to Coinstar kiosks to cash them in.

But if pennies disappear, parts of our culture might suffer the most.

Penny-pinchers will have to make do with nickels, and that isn’t nearly as satisfying.

The “leave a penny, take a penny” trays on store counters – one of society’s last beacons of kindness toward strangers – would disappear, plunging formerly civil retail experiences into something out of Lord of the Flies.

The phrase “a penny for your thoughts” has been thrown into economic flux for decades, mainly because of the wide and unpredictable rate of return. If you’re offering a penny for the thoughts of, say, Stephen Hawking, you’ll likely get a handsome return on your investment. Offer the same penny to Lindsay Lohan, and you might walk away feeling that she should owe you money. Without pennies, what will be the future rate of exchange?

It all gets so complicated.

I have a solution.

For those of you who love pennies: Keep them. Embrace them. Roll around in huge piles of them and pretend you’re Scrooge McDuck doing the backstroke in his money bin.

For those of you who hate pennies: Get rid of them. By sending them to me.

Well, not to me, exactly, but I will take them off your hands. And when I get just about everything I think I can get out of you penny-haters, I’ll convert them into a form that’s more easily transportable and give the total amount to Golden Harvest Food Bank. That way, you know your painlessly small contributions – when they add up – will go toward something meaningful.

Also, you can avoid the look of horror on bank tellers’ faces if you push your wheelbarrow full of pennies into the lobby of your neighborhood bank.

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