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Guest Editorial: As goes the penny, so goes the country

Editorial2012When I was a young child my parents tried to teach me the value of money.  One hundred pennies made a dollar.  With a dollar one could buy three gallons of gasoline, enough to drive to town and back.  Parents taught children to be very careful with money so it wouldn’t be lost or wasted, but Benjamin Franklin may have said it best, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

It was difficult to save a penny.  First, I seldom had one.  Second, if I had one, I could hardly wait to spend it.  My father often told me the penny was burning a hole in my pocket. It didn’t matter whether I lost it or spent it. It was soon gone.  The only way to really save it was to lock it away in a piggy bank.

Finding a penny was not only rare, it was a big deal.  My grandfather, bending over to pick up a penny, would invariably say the penny wasn’t worth the pain in his back, but he continued to pick them up anyway.

There are people today who insist we should abandon the penny. I’ve heard a variety of reasons why the penny is no longer useful.  They say things like, “When people leave them at the cash register, it’s time to end the penny.”  They point out a majority of us stash pennies rather than bother with spending them. Even with banks begging us to bring them in, it seems hardly worth the effort to carry a quart or gallon jar of pennies to the bank.

Some activists remind us, even after replacing the copper in pennies with zinc, the cost to our government to make pennies is still more than the pennies are worth.  Businesses hate them. They are wasteful of the time it takes to count them and they no longer facilitate commerce.

The penny has become a part of our language and adds to our nostalgia of a simpler time.  Ever wear penny loafers? Remember the penny pincher?  Who could forget the black sheep of the family who kept returning like a bad penny?  My favorite was the lucky penny. Remember the time when you were offered a penny for your thoughts?  Pennies from Heaven was a wonderful movie and you really could buy penny candy for a penny.

Nothing can stop the passage of time and change is inevitable.  The value of pennies is now so low no one wants them.  I can’t think of anything one can buy today for a single penny.  Yet, we continue to spend approximately one hundred million dollars per year making more pennies.  These are pennies worth so little they are a nuisance to most people and not even poor people will pick them up.  I see them on floors everywhere, in department stores, in convenience stores, in grocery stores, and in parking lots.  Poor people, including those on food stamps and the homeless, just step over them.  They are truly not worth picking up.

The penny may ultimately have to go, for a variety of economic reasons, but I’ll be disappointed when it does.  The demise of the penny will be perhaps the first tangible proof to the masses our dollar is failing.  As long as we have the penny there is hope we can restore the dollar. Our current sales tax is six pennies per dollar.  Remove the penny and it’s easy to imagine a sales tax of two nickels.  When tax is the topic of conversation, six pennies are far better than two nickels.

The penny is in trouble and we may not be able to save it, but I am optimistic and hopeful we can someday restore the value to the penny.  It is a part of Americana.  It is a part of who we are.  It is tradition. It is also like the canary in a coal mine.  Lose the penny and we lose hope.  Lose the penny and our nickel is at risk.

I frequently pick up three or four pennies in a single day, sometimes more.   I freely admit they are not worth picking up but I pick them up for a different reason.  I pick them up because I can, and I can because I pick them up.  I know dozens of people personally, and have seen many others, who cannot bend, squat, or stoop sufficiently to pick up a penny.  I like being able to pick them up, so I pick them up to continue to be able to pick them up. At the risk of being simplistic, I offer my opinion.  People who step over pennies when they are young are far less likely to be able to pick them up when they are old.

There are two ways to view a penny on the floor.  One can see it as further evidence of the decline of the dollar and dwell on that negative subject.  The other is to see it as an opportunity to preserve or improve one’s health. So, for my patriotic friends I have the following suggestion. The next time you see a penny on the floor, enjoy the nostalgia of the moment and say to yourself, “God bless America.” Then proudly pick up that penny which humbly proclaims, “IN GOD WE TRUST.” Our penny is not yet dead.  It still has a pulse, it still has a message, and so long as we care, there is hope.