In Praise of the Penny

This article will probably generate some criticism and controversy, but so do many of them. Therefore, let me proceed to put in my two cents worth. So to speak, pardon the pun, your mileage may vary, and manufacturers coupons redeemed for one penny on the dime. Once upon a time in America, the penny got the respect it deserved. Even in the copper shortages of World War Two, the penny was seen as important enough to mint them from steel instead. You scoff? Not I.

I come today to praise the penny, the lowest denomination of currency in the United States. There are regular demands to scrap this coin and remove it from use. Why? Now, many people say that the penny costs more to produce in labor and materials than it is worth. And this is a bad thing? This means the coin is actually worth what the coin is stamped as saying it is worth. Unlike the dollar bill, which is not worth that proverbial penny in materials and whatever backs it. Which, by the way, is hot air. Genuinely, in the world of fiat currency, I daresay the penny is one of the few “holdouts” that is historically worth what it is said to be worth. But it is worth far more than we realize. Allow me to explain.

In states that have a sales tax, which is most states, the sales tax is based on the percentage of a dollar. But what that actually adds up to where the rubber meets the road (or the penny meets the pavement) is some cents for every dollar. For example, it might be six cents per dollar spent on taxable items. Now when local governments increase the sales tax to fund their own local pet projects, which is often, they do so by passing a one-cent sales tax increase so people don’t freak out. It’s only a penny, right? Well, no, actually, it isn’t just a penny. Obviously, those pennies add up so they can pay for the Hiram J. Throckbottom Memorial Community College. Believe me, even a four-cent sales tax adds up astonishingly quick into dollars.

But through typical government sleight-of-hand, we’re led to believe, hey, it’s only a penny. That’s bad enough in and of itself because the government is making a fortune off those pennies snatched out of everyone’s pockets. Ok, but consider this: Imagine the penny was abolished. How, therefore, would local governments pass a sales tax increase? By the nickel or a dime. So, instead of a penny being lost, we would lose a nickel for every sales tax increase. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. Right, and for want of a penny, we lost a nickel on the buck.

Basically, before we knew it, we’d be paying a twenty-five cents sales tax on the dollar. People say, in their defense, “No, the government would save money since they don’t have to mint pennies anymore!” Excuse me, we’re talking about local governments and sales taxes here. Local governments don’t mint pennies—they only steal them from working people. There’s a difference. And besides all that, since when has the federal government ever passed on cost savings to the American people? To them, saving money means more money to waste elsewhere. Like on the military or another war.

When it comes to Arizona history, everyone thinks about Tombstone. Now that was a silver mining boomtown that only lasted a few years. But down the road, you’ve got Bisbee, a copper mining town that lasted for decades. Behold! The penny shows it has the power to last! Ok, so, not all of that copper went into pennies. But copper demonstrates it’s ability to hold value over time and space. Not to mention you get more value for your money in Bisbee. They’ve got an awesome Vietnamese restaurant there. I tell you, if you’re coming to Arizona, go to Bisbee if you’re looking for a cool, historical place to stay and save a few pennies over the usual “tourist” destinations. Arizona is the Copper State, so maybe that explains my passion for pennies. Bisbee has an underground copper mine tour, too, by the way. See, making pennies took actual hard work. You can’t print copper or pennies.

Speaking of time, the penny is mentioned in the King James Version of the Bible. There’s the humble penny, spoken of by Jesus and in His parables. Now, of course, it was actually called something else back then. But the value was a penny. The translators selected a coin they believed would stay in common usage for a long time going forward and one everyone would know. Throughout history, the penny has remained as the coin of the common man. Historically, it was usually made of copper. Our pennies today are zinc with a copper wash plating on them. But older pennies are solid copper. Thus, they have tangible value because they are a metal we all know has value. Even the zinc ones have tangible value as a metal.

But what of the dollar that came to represent America? When it was actually backed by a metal we all agreed had value, and human history concurred, that currency had value. What is the American dollar backed by today? Some CDs by various pop singers? So many minutes of cell phone airtime? No, actually, it’s backed by nothing. It’s the equivalent of kids cutting out paper “dollars” from construction paper and saying it’s money so they can play “shopping”. Come on, don’t tell me you haven’t thought of that?! Because the government tells us these pieces of paper are worth what they say, then they really are? How can that be? There is no tangible object that supports that statement.

Consider this: If I back my dollar with gold, there are only so many dollars I can print because gold is a finite thing. No one will be able to accumulate too many of those dollars because, sooner or later, they’re going to have to part with them if they want to eat. But if I can print unlimited cash, unbacked by anything, I’m not even limited by the supply of paper! I can use a computer to say, “There! I just created ten billion dollars to issue to Slob Junction Central First National Bank!” After all, hey, we’re going to electronic transfers and people are saying we don’t even need the fig leaf of paper money to hide the fiction of the currency. Therefore, people can hoard immense sums and when there’s a shortage of available currency because it’s being hoarded, they just print more. Or open up a computer program and create more out of thin air and electrons. Same thing. That’s what creates “income inequality”, not wages.

Again, if every dollar is backed by one dollar’s worth of gold or silver, I can’t print money like there’s no tomorrow. That’s what the government is doing, too: Acting like there won’t be a tomorrow where they’ll have to answer for the economic problems caused by fiat currency. Again, if there is a finite supply of money, it cannot be hoarded. It must be spent. More is not coming from the printing press. Therefore, it remains in circulation which is critical to a healthy economy. Money does not circulate when you print more fiat currency. What circulates are pieces of paper rapidly declining in value. That’s why a penny no longer buys a gumball. The penny never lost its value. What happened is the dollar lost its value and took the penny along for the ride.

Throughout all of this, the penny remains to remind us that money needs to be a tangible object that has worth aside from government “sez so”. People call those of us calling for gold and silver backed currency “crazy” or “fringe lunatics”. Excuse me, but we’re not the people that say a piece of paper is worth a bushel of wheat when the paper only has pretended value assigned to it by the government. “Pretend this slip of paper is worth a loaf of bread!” Ok, so what tangible thing does this slip of paper represent? “An idea of the government!” Oh? Excuse me, but is this not the same government that said it could win the Vietnam War? Now who’s crazy or a fringe lunatic? Those who believe in something that thousands of years of human history says has value or a government that says their all-too-fallible word has value?

As I said, the penny is a bastion against sales tax increases increasing by leaps instead of small baby steps. Plus, price increases across the board would have to happen with nickels or dimes if there were no pennies. That’s why certain people want the penny gone. Are you going to save money on that? No! They’re going to make money. Everyone from the government to corporations. And you’re going to pay the additional four cents or nine cents because, gosh, we haven’t got a penny to spare anymore. Literally.

We should celebrate the penny. I walk most places I go. I see pennies laying forgotten on the sidewalk and pick them up. That’s free money. Look here, I’ve found enough to buy chickpeas and make hummus go with the flatbread I made. I did the math and discovered one piece of flatbread costs me two pennies to make. Not bad, eh? I’ve seen wishing wells, fountains, and shrines with a carpet of pennies cast there. Statues of Jesus, and there’s a carpet of pennies there. Shrines to the Virgin of Guadalupe, there’s a carpet of pennies. If you added up the pennies at the feet of statues of various saints in this state alone, you’d probably find each saint is a millionaire. If this coin had no value, why then is it seen as an appropriate religious offering? Jesus told us that, too. Remember the Widow’s Mites? They added up to a little under a penny and Jesus tells us this was more than the scads of cash everyone else cast in.

Say what you want, but the first step to bringing more metal-backed currency back is to refuse to allow the government to get rid of what metal currency still exists. “Well, some European countries got rid of their pennies!”, I heard one guy claim. Right, and Europe also hosted two world wars and we followed them into those, and look where that got us. Wasn’t this nation founded by people trying to escape crap Europe was doing? Why, then, must we copy them now? We need to go back to gold, silver, bronze, and copper. While we’re at it, let’s return the defense of Europe back to them. They can pay for it themselves. Without pennies, of course.

Find a penny, pick it up, all day long, you’ll have good luck. At the very least, you’re a penny richer. He who has a penny is not penniless. There’s a metaphysical dynamic that goes along with that, but I’ll let you figure it out for yourself. I’ve seen them made into buttons for coats. I’ve seen the old “Indian head” pennies made into jewelry that sold for a whole lot more than pennies. Buffalo head nickels are another popular one made into buttons and jewelry, but the nickel is a story for another day. By the way, jewelry crafts supply stores often sell those Indian-head pennies for five bucks a pop. Who said the penny is worthless?