I’ve expounded at some length before on the state of coinage in America, but will comment again using David Margolick’s intersting NYT op/ed from yesterday as a starting point (I thought it appropriate to wait until today, Lincoln’s birthday, to weigh in).
Margolick’s piece begins as quite an interesting brief history of the Lincoln penny, discussing well the great clamor its introduction caused back in 1909. “Only when you consider the Lincoln pennyâ€™s glorious origins,” he writes, “can you see how far it has fallen; long after it earned a decent and respectful retirement it must soldier on – burials itâ€™s had aplenty, as a dip into any landfill shows – victim of inflation and inertia, political maneuvering and national vanity.”
After pointing out the utter worthlessness (figurative and literal) of today’s penny, Margolick notes “there are periodic attempts to eliminate the Lincoln cent, which now costs more to make than itâ€™s worth, but theyâ€™re always beaten back by an odd coalition of zinc manufacturers, Illinois politicians, rank sentimentalists and charities running penny drives. Here there are also efforts to restore the coin to at least some of its former glory. For the Lincoln bicentennial two years from now, the reverse side of the coin will sport four new designs, each commemorating a place where Lincoln lived. Then, in 2010, the back of the coin will be used to represent Lincoln saving the union. On any other object, these would be worthwhile, even noble, goals. But on the penny, they simply mean five new versions of something to step on, toss out and pave over. It hardly sounds like an honor … To hold Abraham Lincoln hostage to an object of such universal contempt is a disgrace.”
The author’s suggestion is to move Lincoln to a new coin, either $2 or $5, “so that our greatest president can be on the countryâ€™s most valuable coin instead of its most reviled one.” Like me, Margolick favors a simple abolition of the outmoded and obnoxious penny; he adds “if, for reasons of habit or political expedience, we foolishly keep it around, then perhaps it should commemorate some president appropriate to its lowly station, perhaps James J. Buchanan or Andrew Johnson.” Presumably tongue-in-cheek, that last bit, but on the whole I agree with what he’s getting at. If we are to honor Lincoln (and we should), then let us do it in a more meaningful way than on the penny.