Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

For Americans, pennies still make ¢ommon ¢ents

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WASHINGTON -- A search for the zinc-ophants who are striving to save the U.S. one-cent coin from Canadian-style extinction leads to an office tower on K Street that is listed as the headquarters of a body called Americans for Common ¢ents and their slickly produced and succinctly named website, pennies.org.

"Americans are persuaded by several factors, such as antipathy toward price rounding," the cent-anarians claim online, citing a survey that found 67 per cent support across the U.S. for maintaining the 2.5 per cent-copper copper.

Wondering who is behind this crusade, I take the elevator to the sixth floor and, instead of discovering a mint of humble zealotry fuelled by respect for Abraham Lincoln and nostalgia for penny candy, I find myself in the hushed anteroom of one of the highest-calibre legal and lobbying firms in Washington, SNR Denton.

Within moments, a staffer has been assigned to get me out of sight as quickly as possible. He turns out to be a chipper Briton named Robin Adams who is so stylish that his cuff links match his necktie and who identifies himself as the "de facto director of communications of Americans for Common ¢ents."

"Got a penny?" I ask him.

"Sorry," he replies, digging into empty pockets. "I don't typically carry coins."

Mr. D. Facto is well aware of Canada's abandonment of the Queen's-headed, Maple-Leafed cent. (He is old enough to remember hoarding his farthings and ha-pennies back in England to buy a bottle of precious orange juice.) And he admits that, gathered in sufficient quantities, one-cent coins do make "very good doorstops."

"Pennies mean nothing in themselves, but that's not the point," the communicator says. "The situation in Canada is very different. There is a lot of sentimental feeling below the border."

After being worn down by my aggressive interviewing, Adams confesses that Americans for Common ¢ents is supported -- that is to say, funded -- by "a loose organization of numismatic-style organizations," as well as "the people who mine the zinc."

"You could turn around and say that the people who produce the penny are involved in saving it," he declares. "Well, of course they are!"

As for the widely quoted rubric that it now costs much more than one cent to produce a one-cent coin, here as in Canada, Adams says "that's an accounting trick."

Moments into our interview, we are joined by the actual executive director of Americans for Common ¢ents, a senior barrister -- and long-time aide to a highly placed Republican senator -- named Mark W. Weller who also hasn't got a penny to his name, or at least in his trousers.

"The Canadian finance minister announced the abolition of the penny by executive fiat," states Weller, who lists his affiliation with the penny-savers at the very bottom of his impressive resume. "Here, it would require a lot of public discussion and debate."

It's not that such a debate never has been joined on Capitol Hill. Last November, executive director Weller was called to testify before the subcommittee on domestic monetary policy and technology of the House of Representatives on "The Future of Money: Dollars and Sense."

(Who is arrayed against these well-dressed people and their commitment to the red cent? According to the website of a coalition of nickel-heads called RetireThePenny.org, they include one professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one economist at Wake Forest U. and another at Harvard, a former congressman from Arizona, and "countries all over the world.")

"In practice, price rounding cannot be fairly done," Weller declaimed in Congress. "Rounding hurts consumers and will disproportionately affect those who can least afford it." And he notes many charities depend on penny drives that build to sums in the millions.

After a few more minutes of enlightenment, I shake free of the lawyers and enter my local Dollar Tree discount shop, where I find the manager, Peggy Fitzpatrick, in the storeroom, chomping chips.

"Maybe I'm old-school," she says when I tell her about the ill-fated Canadian cent, "But to me, the penny is just as important as any other coin."

Peggy Fitzpatrick says that, unlike retail establishments that cater to a wealthier clientele, her everything's-a-dollar emporium remains a mostly cash business. She estimates a two per-cent profit margin on the totality of her stock; so, if a customer dashed in for a single item, rounding down his purchase from $1.06 (with tax) to $1.05 would eat away half of Peggy's vigorish.

"People expect their change," she says. "I have a lot of people who have come here from Central America. These are not wealthy people -- they stand and wait for their change. No disrespect, but maybe they can't speak English, but they can count money."

I reach into my pocket and hold up a Lincoln cent -- it is a 2012D from the Denver Mint, as shiny and pretty as, well, as a brand-new penny.

"Is it because of him?" I ask Fitzpatrick, surmising that, as an African-American, she might have a special reverence for the Great Emancipator and the little coin that has borne his profile for the past 104 years.

"It's not about him," the merchant answers. "It's about my money."

But maybe, she admits, it really is an old-school thing.

"My son is 30 years old, and he refuses to take pennies at all," Fitzpatrick says. "He says pennies are pointless but they're not to me.

"To me, pennies make dollars."

 

Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2013 J11

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