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Common cents

Free money? Well, sort of.
By DOUG HEYE  |  March 12, 2008


Our government is now taking its cues from late-night infomercials. But instead of, say, an extra week’s supply of weight-loss pills or a custom-grip filet knife, they’re offering legal tender. Just when you thought the Feds couldn’t waste money any faster, the US Mint launched the kind of Hail Mary marketing ploy popularized by bankrupt mattress stores — a belated President’s Day blowout sale.

The occasion? The release of the fifth in a series of little-noticed circulating presidential dollar coins, this one featuring the cleft-chinned James Monroe. Presumably, consumer interest in the series is low (near zero, it would seem). And with metal piling up in its warehouses, the Mint passed off some surplus to a distributor, who’s giving the four presidential coins issued in 2007 away for free.

The Mint’s marketing partner, the private “collectable-coin distributor” World Reserve Monetary Exchange, has resorted to throwing them in with the purchase of a $31 (plus shipping) “Framed Presidential Money Gallery.”

It’s a little hard to tell from World Reserve’s online sales pitch, but it looks suspiciously as if the gallery is designed to accommodate all of the presidential coins the Mint will continue to issue at a rate of four per year through 2016 (the collection stops with Gerald Ford), not just the four-dollar starter set.

Thus far, the Mint has spent at least $5 million promoting the series. And still it comes to this.

Shocking, huh? One would have thought that Americans would be thrilled to carry around sacks full of heavy, shiny gold-colored coins. After all, there’s nothing more dramatic — or more practical — then paying your bill with a bunch of loose change.

Public apathy is hardly a surprise. Every dollar-coin campaign has been an embarrassing and costly failure.

Remember the silver Susan B. Anthony dollar? Introduced in 1979, it took officials only a year (and 900 million coins) to notice that it bore a striking, and confusing, resemblance to the quarter. The US Mint quickly stopped producing them, and by 1981, they had essentially dropped out of circulation.

The Mint gave it another go in 2000 with the gold-toned Sacagawea dollar — and spent nearly $70 million promoting it with a garish float in the 1999 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a sweepstakes featured on Cheerios boxes, and a $40 million ad blitz starring a back-from-the-dead talking George Washington.

Those were your tax dollars. Needless to say, that campaign didn’t work, either.

In fact, the Sacagawea dollar proved so unpopular that its production was halted less than two years after its introduction. In 2005, the Federal Reserve reported that it had more than 200 million unwanted coins in storage.

Yet Mint officials remain resolute when confronted with history. And they’re banking on these new James Monroe dollars to succeed where those bearing the faces of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison failed.

Anyone with an ounce of common sense — or common cents — knows that dollar coins will never catch on as common currency. Relative to bills, they’re just plain annoying. You see, men and women alike prefer to carry their money in wallets. Not medieval satchels.

Coins are also more expensive to produce than paper money. The Mint says it will save in the long run, though, because coins have a longer circulation life, and so don’t have to be replaced as frequently. But the dubious economics that underpin those savings can only be realized if people actually use the coins. Which they don’t.

When it comes to dollar coins, it doesn’t matter if they feature James Monroe or Marilyn Monroe. Americans have no interest in them — even if they come free with a tacky display case. Taxpayers and consumers alike should tell the Mint to keep the change.

Doug Heye is a Washington, DC–based freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Capitol File, Politico, and the online political journal Pajamas Media.

  Topics: This Just In , James Monroe , Sacagawea , The United States Mint ,  More more >
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Common cents
I am not a fan of the new coins, but I am also not a fan of journalists that do not check the simplest of facts. The Sacajawea Dollar has been produced from 2000 up to and including the year 2007. Production has been halted at this time but Congress still has mandated that the coin be produced, and only Congress can halt production of any US legal tender coin. The US Mint will need to address the situation of non-production for the 2008 year with Congress sooner or later. Since 2002 the Sacajawea coin has been made in quantities of 7 million pieces or less from the three mints, Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco. Are there too many languishing unused, yes; has the Federal Government mismanaged everything about the coins; yes, has the reporter not bothered to check his facts on the production of this coin over the past 8 years, yes. It is easy to write a story to rile up the public on wasteful government spending, just try to get the facts straight, and remember, at a cost of production of 12 cents per coin the US Mint makes 88 cents on every Sacajawea or Presidential dollar they make and sell to the Fereral Reserve and it is the Federal Reserve, not the US Mint, that distributes all currency and coin to the public through it's network of banks. This 88 cents of profit goes straight into the US Treasury for use in untold numbers of programs. My source for the cost and profit for each dollar coin made is the US Mint, my source for the mintage years and quantities for the Sacajawea dollar is the Redbook of United States Coins 61st Edition available at just about any bookstore, ever heard of one?
By skamieniecki on 03/13/2008 at 11:46:04

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