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Dollars We Don't Need
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The U.S. Mint is at it again, trying to sell us on yet more $1 coins that we don't need, and that it's doubtful many people will want to spend.

You might remember the Susan B. Anthony coins that flopped so resoundingly after they were introduced in 1979. Or the equally unpopular Sacagawea dollars issued in 2000 - so unpopular that 115 million of them are still sitting in the Mint's vaults, unwanted and uncirculated.

The Mint hasn't forgotten. But it insists that the new $1 pieces, to be issued beginning Feb. 15 under an act of Congress, will win the broad public favor denied the earlier versions.

Well, the new coins will be different. They'll be stamped with the likenesses of men, specifically U.S. presidents. It'll be George Washington on the first to be issued, followed every three months over the next 10 years by coins bearing the image of the presidents who followed, in the order of their service.

Lest the Mint be accused of sexism, a 24-carat $10 gold piece with the particular president's wife's likeness on it will be issued for sale to collectors and investors in conjunction with the issuance of each coin. Although the First Lady pieces will indeed be gold, the presidential coins will be mainly copper, despite the Mint's description of them as "golden dollars." Ah, but they will be treated with an anti-tarnishing compound that will make them shine like new for a long time.

So, will the differences between the old and the new coins be enough to overcome the public's well-founded distaste for metal dollars?

I say no, and I'll bet you do, too, judging from the fate met by the previous $1 coins.

Mint Director Edmund Moy and congressional backers of the new coins are pinning their hopes for a different outcome this time on the success of the 50-state quarters program. It has made $5 billion in profits since its debut seven years ago by selling the quarters at prices above their face value. There's an obvious catch, however. Many of those quarters bearing the names of particular states are being collected, not being spent.

Moy has another hope for the new dollars, ironically based on the spending of quarters. He reasons that continued inflation will mean a continued increase in parking meter fees and vending machine prices that will require people to carry more quarters to feed the meters and machines. He thinks people might prefer to lighten their load of coins by switching from quarters to dollars, which many of the meters and machines will now accept.

Substituting dollar coins for dollar bills, advocates have been quick to point out, would save the Treasury lots of bucks. For though the coins will cost more to produce than paper dollars, they have a life expectancy of more than 30 years. Bills normally wear out in nine to 14 months.

But those worn bills serve an important function. They help keep the home fires burning. Shredded currency is a main ingredient in the making of fire logs. Tons of shredded bills also are put to important use as insulation and landfill.

Rep. Mike Castel of Delaware, co-sponsor of the bill authorizing the new presidential coins, says issuing them will "give people just a little bit of fun in their lives."

Maybe so. But it also will give some people a bit of profit. The advocates for the unpopular coins include the copper mining corporations that supply the metal, and the vending machine and telephone companies, laundromat operators and transit agencies that see metal dollars as a way to save some of the money they have to spend on processing small coins and rumpled dollar bills.

Arguments pro and con seem beside the point, however. The real question is whether the Mint will be able to find room in its vaults, already full of Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea coins, for millions of spurned presidential coins.

Copyright (c) 2007 Dick Meister