Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Getting Rid of Only the Penny vs. All "Cents"

Canada recently stopped issuing pennies, and likely will phase out accepting pennies. Last year, I wrote about why pennies might be a good thing to get rid of in the US, too. Recently, an episode on the BBC World Service made me wonder when all "cent" coins should be gotten rid of. They were asking people what the smallest denomination coin they used to buy something was, and this was immediately after being made aware of the fact that the Zimbabwean 5 cent coin was next to useless and rarely (if ever) encountered, but that the 20 cent could still be used to buy "a bunch of spinach" at the market.

This reminded me of the Hungarian filler. When I moved to Hungary in 1994, there were still fillers used in circulation, but even at that time inflation made them next to useless as a means of transaction. Sure, you might find something that would give change in filler, but you generally had to go well out of Budapest to find a place like that. In my case, I ended up with a small tin filled with tin fillers. (Pun intended.) I remember there being a 50 filler, a 20 filler, and the really occasional 10 filler. (The 2 filler and 5 filler had already been discontinued in 1992, two years before I moved to Budapest, and the 1 filler was never even used after 1939.) What got rid of the filler? The answer is the same as what has effectively done away with the Zimbabwean 5 cent piece and the Canadian penny: inflation.

However, unlike Zimbabwe and Canada, Hungary got rid of the entirety of its decimal coinage. After 1999, the Forint no longer had any decimalized coinage, and the idea of 1/2 Forint - something that was real and actually meant something in the mid-1990s suddenly (in 1999) no longer meant anything at all. This quick trip down memory lane brought me to realize that the same thing happened to Japan after World War II (both times characterized by hyperinflation). I remember my mother showing me a box of old coins from before World War II, complete with sen coins intermixed with yen bills of 500 yen and less.

Good luck finding sen coins today (or even many Japanese who even remember them). And the loss is no longer felt as a tragic one or even an economic one. Indeed, the Japanese may well be considering the value of continuing with 1 yen coins...

Of course, all of this could be done away with if we moved to a completely digitalized currency system. In a completely digital currency system, the somewhat arbitrary nature of being limited to only 100 cents would go away. Why let gas stations get away with always taking 0.9 cents for every gallon they sell? at $X.999? Why let banks pocket the remainder of the interest that has accrued (but remains) below 1 cent? Why let companies keep all the less-than-one-cent portions of salaries? Why allow the government(s) to collect on all the taxes below 1 cent?

Why? Why? Why?

Is it because we don't think of the value of money less than 1 cent to be worth out consideration? If that's true, then why worry about the value of money less than 5 cents or less than 10 cents? After all, almost nothing can be had in much of today's United States at a value of 9 cents or less. And if you're going to make the argument that we should keep the penny, you are effectively also making an argument for giving away all money accrued at values less than that penny. (Or maybe you're just making an argument from emotional, nostalgic, hamburgers-used-to-cost-a-nickel days of the childhoods of people born in the 1940s.)

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