While I was on an automobile trip across Wisconsin to Minnesota, I stopped for gas. Anybody who pays to fill up a motor vehicle these days certainly thinks that the gold standard advocates have a point. A more stable monetary system might preclude some of the price shocks that we all seem to be experiencing for gasoline and other things that we must buy regularly.
However, in the midst of my sticker shock moment, out of my lifelong habit, I looked at the change I had received. Even though the purchasing power of the few coins I had in my hand was tiny compared to what I had spent to continue my journey, their symbolic importance was and is huge.
Nestled among the dime and nickel from the 1980s and three state quarters lay a 1946 cent. I noticed it right away because it was handed to me with the Wheat-Back reverse up. What collector would miss that? It has been a long time since I have gotten one in my change.
Had I been more adept with the fuel hose on this trip, I would have pumped to an amount less inconvenient than $50.09. But then I would not have received this particular cent.
So there in my hand was a coin that had been legal tender for years before my birth and has been legal tender for my entire life. For 66 years the coin has had a job to do and because of the remarkable stability of the American monetary system during those years it still has a function to perform.
What happened to me and to many Americans every single day is something that most people in the world have not and cannot experience. Monetary changes in many countries are frequent. Even in places that we now think of as paragons of stability and prosperity monetary changes occur regularly. To go back to 1946 in Germany is to go back three monetary systems and that doesn’t even get us to the inflationary Weimar years.
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It is hard to assess just how much damage the financial crisis has done to the United States. I am sure we will be counting the cost for many years. What it has not done is it has not yet shaken the monetary system of the United States to the breaking point.
That little 1946 cent is the evidence of this. Its importance is not in its purchasing power. Even in 1946 there were people who wouldn’t pick up a cent. It symbolizes a continuity and stability that will be very much up for grabs next year when Congress will receive a report from the U.S. Mint that could lead to some far-reaching changes to our coinage.
What will Congress conclude from the report? Will we sweep away the present system that makes my gas station moment possible? I don’t know.
I enjoy the exercise of evaluating alternative coin compositions and their costs, or whether the economy will function fairly if we have rounding instead of cents.
However, I understand that among the costs that need to be evaluated is the cost of any loss by the public of its sense of monetary continuity and stability.