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Drowning in dollar coins

A few years ago I had an editorial published strongly and positively advocating a circulating presidential commemorative dollar program. Now with it actually realized, my feelings are more mixed and muted.

A few years ago I had an editorial published strongly and positively advocating a circulating presidential commemorative dollar program. Now with it actually realized, my feelings are more mixed and muted.

The design of the coins so far is disappointingly token-like. After the real promise shown by the various depictions of Thomas Jefferson on the nickel over the past few years, most, particularly the 2005 five-cent coin, with the unique close-up of Jefferson's face flowing from the edge of the coin and handwritten "Liberty," the Presidential dollars so far have returned to the unimaginative centered portrait with standard typeface inscriptions. The reverse also disappoints. The view of the Statue of Liberty is nice, but the "$1" and the interior circle around the inscription makes the coin look like a cheap token.

Moving the date and mottos to the edge of the coin was innovative, but ill-considered. The date missing from the design contributes to the coin looking like a token. In fact, twice recently, when I presented the coin for payment to cashiers not familiar with the new design, they said it could not be a real dollar coin because there was no date! And putting "In God We Trust" on the edge of the coin has needlessly engendered political complaints. In retrospect, perhaps only putting "E Pluribus Unum" on the edge may have been a better move.

But beyond these pedestrian design concerns, the harsh reality is that the use of these coins in daily commerce is close to non-existent. Except from the stamp vending machine at the post office, I have yet to receive even one presidential dollar after a purchase or a bank withdrawal. In fact, it has been months since I even received a Sacagawea dollar.

Every time I go to the bank to make a withdrawal, no matter how much I take out, I never receive a dollar coin without specifically asking for one. At a business, even if I see a dollar coin in the cash register, I also never am given one in change without asking.

And therein lies the paramount problem with the circulating dollar coin. While the continued production of the dollar bills is an issue, the greater problem is that the key primary originating circulators of coins -- banks and businesses -- are not using the dollar coins in their transactions with the public.

For the dollar coin to really enter circulation, the mindset of banks and businesses with regard to these coins must change. It must become automatic that tellers and cash register attendants both stock the coins and hand them out to customers with every transaction. That is not to say that a customer should be given an unwieldy handful of eight or nine dollar coins -- but when a transaction requires a dollar or two to the customer, yes, dollar coins must be used without the customer asking.

This is not contrary to the public desire. Almost everyone I know among the general public has told me they like the dollar coins: they are much easier to use in vending machines than worn out dollar bills or using literally handfuls of quarters. But their chief complaints include vending machines (including car washes and laundromats' washers/dryers) that do not take the dollar coins, and that the coins seem never to be available in general day-to-day commerce. The fact is, that if banks and businesses regularly give out dollar coins, people will use them. But the government and Mint needs to develop incentive programs for the banks and businesses and ATM machines to stock and disburse these coins. The public knows about the coins -- the problem is the banks and businesses are not using them.

And clearly the dollar coin is the future of coinage in the United States. Recent commodity inflation has pushed the price of minting cents and nickels above their face value. Seigniorage on the dollar coin remains healthy. Inflation drives prices up, so coins of higher denomination become of more practicable use.

If such measures are not soon taken to encourage the greater use of the dollar coin, storage vaults may soon be drowning in untold tens of millions of dollar coins. With the legal requirement to produce at least thirty-nine different presidential dollar coins for the deceased presidents, as well as annually produce a defined quantity of Sacagawea design dollars also, there is potential for immense pile-up of the coins in storage vaults if they are not gotten into circulation. History shows this has been a recurring problem with dollar coins: unused Morgan and Peace silver dollars minted from 1879-1935 languished in storage until the 1960s; the supply of the publicly rejected Susan B. Anthony dollars minted from 1979-1980 were not exhausted until 1999, when another mintage was made that has also seen little circulation. Are we again headed down that path of storage facilities drowning in stored dollar coins?

David Allen Hines is a collector from Kignston, Pa.

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