Long before impersonators of the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan popularized the phrase “billions and billions,” coin collectors of my generation were trained by the Mint post-1965 to think in terms of of billions and billions as it poured out copper-nickel clad coins to replace silver coins and end once and for all a national coin shortage.
Over time we even worked our way up into the tens of billions for annual coin mintages for a single denomination.
No more. Now we are regressing to millions and millions and I have to watch where the decimal place goes as I prepare the chart reporting the Mint’s monthly coin production.
January’s output of 802.5 million coins if annualized comes out to 9.63 billion coins, comfortably close to the 10 billin capacity that deputy Mint Director Richard A. Peterson says the Mint is staffed for in a Numismatic News interview two weeks ago.
When I saw the monthly figures, I wasn’t surprised, but I did look at them from multiple angles.
Is the Mint still making an overall profit on its monthly output, I wondered? I pulled out the costs of each of the denominations and worked my way through the output numbers.
The losses on the cent and nickel were $11.66 million during January while the profits on the dimes through dollars totaled $18.52 million. Subtracting the loss from the profit yields an overall monthly profit total from circulating coins of $6.8 million.
That’s not a figure that impresses my generation of collectors. In an era of annual federal budgets totaling $3.8 trillion and a national debt of $15 trillion, what’s $6.8 million? It’s not even a rounding error.
Even if I multiply this number by 12 to reach an annual Mint profit figure of $81.6 million it still seems puny.
How can I recalibrate my 1960s numismaticly trained brain to absorb such small numbers? I want the stimulus of all of the extra zeroes that I was fascinated to work with as a kid.
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I am not alone. Others have a hard time grasping the absence of zeroes. Some letters to the editor have opined that the Mint should just go on absorbing the high costs of the cent and nickel, no doubt visualizing gigantic federal budget numbers in which such costs can be hidden.
No doubt Mint management would like to see the return of some extra zeroes as well, but even extreme reductions in the costs of the cent and nickel that could be achieved with steel compositions will not change the profit math by enough to lift us out of dealing with millions.
But perhaps these smaller numbers will do us all a favor. They might be more comprehensible. The might make the urgency of the Mint’s declining profitability more apparent. After all, one good lottery ticket nowadays will earn the holder more than the Mint’s current profits on circulating coins.
That just seems out of whack, doesn’t it?