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The penny has dropped: let's scrap copper coins - The Guardian

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By Guy Dammann

The penny chew is long gone. All 1p and 2p pieces do today is make holes in our pocket and support the idiot's discount

I've long thought we should get rid of our coppers. I don't mean by this that we should pension off our police, although as a schoolboy anarchist I of course used to think this too. But no, the coppers we really need to ditch are the coins, the useless, practically valueless bits of copper-plated steel which weigh down our pockets and clog up our vacuum cleaners.

I was reminded of this conviction recently while filling in my tax return, a dispiriting activity whose only pleasure consists in the smugness which attends its completion – a smugness which grows in intensity in proportion to how long before the January deadline the return is filed. I filed mine last Tuesday, but you can tell this from my byline photo.

Before sending it off, I noticed that whenever I entered my figures, the inland revenue would simply ignore any value less than a pound. They didn't want to know about my expenditure of pennies, carefully calculated from hours of poring over crumpled, barely legible receipts and long buried phone bills. In a brilliant flash of mental activity, I raced through a Superman III scenario in my imagination, picturing myself as Richard Pryor's character, raking in millions from unaccounted pennies.

It didn't last long before that caped crusader called the law of averages told me to stop being stupid. But still, a sense of indignity remained. If ever there were an organisation you'd think ought to abide by the world's most annoying proverb, you'd think it would be Her Majesty's bowler hat brigade. If they can't be bothered to look after the pennies, why on earth should we?

Because we don't, on the whole, seem to care about pennies, or twopennies, for that matter. And with good reason. They are, to all intents and purposes, worthless because you can't use them to buy anything. Long after the days of the penny chew, and those wonderful sherbert-filled flying saucers that I seem to remember costing half a pence, you'd still get a grateful smile from the till operator for bothering to count out the correct change for your purchase. But nowadays, as soon as you start going through the smaller denominations, most of them look at you as if you're mad, or at least have an embarrassing stammer. People in shops know that copper coins only exist to go in one direction, which is why they make every effort to wait for the receipt to print out, so they can wrap up the change inside it and hand it over in one inconvenient package.

A recent survey found that a quarter of the population would rather do without copper coins. Nearly a tenth admitted to regularly throwing copper coins away (which, given the law of average honesty, can safely be rounded up to 25%), while most others keep them stashed in jars and drawers where they sit around for years. And according to the Royal Mint, there are currently 11,215m 2p coins in circulation, and 28,441m 1p coins. That's a total of £245m consigned to fulfilling almost no purpose whatsoever.

Nor does that take into account how much these coins cost to mint. Here, where copper coins have been made of copper-plated steel since 1992, the situation is at least better than in the US where a cent coin costs a quarter more to produce than it's worth. But it still costs something to produce nearly 30bn penny pieces. The mint keeps its production costs secret, apparently to protect them from their competitors, whoever they might be.

I won't bore you with the maths, but that's a lot of money which, though meaningless to individuals, could, I don't know, build a hospital or reverse cuts to the arts, or something. Even so, that's all rather by the by when compared with the real reason why we should ditch the penny, which is that its sole function is support the phenomenon of the idiot's discount. I don't know if that's the official term, but if there's one thing that tells you that the march of civilisation progresses backwards as much as forwards, it's that we have evolved into creatures who prefer buying things that cost £199.99 over things that cost £200. Every time we see a penny, we see a token not of its monetary value, but of our own stupidity. Beyond that, they have no meaningful role other than to weigh down our pockets, and the economy. So why don't we just scrap 'em?

Thursday, 2nd February 2012

Tags:   guardian  /  money  /  cash  /  copper  /  coins  /  scrap
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