Out of America: Public short-changed for want of a coin

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - For me, the road to Damascus moment came in the most unspiritual surroundings of Farragut North, my local Underground station.

The train home was already rumbling on to the platform, but if I moved fast I'd still be able to buy the ticket in time. Alas, I didn't have the required dollars 1.35 (90p) in coins. The machine would give change for a couple of single dollar bills. But all I could find in my wallet were two crumpled specimens, which had to be teased into the slot. With predictable disdain, the machine refused them and I missed the train. Enough was enough. Why, I fumed, cannot this country introduce a dollar coin?

Not that it hasn't been tried. There was an Eisenhower coin in 1971, and eight years later the infamous Susan B Anthony dollar, named after the suffragette leader whose unbending visage adorns the heads' side. Alas, the numismatic Ms Anthony bombed. Her coin looked too much like a quarter, and the authorities committed the error of bringing in the coin alongside, not instead of, the existing banknote.

Given the peculiar hold of the dollar bill and its image of George Washington upon the national psyche, Ms Anthony didn't have a prayer. Of the 850 million coins struck, almost half are still in the vaults of the Mint. The world, meanwhile, has moved on.

In its enduring refusal to countenance a coin more valuable than 25 cents (enough to buy a pack of chewing gum) the US is virtually alone among advanced industrial countries. A quarter is worth just 17p. The British pounds 1 coin is worth dollars 1.50, France has a 10-franc coin worth dollars 1.70. Even Canada abandoned the Cdollars 1 bill back in 1987 in favour of a distinctive 11-sided coin. Like the pounds 1 coin in Britain, this was at first loathed. Today it is hard to imagine life without it. So why not here?

It is not for want of influential supporters. Both the Federal Reserve and the General Accounting office are in favour. So is the Coin Coalition, representing 30 industrial associations - not least vending machine operators. The economic case is overwhelming. The Fed says to replace the dollars 1 bill by a coin would save dollars 400m a year.

It may cost 8 cents to manufacture a coin, compared with 4 cents for a banknote, but the latter has to be pulped after 17 months. Coins last 30 years. Public transport could save dollars 124m a year if dollar coins were the norm. If Al Gore really wants his Vice-Presidential task force on re-inventing government to reduce bureaucracy and paperwork, the first paper to go should be the dollar bill.

A recent survey by the American Numismatic Association surprisingly found that 53 per cent of respondents wanted to ditch the dollar bill. On Capitol Hill there is even legislation, the United States One Dollar Coin Act of 1993, supported by 200 congressmen, but this is presently gathering dust in the drawers of a House sub-committee. Its chairman, Joseph Kennedy, say his aides, 'has more important business' to attend to. The lack of urgency may not be unconnected with the fact that the company which makes the banknote paper is based in Mr Kennedy's home state of Massachusetts.

The good news is that the indomitable Ms Anthony is making a quiet come-back. In thousands of its offices across the country, the US Postal Service has installed machines giving dollar coins as change. If you insert a dollars 10 bill for a book of stamps, you get in return four Susan Bs and two dimes. The same is happening with the new Underground system in St Louis, with no record of mutiny in the streets. Who knows, in a few years the US may catch up with everyone else.