Friday, April 27, 2012

Hard to believe there’s no demand for a Chester Alan Arthur $1 coin

Maybe it’s just my abysmal lack of knowledge about – and hence appreciation for – who they were and what they accomplished, but it does strike me that (excepting Ulysses S. Grant) the presidents between Lincoln and McKinley were a stunning bunch of non-entities.

Andrew Johnson. Rutherford B. Hayes. (The B., apparently, to distinguish him from all the other Rutherford Hayes’s out there.) Chester Alan Arthur. Grover Cleveland. Benjamin Harrison. And, just in case you didn’t get enough of him the first time around, Grover Cleveland yet again.

In truth, I can go months, perhaps even years, without giving any thought to this parade o’ presidents, but an article in USA Today (which I picked up on a recent flight: don’t want anyone thinking I actually bought it) on the presidential $1 coins brought them to mind.

That’s because the Chester Alan Arthur dollar – hereafter referred to as The Chet -  has just been released, and, according to the plan, the Benjamin Harrison and Grover Clevelands (he gets two) will also come out this year.

None of them, alas, will be going into general circulation, denying us the pleasure of sifting through our change buckets and coming up with a presidential coin and trying to figure out the difference between John Tyler and Zachary Taylor. (Or is it John Taylor and Zachary Tyler?) Not to mention trying to figure out whether it’s a fake and/or a quarter. As happened the other day, when I came across a tarnished Susan B. Anthony that had somehow gotten tossed in with our Euro change.

No, the government has taken an austerity measure here, and:

…has suspended production of the [presidential] coins for mass circulation after the government racked up a $1.4 billion surplus of dollar coins.

"Nobody wants these things, and if they don't want them, we shouldn't keep making them," Vice President Biden said last December.

No more oversupply meeting under demand.

Apparently, banks had been ordering presidential coins in large volume because the Mint had been eating the shipping and handling costs during introductory periods. Banks figured, what the hell, placed their orders, and then shipped the ones they didn’t use back to the Federal Reserve.

Another thing that got excess president coins minted was the Mint’s backfired plan to bulk-ship presidential coins at face value, and with zero shipping costs, to individuals. But individual consumers, apparently, weren’t exactly interested in spending the little critters:

The Mint abandoned the program after discovering that some customers were ordering the coins on their credit cards to earn free airline miles, only to turn around and deposit them in bulk at a bank.

Whether if was frequent flyer addicts or the banks themselves, those $1 coins never ended up circulating:

Reports from the Federal Reserve to Congress show the central bank knew of the impending backlog as early as 2010. They estimated that 40% of dollar coins were returned by banks, prompting the Fed to propose building a $650,000 storage vault in Dallas and spend $3 million on armored cars to take the coins there.

Storage vault? Are they going to be worth something someday? Can’t we just melt them down, or do they have to stay in circulation? If they get melted down, does it throw the IS/LM curve out of kilter? Oh, if I only remembered anything about macro-economics.

Anyway, starting with The Chet, anyone who wants a presidential coin will have to pay $1.70 to get one.

I’m sure there are plenty of folks out there who are collecting the whole set. In fact, if they were actually in wide circulation, collecting them might have been the kind of thing I could have gotten sucked into.

When my nieces were little, I got them going on the state quarters which, in truth, proved to be of greater interest to me than it was to them. And when I drove cross-country a billion years ago, I loved license plate spotting. (And, yes, I did get all 50 when I spotted a Hawaii, the tricky one, in a mall parking lot in California.)

But, as collecting goes, I much prefer the happenstance approach of being on the lookout for the ones missing than just order them up. That’s no fun! (To me, anyway.)

Meanwhile, the government keeps debating whether to get rid of dollar bills altogether and push us to use coins instead, a move that would save a lot of money, since coins don’t wear out like bills do.

While I will admit that the Susan B. Anthony (and maybe even the president coins; don’t know, as I haven’t see any) looks an awful lot like a quarter, it does seem that other places have managed to get rid of small denomination bills.

For one, there are no Euro dollar or two-dollar bills, you use coins, instead. And, yes, you do have to look if you’re not familiar with them, but the one does look different than the two, so there.

Before they went on the Euro, Ireland had a one punt coin that was distinguished by the fact that it weighed a ton.

But we can’t even seem to phase out the nigh unto worthless and useless penny, so I’m sure that getting rid of the dollar bill will prove to be extremely problematic.

Interests backing the dollar bill — including paper and ink manufacturers, armored car companies and George Washington aficionados — have recently escalated their lobbying campaigns to fend off the coin.

Well, I’m sure those George Washington aficionados could be swayed if the Mint promised to produce a preponderance of GW’s, say in 100:1 ratio to the collective amount coined for all those 19th century non-entities. Paper and ink manufacturers and armored car companies might present a bigger problem.

But mostly what’s in the way is the lack of acceptance of the dollar coins that have been tried, all those Franklin Pierces, James Buchanans, and Millard Fillmores. All those James K. Polks.

Maybe the Mint should forget about obscure, forgotten and forgettable presidents, and start using pop culture figures, instead. They’d have to tread carefully here, of course. The Kardashians may not stand the test of time. But Mickey Mouse and Elvis? Might be worth a try.

Meanwhile, if you want a Chet, it’ll cost you a cool $1.70.

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