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As a young coin collector in 1971, I was quite excited by the announcement that the US Mint would be producing a dollar coin after a lapse of 36 years. The coin was in honor of recently deceased US President Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower. The actual coin was somewhat less than exciting. With all due respect to the late war hero and president, the portrait on the coin was, to put it mildly, unflattering:
Still, I traded in some dollar bills for the coins and used them to make purchases. The retailers I patronized with these were not very happy about accepting them. After 36 years, cash registers didn’t have a slot for dollars in their change trays. Being the size of a traditional silver dollar, often they were too big to fit in any of the change slots. The size was also an impediment to me. The coins were large, heavy, and unwieldy. I only did that for a week or so.
Needless to say, the coin was just as unpopular with everyone else. So, the government quickly decided to end the experiment. After eight years and 682,567,105 coins minted for circulation.*
And decided that the problem with the coin was that it was too big and not ugly enough. So, the US Mint came up with this:
This is the Susan B. Anthony (SBA) dollar. With all due respect to the feminist icon, etc., UGH. Beginning in 1979, the US Mint began making these to replace the Ike dollars. They were a little bit larger than quarters and the same color, so they were supposedly mistaken for quarters. I doubt that that was true because, for that to happen, people would have had to use them.
In 1980, I was a clerk at a liquor store. One time, I found an SBA dollar in my cash register and attempted to give it in change. The customer said, “What the #@$!!* is this,” threw the coin on the counter and politely demanded I give him a “real” dollar, using language I can’t repeat without violating the CoC. In my lifetime, I have worked retail about four years, in addition to being a cashier at a swimming pool and volunteer at food stands for sporting events. Through all that, this was the only time I have seen a dollar coin being used. I have literally found more dollar coins on the ground than I have seen as a retail employee.
The problem with this coin was not that it looked like a quarter. The problem was that it was a dollar coin, and nobody wanted them. The mint figured this out pretty quickly compared to the Ike dollar, and stopped producing them for circulation after only two years. They still made over 800 million of the damn things. Then, in 1999, they made another 41 million “as a safeguard in anticipation of increased public demand before the Sacagawea debuted in 2000.”** If you think that last sentence makes any logical sense at all, you have a bright future as a government bureaucrat.
In 2000, the US Mint came out with the Sacagawea dollar. To combat the problem of confusing them with quarters, the coins were made in a bright golden color. A nationally-renowned sculptor designed the coin, and it was definitely better looking than the Ike or SBA dollars. An advertising campaign promoted them. Vast amounts were shipped to Wal*Mart® stores and they were included in boxes of Cheerios®. In response to anticipated demand for the coin, the mint produced 1,286 billion of them.
And again, no one used them.
Maybe it was the fact that they looked like tokens from arcades, maybe it was some other reason, but nobody wanted the new coins. Someone in the mint got a smart idea: Why don’t we offer them to the public at face value with free shipping? So that’s what they did. And people bought thousands of dollars of the coins with their credit cards. And immediately redeposited them in their bank accounts while pocketing the cash-back bonuses.
As an aside, the US Mint still made money on the deal. The Sacagawea dollar cost a lot less than a dollar to produce and distribute. In fact, the metal in it is only worth about 6¢. There’s actually a word for this: seigniorage. So, the mint made money, the buyers of the coin made money, the credit card companies made money, free money all around! In fact, that is a solution to our debt problem. If the mint made 33 trillion Sacagawea dollars, then shipped them to everyone at cost, our national debt would be gone in no time. And if you think that last sentence makes any logical sense at all, you definitely are only fit to work for the government.
Again, the mint figured out that no one wanted one-dollar coins and stopped issuing them for circulation after two years.
Then, in 2007, someone at the mint said, “I know what’s missing! Ugly portraits of U. S. presidents!” And so the presidential series of dollars was created. I’m being a little hyperbolic, as not all of these coins are ugly. Ironically, Eisenhower’s portrait is pretty good, much better than on the ’70s Ike dollar. But a good number of the coins are genuinely repulsive. Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush both have rictus grins. Andrew Jackson appears to be a cross-eyed hick. FDR looks like a high school principal with constipation. Here’s Abe Lincoln:
This is the only presidential dollar I have actually touched. I found it in the grass next to a gas station. All of them remind me of this:
This was a token from a promotion by Shell Oil back in 1968. Frankly, the portraits of the presidents on these aluminum game pieces are better than most of the real coins produced by the mint.
And, of course, no one used the presidential dollars. I would bet more than half of the people reading this are not even aware of them. So, after five years and 2.376 billion coins produced, they stopped making these for circulation.
For 40 years, the government tried to get us to use dollar coins. And every single attempt was an utter failure. The sad part of this is that it didn’t have to happen this way. In fact, I know a way to guarantee that the dollar coin will be enthusiastically embraced, and it will save money as well. And I know for certain that it would work, because it has worked many times in the past.
Get rid of the dollar bill.
Every other major economy in the world that has a currency similar in value to ours has eliminated the one-unit paper bill in favor of coins. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore all got rid of dollar bills over thirty years ago. Great Britain has had only Pound coins since the ’80s. The Swiss have never had a 1 Franc bill. The European Union started their monetary scheme without a one-Euro note. All of those countries are fine with Dollar, Pound, Franc, and Euro coins.
So why haven’t we done the same? For starters, the US Mint, that makes coins, and the Bureau of Engraving, that makes bills, are separate bureaucratic sinecures within the Treasury Department. Dollar bills are popular and what politician is going to take a risk getting rid of something that’s popular? (See for example: Every other government program.). Then there’s just basic bureaucratic inertia. As a result, the US Mint has produced 5.6 billion dollar coins that no one wants or uses.
But that’s nothing. Since 1972, the mint has made more than 5.6 billion 1¢ coins every year. And, for at least the last 20 or so years, each penny costs more than a penny to make. Only the government can lose money by making money.
* My numbers in this post are from A Guide Book Of United States Coins, 2023 Edition, J. Garrett, Q. D. Bowers, K. Bressett Eds., Pelham AL, Whitman Publishing, 2022. I am only listing the number of “circulating coins,” i.e., coins ostensively to be used by the public for transactions. Millions of these coins were also produced in special editions for collectors.
** A guide Book Of United States Coins, 2023 Edition, p. 242.Published in