Passing the buck

February 15, 2007

Americans can be forgiven if they respond to the news that the U.S. Mint is putting a dollar coin into circulation today with an exasperated "Not again?!"

The new series of golden coins featuring American presidents will mark the third time in three decades that an alternative has been offered to the good old greenback, and if polls are any indication, the likelihood is the public won't prove more receptive than during the first two attempts.

Collectors will doubtless love new features, such as the "E Pluribus Unum" inscriptions around the edge of the coins. For everyday use, though, metal disks slightly larger than quarters are just too heavy and cumbersome to replace paper currency.

That doesn't seem to matter too much to coin advocates. Freshly minted designs generate revenue for the U.S. Treasury because they cost less to make than their face value: about 21 cents for the new presidential dollar. That's a hefty profit of 79 cents for each of the 300 million George Washington dollars purchased so far by the Federal Reserve for circulation through commercial banks.

The government made $6 billion on the popular quarter series minted to represent iconic images of each of the 50 states. Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Delaware Republican and lead sponsor of coin legislation, is hoping the presidential series, running initially from Washington through James Madison, will make nearly as much.

Disappointing receptions were accorded to dollar coins honoring suffragist Susan B. Anthony in 1979 and Sacajawea, the Shoshone guide for explorers Lewis and Clark, in 2000 because of their unwieldiness.

Yet budget hawks are rooting that the tide will turn: The Government Accountability Office estimated that hundreds of millions of dollars in printing costs could be saved if the one-dollar note could be retired.

To advance the cause, federal agencies and transit systems receiving federal money have been directed to accommodate the dollar coins.

Perhaps a decline in the dollar's value will someday make the coin as practical as a quarter. Or maybe the trend to a cashless society will render both forms of tender obsolete.

Meanwhile, the new series of presidential coins will primarily serve collectors and educators looking for a fresh way to introduce studies of the Founding Fathers and such frequently forgotten chief executives as Grover Cleveland and James K. Polk.

And it will make some money. Every little bit helps.

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