Susan B! Come back!


FOR ME, the road-to-Damascus moment came in the most unspiritual surroundings of my local subway station in Washington, D.C.

The train home was already rumbling onto 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 $1.35 in coins. The machine would give change for a couple of single dollar bills. But all I could find in my wallet were two grubby specimens, which had to be uncrumpled and then teased into the slot.

With predictable disdain, the machine refused all truck with them.

Equally predictably, I missed the train.

Enough was enough. Why, I fumed, cannot this country introduce a dollar coin?

Not, it should at once be said, that it hasn't tried.

There was an Eisenhower coin back 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 or the Washington Post, but precious little else) the United States is virtually alone among advanced industrial countries.

A quarter is worth just 17 pence. The British pounds 1 coin is worth $1.50, France has a 10-franc coin worth $1.70. Even Canada abandoned the $1 bill back in 1987 in favor 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 favor. So is something called the Coin Coalition, representing 30 industrial associations -- not least vending machine operators who have been screaming for a dollar coin for years.

The economic case is overwhelming.

The Fed says to replace the $1 bill by a coin would save $400 million of public money 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. They are cheaper to count and far easier for machines to understand.

A note-scanner like the one which regurgitated my scruffy bill costs $500, an outlay ultimately covered by higher prices for the consumer. Public transport could save $124 million a year if dollar coins were the norm.

If Al Gore really wants his vice-presidential task force on re-inventing government to reduce paperwork, the first paper to go should be the dollar bill.

And public opinion is beginning to take that view. A recent survey by the American Numismatic Association surprisingly found that 53 percent 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, represents Massachusetts, where the company that makes the special banknote paper is based. The 4.2 billion $1 bills the Treasury prints each year add up to an awful lot of business.

But no matter. The good news is that the indomitable Ms. Anthony is already making a quiet come-back.

In thousands of its offices across the country, the U.S. Postal Service has installed machines giving out dollar coins as change.

If you put in a $10 bill to buy a book of stamps, you receive in return not an avalanche of quarters, but four Susan Bs and two dimes.

The same is happening with the subway in Baltimore and the new subway system in St Louis, with no record of mutiny in the streets.

Who knows, another few years, and the United States will have caught up with everyone else.

Rupert Cornwell wrote this for the Independent in London.

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