A couple of months ago, I was checking out in David's (a local whole-foods type market)--I think just a box of falafel mix, so I paid cash--and the rather young cashier, after examining the coins carefully, asked, "Are you sure you want to use these?" After some contemplation, I politely answered, "Yes," foregoing the more elaborate response I was thinking: Yes, I'm sure I want to use coins that will likely be here when you and I are dead and gone, when the government that issued them is nothing more than a historical memory, rather than paper dollars that will be out of circulation in a month or two. In a store that dutifully asks whether I want a bag or not, do I really need to explain my preference for currency that will never have to be thrown away, and only replaced at the rate the coins are lost or collected? Her question was a good one--only the referent was misplaced. Ask it instead of every person who comes in using $1-bills.
The real travesty is that we even have paper dollars left in circulation. They have only two things going for them--habit, and the fact that they don't make noise in your pocket. Dollar coins, on the other hand, are much easier to use in machines and infinitely more durable. I don't know or care how the cost of initial production compares--once you factor in the rate of deterioration, it's a no-brainer which is more economical and environmentally friendly in the long term.
When I first started using dollar coins, probably a couple of years ago, the biggest problem was finding them. Initially I was able to get them from the bank in the building where I worked, but that supply dried up quickly. They didn't actually maintain a stock of dollar coins--they just collected in rolls whatever they were unfortunate enough to receive, which apparently happened at a rate slower than I was using them. I tried a couple of other banks that I could walk to on my lunch break and the bank we belonged to near home--same story. Someone I knew could get them from her bank; I tried one of their branches, and apparently it was only certain locations that had them. Eventually, I got so frustrated that I wrote my senator, who happened to be the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, which had sponsored the bill to issue Sacagawea dollars. I asked how it made any sense to have dollar coins in circulation if they could not be readily obtained by those who wanted to use them, and what I could do as a citizen-advocate to promote their use.
To my surprise, it didn't take very long to get a meaningful response. A cover letter came back from the senator's office, with an attached response from the deputy director of the U. S. Mint. He acknowledged the problem and even cited a recent GAO study that had investigated the issue. He also pointed out that a new bill had been passed, to start a program that would hopefully improve the availability and circulation of dollar coins. Starting the following year (2007), new dollar coins would be issued with pictures of deceased U. S. Presidents, in chronological order, at a rate of four per year until the list is complete. Based on the success of the state quarters program, the hope was that this would increase activity.
I have no idea whether the program is increasing actual usage of the coins in any way. Personally, I have never received a dollar coin as change (though I must admit, the opportunity is limited, since I try to make sure I never get back $1-bills as change), and I don't think Julie has either. It has certainly improved availability at banks, which is something anyway. At least now I have no problem keeping a supply onhand, and like a modern-day Johnny Dollarseed, I do what I can to spend them into circulation. I suspect that for the most part they are either socked away by collectors or quickly taken back to banks, to get them out of circulation. But I'm doing my part, including turning in paper dollars to the bank whenever possible.
As far as I'm concerned, there are only two negatives associated with using dollar coins. It seems like most vending machines are now set up to receive them as payment, but in my limited experience change and token machines are not. So if you need quarters or arcade tokens, a dollar coin may not be of much use. The bigger problem is the noise they make in your pockets. This is especially an issue for me, since I try to carry a supply, so I never have to receive $1-bills as change. I suppose I should revel in the sound they make, but I really don't like making noise when I walk. I would like to have a belt dispenser, but so far I haven't found any designed to fit them. I thought about getting one of those plastic squeeze change purses, but settled on wrapping them in a piece of rag. It does the trick, with the added benefit of winning sympathy points whenever I have to pull it out and unwrap them to pay somebody.
I read that GAO report, by the way. The overriding message was that no successful implementation of such a program has ever established dual usage. They always phased out the paper dollars altogether. If you give people a choice, they'll tend to stick with what's familiar, regardless of the relative advantages. Our government is not yet prepared to take that kind of decisive step, probably because it's so reluctant to get rid of anything. We add, but we do not take away. And surely someone's budget would be slated for cutbacks if we actually scrapped the $1-bill. My favorite example that highlights this mentality, also from the GAO report, is what became of the advertising campaign to improve circulation of Sacagawea dollars. Someone came up with a great idea for a commercial, showing someone trying unsuccessfully to feed a tattered paper dollar into a vending machine, while someone else made a quick and easy purchase by depositing a dollar coin. It was never used, however, because the Mint and Engraving & Printing are both part of the same government agency, and it was deemed inappropriate to advertise one by reflecting negatively on the other.
So, I assume that when this program is completed, things will go right back to the way they were. (Maybe I should start hoarding now.) But for the next few years, anyway, I'll enjoy the easier access. None of this has much to do with anything, though of course I can always find a relevant Simpsons quote. When Homer is trying to help out Comic Book Guy after his heart attack, he takes him to Moe's:
Homer: Now, when you've got a bum ticker like we do, you need all the friends you can get. And Moe's is the friendliest place in the rum district.
[opens the door. Inside, Moe aims his shotgun at a bar patron.]
Moe: Get out, and take your Sacagawea dollars with you. I'll give you 'til three.
[cocks gun. The man leaves.] One! [fires]