Time to retire General Washington

Posted: Jun 27, 2003 12:00 AM

Susan B. Anthony dedicated most of her adult life to helping women win the right to vote. But she lost her biggest election by a landslide when she went up against the Father of Our Country.

People hated the Susan B. Anthony dollar, which was rolled out in 1979. One reason is that it was about the same size and shape as a quarter. It was too easy to confuse the coins. Almost everyone preferred George Washington, whose image adorns both the quarter and the paper dollar.

So the U.S. Mint went back to the drawing board. In 2000 it introduced the Sacagawea coin. While it’s the same diameter as a quarter, the Mint says there should be no confusion between the coins: “The use of a gold-colored alloy, the smooth edge and the wider border all ensure the Golden Dollar coin is easily distinguishable from other coins.”

It was introduced with much fanfare, including newspaper and television ad campaigns. But when was the last time you saw one, let alone bought a cup of coffee with one? George Washington turned down an offer to become king of America, but without a doubt he’s the king of dollar currencies.

But with all due respect to the man who could not tell a lie, it’s time to retire the one dollar bill. Supporters of smaller, more efficient government should push for the Sacagawea coin to become the only dollar currency.

It’s a simple matter of economics. Look in your pocket. Chances are you’ll find coins from five, 10, even 20 years ago. That’s because the average coin lasts for 30 years, while the average bill lasts 22 months.

In other words, during the lifetime of a dollar coin, we’ll have to manufacture 16 one-dollar bills to do the same job. It costs about eight cents to mint a coin, and four cents to print a bill. So it costs 60 cents more to keep a dollar bill in circulation than it costs to keep a coin in circulation. Multiply that 60 cents times the billions of dollar bills in circulation, and you’re talking real money. So much money, in fact, that in 2000, the General Accounting Office estimated the government could save $522.2 million per year by getting rid of dollar bills.

It won’t happen as long as the dollar bill remains in circulation. Because of force of habit, Americans will continue to prefer the paper dollar as long as it’s around. But consumers do change their minds when they learn about the possible savings.

For example, a few years ago a Gallup Poll found that 64 percent would oppose a government decision to halt production of the dollar bill and replace it with a dollar coin. However, when informed that doing so would save hundreds of millions of dollars per year, 54 percent said they would favor the change.
 None of this is designed to disrespect George Washington. Even if the dollar bill went away, he’d still get wide currency exposure, because he still has his head on the quarter. Plus, it’s not set in stone that Sacagawea has to remain on the dollar coin for all time. Perhaps, in years to come, a new dollar coin could be minted. I’d recommend Washington crossing the Delaware on the back of it.

Retiring the single would also create a more prominent role for the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. He’s been on the two dollar bill for decades. But the man who drafted the Declaration of Independence doesn’t really get his just desserts. When was the last time you spent a two dollar bill? Without a dollar bill, retailers would have an empty space in their cash drawers, and the two dollar bill would expand its circulation to fill that slot.

In addition, every time money is redesigned, collectors squirrel away a certain amount of it. Consider the new state quarters. Millions of people are collecting them and thus taking them out of circulation. If people stocked up on the soon-to-be obsolete dollar bills, that would serve as an interest-free loan to the government.

Just as Washington once stepped aside willingly, the Washington dollar should, as well. He’ll remain first in our hearts, but it’s time for the golden dollar to shine.