Sunday, February 4, 2007

Couch Cushions: The Resting Place of America's History

In a 2006 episode of the NBC late night talk show The Tonight Show in which comedian Jay Leno conducted a segment titled Americana, one of his recurrent comedic numbers called “Jay Walking” in which he received the following answers while conducting random interviews on American history in the Universal Studios Hollywood Theme Park. Q: “What day was Independence Day? What year?” A: “July 4, 1864.” Q: “How many justices on the Supreme Court” A: “12.” Q: “What President was named ‘Tricky Dick’?” A: “Bill Clinton.” These question and answer segments have become not only humorous exchanges but also regular examples of the lack of basic knowledge that Americans have about their country and its beginnings. Americans’ historical apathy is what the United States Mint is hoping to combat beginning February 15, 2007 with the first distribution of the Presidential $1 Coin Program. Will the introduction of coins exalting past Presidents remedy the deficiency in public knowledge or will the former heads of state be regulated to jars, drawers, and couch cushions?

The Presidential $1 Coin Program is a result of the Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2005. The law stipulates that coins with a monetary value of one dollar will be issued honoring the deceased presidents of America in the order in which they served beginning with George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. The mint will release four coins a year through 2016. Following the year 2016 the release dates of the coins will vary. This is due to the requirement within the Act that the President must be deceased for two years before his (or her) likeness is to be placed on a coin. US-Coin-Values-Advior reports that by 2014 both President Jimmy Carter and President George H. W. Bush will turn 90 years old and President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush will be 68. For those presidents who are elected in 2008, 2012, and 2016 there will have to be further legislation passed to determine the proper dates of their immortalization.

The new coins will be strikingly different in appearance than other commemorative coins. The photograph on the right illustrates the larger images placed in the center of the coin regulating the phrase “E Pluribus Unum” or the more familiar “In God We Trust” to the edges of the coin, a technique that US-Coin reveals has not been used since 1933. An image of the Statue of Liberty will be placed on the back. In addition to the distinctive look of the coins and scheduled releases, the program act requires that there be a national outreach program to publicize the release of the coins. A mailer sent out by the United States Mint confirms that the purpose for the introduction of the Presidential $1 Coin Program is to promote collection of the coins and stimulate interest in American history. The decision to initiate the Presidential Coin program is based on the Mint’s previous success with the 50 State Quarters Program. The Mint claims this program increased circulation and collection of quarters.

Despite the best wishes of the United States Mint to inspire national pride of the people, there still remains the fact that many individuals are opposed to a dollar coin. According to an article provided to Discover by Alan Burdick titled “The Math of…Pocket Change,” many people have a hard time accepting more coinage as part of their monetary transactions. In the article Burdick states that $10.5 billion in change simply sits around people’s homes. “80 percent of adults say they save loose change rather than try to spend it.” Even though this article was published in 2003, I believe that the information still holds true today. The government’s main point of advocacy for the introduction of the Presidential Coin Program is the 50 State Quarters Program. The original 50 State Program had been in progress for over four years at the release of the article, demonstrating that despite the governmental claims of success, the Quarters Program was not making a significant difference in the population’s increased use of coins. In 2003, the Coinstar National Currency Poll cited in Burdick’s article that, people were not treasuring their quarters by using them for legal tender, but instead to scratch off lottery tickets, for magic tricks, steady table legs, or makeshift tools.

It is not only citizens of America that are resistant to the adoption of the new dollar coin. Businesses are also resistant. According to US-Coin, retail industries would be required to modify their cash registers. As the image on the left demonstrates, they are not equipped to handle a significant influx of dollar coins. This became evident with the introduction of the Sacagawea dollar in 2000 on the lower right. However, the cost to modify cash registers proved to be too great, resulting in retailers refusing to adapt the then, diminishing the use of the dollar coin. The government hopes that the new Presidential coins will not fall to the fate of the Sacagawea dollars, but if the expenditure remains the same, and it will, many venders will continue to stand their ground and decline to accept the money when they can keep the original registers already equipped to handle paper bills.

Jay Leno’s “Jay Walking” pieces have emphasized that America’s education about its foundations is inadequate. The government has awoken to the disparity of knowledge. However, its strategy for raising America’s IQ is not the most effective method considering the cost that retailers would have to bear to make it work. The strongest argument against the Presidential Coin is Americans’ aversion to using coins. Presidents and history will end up between the cushions of couches across America despite the outreach program’s desire to increase the interest in usage presented in the Presidential $1 Coin Act.

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