The government is making the fourth attempt to move American spenders from dollar bills to dollar coins, after three flops that satisfied nobody but coin collectors. But these quite sensible efforts are destined to fail unless the Treasury finally does what it should have done long ago: Stop printing dollar bills.
There's no reason the United States shouldn't be using dollar coins right now. Canadian and Australian dollars are made of metal. So are the British pound sterling and the euro. That's because coins are vastly more durable than paper money. Though a coin costs about three times as much to produce as a bill, it will circulate for an average of 30 years, whereas a dollar bill lasts 22 months, and for the last few of those, has all the charm of a grimy, germy handkerchief. In 2002, the United States General Accounting Office (now called the Government Accountability Office)* said we'd save $500 million a year in production costs if we shifted to coins; another GAO document puts the savings even higher, at $747.5 million. The catch is, people have to use them. Surveys suggest that the public prefers keeping the bill, by margins that vary widely from poll to poll, but the chief hold-up is habit. Shoppers won't use dollar coins till they see businesses taking them; businesses won't use them until banks give them out routinely; and the banks aren't going to invest in infrastructure changes, like new coin-counting machines, until they see the public using the coins. Everyone's waiting for someone else to move first.
Coins would be accepted in a matter of months, maybe weeks, if Congress phased out the dollar bill. (The Treasury does not set policy on these matters, merely carrying out congressional orders.) Instead, the Treasury just keeps stamping out coins, asking us politely to use them.
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