Sunday, April 01, 2012

Requiescat in pace

Electricity can be dangerous: My nephew tried to stick a penny into a plug. Whoever said a penny doesn't go far didn't see him shoot across that floor. I told him he was grounded.”
Tim Allen

Apparently it was NDP MP Pat Martin’s campaign – scrap the penny; it’s nothing but a nuisance! Pundits are saying it was a great gift to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, offering a neat diversion from less palatable items in the budget. An article I read equated the demise of the penny with the beginning of the end for the Canadian economic system.
A friend writes on Facebook that eliminating the penny will wipe out her entire pension plan, residing as it does in a small peanut butter jar under the bed.
I simply don’t get it. How can you have a decimal system of currency in which the basic unit is “the cent,” and have no physical form of that unit? I expect one will still be able to write cheques for, say, seventy-five dollars and twenty-nine cents and when the recipient deposits it, $75.29 will be added to that person’s bank balance. But it will be impossible to pay in cash exactly what’s owed at the local hardware store if the total doesn’t end in 5 or 0.
Which leads logically to the question: why stop there? Why make the nickel the new, basic physical currency unit? Why not the dime? or the quarter? or the looney? I guess the assumption is that nothing can be had for a penny these days anyway (gumballs used to sell for a penny) so why have such a tiny unit of currency? What, I ask you, does a nickel buy?!? Merchants are advised to round off to the nearest nickel, why not to the nearest dime, or to the nearest quarter, or to the nearest dollar, for that matter? Psychologically, I’d propose that we no longer think of prices below a dollar, unless we’re six years old or younger.
What is the smallest coin on the sidewalk that can cause you to stop, stoop, pick up and pocket? Assuming that you’re still young enough and fit enough to get down there without risking not getting up again, and assuming no one is watching, do you bend down to pick up a lost penny? nickel? dime? quarter? looney? Granted, this says as much about you as it does about the value of our coins, but if you’re changing in this regard, it’s probably economically prophetic.
What troubles me most is the effect on our literature and, in turn, our culture in which the lowly penny is the ubiquitous stand-in for all things monetary. Starting with Ben Franklin’s “A penny saved is a penny earned,” it’s not hard to find a virtual plethora of quotations referring to the penny. I guess we’ll have to teach our kids in future what this “penny” was, and why it was so much used as a figure of speech, a synecdoche if your high school English still haunts you.
I guess I shouldn’t be a curmudgeon about this; the English finally did away with that cumbersome system of “ha’pennies and shillings and half-crowns etc. etc. with which their literature is still replete and they survived . . .
. . . more or less.

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