Over the years, the fiscal years that is, I have developed what might be loosely described as the orthopedic theory of inflation. How much money has to drop before people are willing to bend over and pick it up?
This has been a rather slowly rising economic indicator. On the whole, even people who have money to burn, will stoop to repossess the change that falls out of their hands. The rich may conspicuously consume, but only the profligate will leave loose change on the ground.
The value of money, after all, is ingrained in us from our earliest lemonade-stand days. It seems wrong to pass an errant coin in the street.
But gradually, I have come to observe the proliferation of unlucky pennies. A growing number of Americans will no longer stoop for Abe Lincoln.
Time and again, I have watched people eyeing a penny that fell between the cracks of their fingers. I have seen them contemplating whether the trip to the floor was worth the price tag. Balancing the cost to the knee joints with the profit to the wallet. And I have concluded that even people who spend their days chasing a buck are now walking away from a penny.
What my orthopedic indicator registers is not only our deteriorating bodies but the disintegrating value of the lowliest coin. The penny is no longer currency. It's a kind of monetary lint that accumulates in your pocket.
These days, cashiers are likely to keep small dishes of them, like mints, next to the registers, so that customers without the right change can help themselves. Banks look at pennies with disdain as if it's beneath them to accept such a deposit. Even children are reluctant to waste their valuable time rolling up pennies at this subminimum wage. They don't even want to pitch the things.
All this leads us to the bill that went through Senate Banking Committee hearings last week. It asks the Treasury Department to study whether the dollar bill should become a dollar coin -- this time bearing the face of Christopher Columbus rather than Susan B. Anthony -- and whether the penny should be phased out and cash sales rounded off to the nearest nickel.
When the penny question was put before the American people in a poll commissioned by "Americans for Common Cents" (groan) everybody reached for their wallets. Americans worried that prices wouldn't be rounded off, they'd be rounded "up."
They reacted as if the penny itself had some magical control over inflation when it's just another victim. In the past decade nine countries have ditched their lowest coin. The penny languishes on our bureau tops because its now worth one-seventh of its original value. It's not only been the victim of inflation but of reverse alchemy: It's gone from copper to zinc.
The survey also recorded that the public thinks the penny is "a historical example of thrift and resourcefulness." But if that's true, the penny belongs in a museum, not a pocket.
In the era when savings-and-loan banks are going belly up, and we're all going to pay more than $2,000 apiece for the imprudence of the owners, the very word "thrift" has gotten a shady reputation. When we're bailing out megabanks, it's a little late to be pinching pennies.
We'd be better off melting them into a memorial for the Unknown Unregulated Loan Officer.
The fiscal reality is that the only value of the incredible shrinking penny is for making change. It may be penny wise and politically foolish to say so, but the dollar bill should become a coin and the penny should become a collector's item.
I mean when it's raining pennies from heaven and people are walking around the puddles, you know it's time to change the change.