Morris: Big Changes in Small Change
by Leo Morris
In this time of national nervousness, with pandemic fears and civil unrest widening our already vast political divide, I am just one of the little people waiting for the change our leaders have promised.
And they all have done it.
Sometimes, they just hint that a new direction is called for.
Donald Trump pledged to make the country great again. George W. Bush vowed to practice “compassionate conservatism,” and George H.W. Bush promised a “gentler, kinder nation.” Ronald Reagan said, “Let’s make American great again,” which has sort of a familiar ring to it.
But many of them just came right out and used the actual word.
Barack Obama offered up “Change we can believe in.” Bill Clinton gave us “For people, for a change.” Jimmy Carter said we need “A leader, for a change.”
Change, change, change.
But there is no change, absolutely none.
I discovered that in an abrupt way the other day when I saw a sign in front of the cash register at my favorite restaurant.
Due to the nationwide shortage of coins, it said (I paraphrase), customers who pay cash will have their bills rounded up to the nearest dollar. So, not only will I have to suffer the absence of pocket change, but I will pay more for my food. The little guy gets it again.
This shortage, like all the others, was brought about by COVID-19. We soldiered on when toilet paper and hand sanitizers weren’t to be found. We toughed it out through shortages of meat and eggs. We shrugged in stoic acceptance as supplies dwindled for flour, soups and pasta, lumber, bicycles, medical supplies and, for God’s sake, jigsaw puzzles.
And now we’ve lost our pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters? It’s the last straw, isn’t it, the final sign that civilization as we know it is coming to an end.
There isn’t really a “shortage,” the news stories patiently explain. There is simply a distribution problem for the $47 billion of coins in circulation because the pandemic has left fewer workers in the coin production and disbursement pipeline and fewer consumers out there passing the coins around.
The missing change is a special problem, the stories note, for cash-only businesses and the people who depend on them. Businesses like laundromats, which cannot afford the thousands of dollars it would take to retrofit their machines, hurting millions of little people who can’t afford their own washers and driers, which makes them even littler than me.
Wait, what? $47 billion? Billion? With so much loose change available, how can so much of it be missing in action? Just where are those absent little discs?
Coins were once a vital part of the nation’s economy, so important that people said things like “A penny saved is a penny earned” and “Don’t take any wooden nickels” and “A dime a dozen” and “Get your two-bit hide out of here.”
That was when having a bunch of coins jangling in pockets made people feel rich or at least moderately prepared for the day. It was possible to get a candy bar for a nickel, a first-class stamp for 6 cents, a newspaper or a movie ticket for a dime, a paperback book for a quarter, a gallon of gas for 30-some cents, a hamburger, fries and a shake for 45 cents, a six-pack of beer for 99 cents.
Using change back then taught me about the world of commerce. Things like inflation – gumballs from the machine cost a penny, then a nickel, then a quarter. And technology – the food vending machines first took coins, then were modified to accept $1 and $5 dollar bills, then debit or credit cards, then commands from smart phones.
And the speculative, win-or-lose nature of high finance. I have always, from the time I had my first job, had a change jar with which to fund my participation in nickel-dime-quarter poker games, breathtaking adventures in which as much as $20 or $30 could change hands in a single night.
I doubt I could find a game for such a piddly amount these days. And I don’t think they make any poker tables that would allow the players to sit 6 feet apart anyway. So, my change jar is still around, but gathering dust.
Which means I should probably let this whole issue go. As I said, I don’t know quite how the shortage came about, but I’ve got mine, so I’m covered. The last time I looked, my change jar had $107 in it.
It’s locked in a special room with my stash of extra toilet paper, soup and jigsaw puzzles, and I will guard it fiercely 24-7. Don’t get any ideas, because it’s mine, mine, mine, and you can’t have it.
That’s change you definitely can’t count on.
To coin a little phrase.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.