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A Penny For Our Thoughts

The details of the first budget of Stephen Harper’s Conservative majority government were released last week, and one item seemed to be on the minds and the lips of nearly every observer who doesn’t work in accounting at the CBC. I’m referring, of course, to the imminent elimination of the penny from the Royal Canadian Mint’s coinage production. Considering that the wholesale Conservative project of remaking Canada into something quite unlike itself that continues apace, it’s surprising that pulling the plug on an element of the currency that is worth almost literally nothing would even register.

Music for your money?

And yet it has, strangely. We can easily find celebrations, lamentations, jokes, accusations of tactics of distraction, and even Twitter tribute accounts on the subject.  There are compelling underlying economic reasons to drop the 1¢ coin (it does cost more than it is literally worth to produce, to start with) as well as equally compelling reasons to doubt that it will ultimately save ordinary Canadians much coin (are the Harper Conservatives really so blindly pro-business that they believe that profit-driven capitalists will choose to round prices down rather than up?). But I want to leave aside the meat of the arguments for and against the penny here, and think about what its presence – and impending absence – means in our society and culture.

For one, the casual striking out of the penny coin is a reminder of how direct government’s role can be in your everyday life. To some extent, corporate capitalism’s largely unchallenged hegemony over our daily economic existences has moderated visible governmental control over our finances (maybe not necessarily for the best, contra libertarianism). But the elimination of the penny, much like the TARP bailouts in the U.S. a few years ago, are potent signals from those really holding the purse strings.

But the truth is that the lingering fondness for and/or irritation with the penny is something more personal and intimate. Few objects are handled so regularly and thoughtlessly, and yet kept so close and so secure in the daily life of a modern citizen as is legal tender. We don’t just spend pennies or save them, although we do plenty of that (probably more of the latter, lest we become the dreaded Grocery Line Change Purse Picker). We jam them in our jeans, pick them up off the ground, and scratch our dead-hope lotto tickets with them (although quarters are better suited). We slide them into charity collection containers at fast foods restaurant to assuage our liberal philanthropic guilt while simultaneously being subtly manipulated out of our social expectations of tipping the serving staff. We whip them at pigeons in absent-minded cruelty (I’m not the only one who does that, right? Right?)

But perhaps that Twitterer baffled by her own sense of personal identification with the penny is onto something. Pennies are merely inanimate objects and not even valuable ones, and they pass in and out of our possession with an ease that no other objects (even the other, more valuable forms of currency) can boast. They are eternal nomads in a highly sedentary world, transitory and unsettled in a settled state of social affairs.

By the government’s own admission, the mandated halt on production will not keep the coin from being circulated. The penny cannot be willed away; it will endure with mercurial certainty. In a culture that, as previously established, reifies the underdog beyond any reasonably measure, the Canadian penny is now especially an underdog both reified and unreasonable. In a changing world where certainties rarely endure too long, the penny will survive despite official institutional scorn and devaluation, as we ourselves hope to survive when faced with the same forces.

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