Barber, who is African-American, uses the penny as a teaching tool. “Look at a penny. You pick up a handful of pennies and you’ll see the complete color spectrum. From a bright new shiny mint, to jet black pennies or moldy pennies. Pennies reflect the condition of mankind,” he says. “I’ll say, ‘What is the value of this penny?’ They all say, ‘One cent.’ And then I say, ‘Does the color of the penny make any difference? Does the condition of the penny make any difference? No, it’s still one cent.’ ”
Barber is dismayed by anti-penny advocates. “When I hear groups saying they want to get rid of the penny, to me it’s like, would we as a nation want to get rid of the Declaration of Independence? Or the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial?” No, indeed. The penny, after all, is at the heart of America’s promise of a better life. “My father, he put seven out of nine of us through college. His philosophy with us was, ‘Take care of the pennies; the dollars will take care of themselves.’ ”
In English entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, Barber has found an unlikely ideological ally. One would think the Virgin founder, whose net worth exceeds $2 billion, would spare hardly a thought for the humble penny. But in June, Branson, in conjunction with Americans for Common Cents and — wait for it — none other than “performer and rapper” Kevin Federline, appeared in Times Square for his “Save the Penny” campaign. (“I feel good about the penny!” shouted Mr. Britney Spears.) Of course, the campaign also squares neatly with Virgin Mobile’s “Penny Texting” plan (1000 text messages for $9.99 a month), but as it rolled on, pennies were collected and donated to charity.
Safe for now
In the meantime, the fight rages on. Does Jeff Gore think he’ll live to see the day when we’re finally free of the tyranny of the penny? K-Fed’s formidable opposition notwithstanding, he thinks this is a fight he can win.
“If the half penny was retired at the correct time, then that means we should have retired the penny something like 60 or 70 years ago! It’s really just gonna get more and more ridiculous,” he says. “The fact that vending machines don’t take them means that the vending-machine companies don’t want the pennies. Because they’re a pain to deal with! A lot of these things are just symptoms of the penny not being worth using. The take-a-penny, leave-a-penny jars? I was at a Quizno’s this summer, and there was something like a dollar twenty in there. This is surely indicative of something!”
For now, however, it’s a moot point. The penny’s not going anywhere for at least a couple years. The bicentenary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth is coming up in 2009, and according to the Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2005, which was signed into law last year by George W. Bush, the penny will be redesigned that year: four special commemorative coins, picturing scenes from the Great Emancipator’s life on the obverse; the reverse, meanwhile, will no longer show the Lincoln Memorial, but instead “shall bear an image emblematic of President Lincoln’s preservation of the United States of America as a single and united country.” United? Well, at least we agree on quarters and dimes.