Last year Congress passed legislation that will have a long-term impact on our pocket change. The law authorized a new series of quarters, to be released over 11 years, with at least 56 different designs featuring national parks or sites.
By now we are experiencing new coin fatigue: authorization of the national parks quarter series attracted very little mainstream attention, while many coin collectors disapproved of it as too much of a good thing.
These critics have a point. This year we have even more coin programs featuring rotating designs. For Lincoln’s 200th birthday, four different reverse (tails) designs were produced for the penny. American Indians will be honored with a new series of dollar coins. And six quarters will be issued featuring the District of Columbia as well as the territories of Guam, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands.
As a result of all this, this year we will have more coin series with rotating designs than series with permanent designs. We may find ourselves thankful for the constancy of the Jefferson nickel, the Roosevelt dime and the Kennedy half-dollar, which is no longer even issued for circulation.
While it may seem as if the Mint is to blame for all this, the problem really lies with Congress. The issuing of new coins, including the specific details on each coin’s design, is mandated by legislation. These coins can be lucrative for the government: the Mint estimated that the 50 State Quarters Program earned nearly $3 billion in seigniorage (that is, the difference between the face value of a coin and the cost to mint it).
Coins are a medium of exchange. They should be relatively standard, universally identifiable units of money. On a deeper level, coins are also representations of the country that issues them. Our currency has become a shifting, unidentifiable mess that tries to recognize everything and ends up symbolizing nothing.
The best remedy would simply be to overhaul all our standard coin designs. Redesign each denomination across the board, and leave the new designs in place for at least a decade. These redesigned coins should be contemporary in nature but timeless in theme, and unmistakable objects of art.
It was once common to portray Liberty, personified in female form, on our coins. Imagine the return of this figure, grown wiser and reflective after her absence, evoking confidence that our nation will endure any hardship and meet any challenge. Then, maybe our coins will once again become respected national symbols.Michael Zielinski is the creator of CoinNetwork.com, a social network for coin collectors.