Not much use for a sackful of Sacagaweas

When the government gets around to re-designing the nickel or the dime, Iím figuring my face is going to be on it. Or at least itís a toss-up between me and Chef Boyardee. This isnít because Iím so terrific, but because the United States Treasury has severely lowered the bar for who is important enough to put on our currency.
    Itís the only explanation for the new Sacagawea (pronounced: "huh?") dollar coin.
    It should probably be a threshold qualification for anyone put on a coin that their name need not be followed by a biography, but hereís the story on our new pocket pal Sacagawea: She was a pregnant 17-year-old Shoshone Indian who was hired as an interpreter by Lewis and Clark for their exploratory expedition in 1804. Among other things, Lewis and Clark thought it would be helpful to have an Indian woman along with them to assure any hostile Indian tribes they might encounter that their mission was peaceful.
    In other words, Sacagawea was brought along as a representative of her minority group to show other minority groups just how enlightened her employers were, thus making her perhaps historyís first token.
    In Sacagaweaís biography from the United States Mint web page, they cite one of her accomplishments as enduring all the harsh travails of weather and trail while at the same time tending to her infant son. "Remarkable" is the word they use to describe her personal story.
    Sheesh, history is replete with people who have won the Congressional Medal of Honor, discovered cures for diseases and flew into outer space and our new golden dollar carries the image of a woman who showed Lewis and Clark which roots and berries were good for eatiní.
    Other than for flipping heads or tails, coins are pretty much a nuisance. The Sacagawea dollar is probably something the lobbyists for the folks who make those plastic, oval-shaped coin holders came up with. If folks turned in all the nickels, dimes, quarters Ė and oh yes, those useful pennies -- we could melt down enough metal to put the trolley tracks back in every city in America.
    Donít you just love it when you buy something for $10.67 and all you have is a twenty and the cashier asks if you have 67 cents? Like they discovered a new trick or something. I feel like telling them I do indeed have it, but Iím saving up for something special.
    Change has a way of collecting. Not collecting interest mind you, just collecting. At any given time, there is about $7 billion residing in cookie jars, piggy banks and Tupperware in most every house in America. There is not much else you can do with it, unless you want to carry it everywhere like some sort of cow bell and announce your arrival several hundred yards before reaching your destination.
    When the containers overflow, people turn their coins in for real, paper money. Itís how I financed beer purchases in college. But this isnít so easily done. My bank charges me $7 just to convert a five-pound satchel of loot into something that fits in my wallet.
    One of the corporate success stories of the nineties is a company called Coinstar. They place change-counting machines in supermarkets into which you can pour your change and get a slip redeemable at the checkout for paper money. The fee for this is 8.9 percent of the total. So if you pour in 50 bucksí worth, you get $45.55 back. Each Sacagawea dollar in a Coinstar machine is worth 91.1 cents. Honest Injun.
    The U.S. Treasuryís success with new products hasnít exactly been stellar (Exhibit One: The Susan B. Anthony dollar coin. Exhibit Two: The two-dollar bill) and it knows it. Thatís why it is spending $40 million on an advertising campaign to tell us how useful this new Sacagawea dollar is.
    When was the last time you spent a Dwight Eisenhower or Susan B. Anthony dollar?
    If they really thought this out, they would have dumped Sacagawea in favor of coins with Leonardo DiCaprio, Barbie and Mark McGwire. At least that way they could capture the middle school market and as a side-benefit some of those kids might learn to count.
    Maybe Iím wrong about this coin and it will prove to be hugely popular. Times change, and though I wouldnít give a plug nickel for the thing, maybe the Treasury is right on the money with it. But if Sacagawea goes the way of the dollar coins that have preceded her, I fully expect to get the edge over Chef Boyardee for the next opening.

April 4, 2000