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MIT physicist leads effort to scrap the penny

Finds himself at center of passionate debate about coin

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Jeff Gore, a physicist at MIT who is a national spokesman for eliminating the penny, calls the diminutive coin “a big, horrible waste of time.’’

Ever since he was in college, Jeff Gore can recall being annoyed by the penny. Annoyed that it can’t buy anything. Annoyed that it gums up lines as customers fish for pennies. Annoyed that he only gets more of them when he buys something.

“It’s a big, horrible waste of time,’’ says Gore, a physicist at MIT.

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Now Gore, who has become an unlikely national spokesman for efforts to eliminate the penny, is gaining fresh hope that the United States might finally dump the coin. Canada recently announced it would get rid of its one-cent piece by the end of the year even as the US Mint reported it is losing more money than ever to produce the coin.

It now costs 2.41 cents to mint a penny, up from .97 cent in 2005, mostly because of the surging cost of metals. At the same time, the penny is worth less because of inflation - so little that many coffee shops, restaurants, and convenience stores put out “Take a penny, leave a penny’’ dishes by cash registers.

“It’s basically useless,’’ said François Velde, a senior economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, who has written several papers on small change. “In everyday life, we don’t need the penny.’’

But many Americans have a sentimental attachment to the coin. The English language is filled with sayings like “A penny for your thoughts’’ and “A penny saved is a penny earned.’’ And polls show most Americans favor keeping the penny.

There’s also a lobbying group to thwart efforts to pinch the penny: Americans for Common Cents. The group is partly funded by Jarden Corp., which received about $48 million from the US Treasury last fiscal year for copper-plated zinc blanks used to make the penny.

Mark Weller, the Washington lawyer who represents the group, argues there are a raft of reasons for keeping the penny, from the coin’s popularity to penny fund-raising drives. Eliminating the penny could spur inflation, Weller added, because many companies could round prices up to the nearest nickel, although others, including Velde, said it would probably have little inflationary impact.

Instead of eliminating the coin, Weller said the US Mint should find ways to reduce the cost of making the coin, such as using cheaper metals and cutting overhead. He noted the penny is not the only coin for which the cost of manufacturing exceeds its value: It costs 11.2 cents to mint a nickel.

“We have to make our coins less expensively,’’ Weller said.

By contrast, there is no organized lobby to scrap the penny - just passionate individuals like Gore.

Gore, 34, first attracted media attention a decade ago, when, as a graduate student at the University of California, he posted on his website a playful estimate of how much the penny costs Americans in wasted time. His figure: $5 billion a year, assuming it takes 2.5 additional seconds for every cash transaction involving pennies and Americans’ time is worth $15 per hour.

Now an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gore maintains the website, “Citizens for Retiring the Penny,’’ which features a spinning copper-colored coin and the caption: “Isn’t it annoying?’’ He has been interviewed by everyone from “60 Minutes’’ to comedian Stephen Colbert.

“What about Lincoln, sir? How is this in any way different than going back and reassassinating Abraham Lincoln?’’ Colbert demanded on his cable television show four years ago, alluding to Abraham Lincoln’s face on one side the penny and the Lincoln Memorial on the other. “You might as well shoot him in the head with a penny.’’

“The $5 bill will still feature Lincoln,’’ Gore responded.

“Until YOU get to it,’’ Colbert shot back.

While on “The Colbert Report,’’ Gore endorsed Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential bid because Obama said he would consider eliminating the penny. “As a spokesperson for efforts to retire the penny, I couldn’t do anything else,’’ Gore said.

But since arriving in the White House, Obama has disappointed Gore by sidestepping the issue. Instead of pushing to eliminate the penny, the Obama administration has proposed giving the Treasury secretary more authority to change the weights and compositions of coins to cut production costs.

“The Obama Administration, along with Congress and other stakeholders, continues to review this issue and the best way to address it,’’ Treasury spokesman Matthew Anderson said. Anderson declined to say whether the administration was specifically considering phasing out the penny.

“I’m disappointed, but not despondent,’’ Gore said. “There’s been a lot of positive coverage of the move by Canada. Maybe this is going to be the little nudge President Obama needs.’’

Unlike professional lobbyists, Gore does not have a lot of time to contact members of Congress to promote the issue. He’s busy teaching classes and doing research. Gore and his colleagues, studying yeast, recently found tantalizing signs of when a population of organisms is on the verge of collapse - research that could help biologists spot trouble for groups of larger living things.

“My job is a little bit demanding,’’ he said.

Gore did take time to talk to a Globe reporter, while eating spicy chicken and rice from a food truck parked near MIT. The food truck, CF Luncheon Wagon, lists all its prices in nickels, including tax, so no pennies were needed.

Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.
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