Saturday, January 9, 2010

Penny Jar Economics

The penny jar as an economic phenomenon has gained a presence (at least since I began taking notice) in a great number of shops and markets, usually where the employees have some control over their check-out counters. The vessel itself varies depending on the character of the space. The old Saxapahaw General Store used the cut off bottom of a Coke cup; now we have graduated to a small porcelain plate, though we shan't get above ourselves too much. Some clever folks, to explain the procedure, attach to their jars the phrase, "Have a penny, leave a penny, need a penny, take a penny." Implicit in these rules is a sense of fairness--even exchange based on need and avoiding overuse--but a discerning sort might sense a hint of socialism underlying in the message. Because it reveals underlying economic philosophy, and to an extent overall worldview, the penny jar--pedestrian by appearance and function--can take on real anthropological import.

To an extent, why the jar is introduced to the counter in the first place, and how it gets used thereafter, speaks to the culture the employees create in their spaces. At its best, the penny vessel improves customer service. With all due respect to the humble penny, its size to worth ratio is too large, and it can't be cycled into vending machines or parking meters. Customers usually feel well-considered when cashiers supplement their payments with the odd change due and return all silver coins in a tidy palmful. Of course, in a more self-serving organization, employees use the penny jar to keep from having to replace the change in their cash boxes. And where folks are passive, they ignore the jar altogether, letting customers fend for themselves to find the advantage of using the jar.

I realize that making such judgments about the cashier's role in the penny jar itself reveals a bit of a bias, and a few customers' reactions let me know of this as a subjective point of view. When I use pennies to alter a customer's transaction, sometimes he will hastily dig into his pockets in search of replacements for the coins I have used on his behalf; he would not have employed the jar on his own, even if it meant breaking a twenty into a hundred tiny splinters or going to his car for more change. This customer is the isolationist. He prefers not to take anything from a neighbor that will place him in the neighbor's debt. He is neither borrower nor lender; he takes responsibility for himself, and he expects others to do the same. When the isolationist's change is less than a nickel, he always waits for it and takes it with him, exercising his liberty to opt out of our system.

Nearly opposite the isolationist is the leaner, who never lends, always borrows, and who in extreme cases may even take pennies unrelated to his purchase. The leaner creates extreme agitation in any cashier with a heightened sense for justice. Arwen, for example, the best steward of the penny jar and also, to our benefit, the person most likely to comment on the fairness or injustice of any situation (even if it comes at a personal cost to her), cannot abide abuse of the penny jar and polices it by removing the vessel from the view of any customer who has demonstrated a tendency toward this behavior. She's served as a sort of conscience for our system, safeguarding its use for the folks who operate honestly.

Somewhere between leaning and isolating fall the folks who participate in giving and taking from the jar. Some tortured souls suffer from guilty consciences, taking pennies only while promising to return them later, or while reminding the cashier of the many instances of generous donation to the kitty. Others complicate matters with a distaste for all non-paper currency, tossing willy-nilly all change into the vessel. The most balanced of citizens can take and give freely, without concern for potential judgment from behind the counter. Not surprisingly, no matter the twinges of conscience, the give-and-takers usually base their final decisions on that hallmark of American culture--pragmatism.

Perhaps you've thought of this, but the penny jar depends entirely on folks using cash for their transactions, and its irrelevance for the credit card user reveals a bit of ill health into which we have fallen as a card-wielding culture. I am chief among sinners here, but I have come to think that when we use credit or debit, we short circuit the effects of currency (think electricity here) by sending our funds through a third party whose imbalanced scales lift money out of the organization with whom we are actually interacting. It's not a clean relationship, and I have resolved in 2010 to begin to heal my own broken transactions by joining my fellow participants in the penny jar model of economic exchange.

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