Small change and mysterious money
I put money in the coffee machine at work and, as part of the change, the machine kicked out one of those 1973 Canadian quarters commemorating the 100th anniversary of the North-West Mounted Police (later the RCMP).
I remember that design well - a Mountie on a horse with a pennant on a pike. It was one of the first quarters I can remember that deviated from the then-standard caribou design. (Except, of course, for the 1967 centennial set of Canadian animal coins designed by artist Alex Colville, still a beautiful example of coinage.)
Now, however, it seems that new coins - especially quarters - pop up every week or so.
Producing them apparently costs nothing - or, at least, nothing I or anyone else is allowed to know.
Take the Royal Canadian Mint’s plan for Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017.
The mint launched a healthy campaign to pick new coin designs. There’s a glossy brochure, delivered by direct mail, to let Canadians make their choice from 25 already-drafted designs, including a snowman holding a hockey stick, an astronaut with the Canadarm in the background, etc. There was a voting website, and on and on.
I was curious, so I wrote to the Mint: “I was wondering if I could get a cost breakdown for the Mint’s recent ‘ Vote for Your Favourite Designs’ campaign for 2017 coins. (That would include such things as any costs for initial designs, the direct mail campaign, website design, etc.)”
The Mint wrote back - or, at least, the senior manager of communications, Alex Reeves, did: “The detailed costs of the ‘My Canada, My Inspiration’ coin design contest are commercially sensitive information which cannot be disclosed. I can however confirm that this program is self-funding, at no cost to taxpayers, through the revenues our Canada 150 circulation coins will generate.”
How does that work? Here’s Reeves again: “Since the Mint sells circulation coins to the Government of Canada at cost, which is always less than their face value, the difference between what the government pays for a coin and the face value at which it is sold to banks and businesses generates significant positive revenues for the government. As such, the cost of promoting and executing commemorative circulation coin programs like ‘My Canada, My Inspiration’ represent only a fraction of the revenues generated by their sale.”
That is a bit of an existential mind-bend. You probably thought that a currency was a government-issued medium of exchange; turns out it’s simply a product up-sold for government revenue.
Surely, though, there must be additional costs for our everchanging coinage, if for no other reason than that detailed coin dies have to be made.
I asked if there was “a ballpark cost for the creation, design, engraving and production of new dies, etc., for example, for a new quarter.”
But if there is, and where that cost lands, isn’t going to be explained by the Mint.
“Finally, we can’t disclose the cost of producing any of our circulating denominations as we compete with other mints for international circulation coin contracts,” Reeves wrote. Sigh. The Mountie quarter? It’s not even my favourite coffee-machine quarter; the same machine gifted me a silver 1963 quarter that’s apparently worth five dollars for the silver content alone.
And the Colville coins? Even back in 1967, the government was willing to reveal it paid Colville $2,500 for the winning design.
Look how far we’ve come.
You probably thought that a currency was a government-issued medium of exchange; turns out it’s simply a product up-sold for government revenue.