The Coin of the Realm

If there is such a thing as a free lunch, who pays for it?

For decades, the United States Treasury Department and the U. S. mint have been trying to get Americans to use one-dollar coins in place of one-dollar bills.  It costs twice as much to mint a dollar coin as to print a bill, but the coins last 15 times longer.  The economic advantages are self-evident.

The British love their one-pound coins.  But for some reason, Americans don’t want to give up their bills.  So when the treasury introduced the George Washington one-dollar coin in 2007, they offered an incentive program, making it possible to go online and order a roll of coins – 40 coins for 40 dollars – and pay for them by credit card.  The coins would arrive postage-free and easily make their way into circulation.

At first, it seemed that the program was a success. The sale of coins was robust; in fact, it was a little too robust, as some people ordered thousands of dollars’ worth of coins.  Then, as soon as their coins arrived, these clever folks took them straight to the bank, sometimes in their original packaging, and deposited them directly into their accounts – pocketing the credit card points they got from buying them.  The government ended up paying for a lot of postage and didn’t get very many coins into circulation.

Did these clever people do anything wrong?

When questioned about their manipulation of the government offer, many acquitted themselves with, by arguing that it wasn’t illegal.  This, of course, misses the point entirely.  Although there was no contract or statement of conditions, the intent of the offer was clear – to get coins into circulation.  By merely depositing them, these individuals violated the implicit terms of the deal.

Someone had to pay for all that postage.  That someone is the government, which means that American tax dollars went to, among others, the person who bragged that he collected enough points buying coins to pay for his trip to Tahiti.

Do you want to pay for this charlatan’s trip to Tahiti?  I know I don’t.

The problem here is, again, the conflation of what’s legal with what’s ethical.  The moment we forget the difference between the two is the moment we find our moral compass spinning in all directions.

This is the reason why compliance laws by themselves are not only inadequate but often counterproductive.  No law has been written that can’t be circumvented through loopholes left by the impossibility of covering every contingency or anticipating every situation.  Because loopholes, by definition, ignore the intent behind the law, they can only be plugged by a mindset that recognizes the spirit of the law as inseparable from the letter of the law.

“It’s not illegal” is the last refuge of the unethical.

  • Aside from the expense to taxpayers for postage, is there any other cost incurred from this manipulation?
  • Should the government have anticipated this outcome? What steps might it have taken to prevent it?
  • Does the government bear some responsibility for creating an easy opportunity for citizens to pervert the intent of the law?

Excerpted from Yonason Goldson’s forthcoming book, Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity, due out this October from Business Expert Press. Grappling with the Gray offers a collection of case studies, real and hypothetical, intended to ignite thoughtful consideration of ethical dilemmas in our personal and professional lives.  It provides a guided discussion of how to work inward from both extremes toward a rational and equitable middle.  Click here for more information


Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to earn loyalty and trust. He’s a rabbinic scholar, repentant hitchhiker, and co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink.” He has published hundreds of articles applying ancient wisdom to the challenges of the modern world, and six books, most recently “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.” The ninja were covert agents in feudal Japan who practiced espionage, deception, and surprise attacks. Doesn't that make Ethics Ninja a contradiction in terms? Not at all. Just as the master of martial arts turns an opponent’s strength against himself, the Ethics Ninja turns attacks against moral values back against the adversaries of ethics, exposing groupthink and double-standards through rational argument in asymmetrical battle to vanquish the enemies of moral clarity.

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  1. Every time I read your work, Yonason, I find myself saying out loud, “Yes! So good!” Now that I’m not the only one working from home, I think my outbursts startle my husband and son. At some point they’ll put it together and realize that I must be reading something written by Yonason Goldson (but until then, I’ll just keep them guessing!). I actually wrote a piece this morning for my FB page that explores a similar issue. Just because we CAN do something or have the RIGHT to do something, doesn’t mean it’s right. My sincere hope is that, someday, people will realize that when they “game” something or do something that goes against their own inner compass, that they know. We can’t escape our own knowing of when we’re doing something that isn’t right, no matter our rights. And when we act counter to that knowing, we erode our belief in ourselves, which erodes our confidence and thus we aren’t able to show up powerfully in the world because we know, inside, that we can’t count on ourselves. We end up paying a much bigger price when we exchange our integrity for the quick win than we realize. No amount of points or even a glorious trip to Tahiti can make up for poor self-esteem.

  2. Interesting article, Yonason. Personally, I love the one dollar coins, although I haven’t had one in my possession in some time. My husband used to come home with them as that is what the vending machine at his former employer would give you for change. I remember using them a few times and getting the strangest looks from cashiers.

    To your point about ethics, however, I am with you. It seems that moral compasses are so easily misguided these days, and I often am left in consternation. I was raised by parents, and part of a family, with strong ethics and I am gratefull each day for it.

    Congratulations on the forthcoming book! I’m sure it will be an excellent read.