Politics & Policy

Change, Please!

It's not pettiness, it's civility.

The girl at the register in Shaw’s Supermarket handed me a five and a couple of ones, said with robotic niceness, “Have a nice day,” and started to turn to the next customer. But something in my expression stopped her. “Oh, do you want your change?” Her tone hovered–nicely–between pity and exasperation, balanced like a dime on the thin edge between “Poor man!” and “What a loser!”

But the server in the restaurant didn’t pause long enough to notice. She simply returned the change rounded off to the nearest dollar and scooted on to the next table.

It has happened to me in New York as well as Boston. Suddenly it is too much trouble for people to give you back correct change.

It started with pennies. Perhaps the first sign was the now ubiquitous “take a penny, give a penny” box next to the cash register. It was convenient. It was nice. It appealed to our desire to be above petty details. It implied that although the gas station, drug store, or diner might want to balance its books to the penny, the clerk and I were above such meanness. “What’s a penny between you and me, Jenny? Just keep it; put it in that box for the next person. We’re all in this world together, you know. Maybe one day I will need a penny too, and someone will have donated the odd copper I’ll need from his change when he bought his Red Man smokeless tobacco. That’s how we Americans are. We watch out for each other.”

But give-a-penny, take-a-penny was a slippery slope.

Soon the sidewalk was littered with homeless pennies, slipping and sloping toward the storm drain. Pennies had lost their stature. No longer worth pocketing in the corner store, they could no longer be worth a serious person’s attention to pick up on the street. I have walked by beggars who could have reached out and collected a down payment on their next Peppermint Schnapps if they had merely swept the pavement at their feet. But the lowly penny had fallen more completely through the social cracks than even the guy rattling his tin cup.

And now we have reached that stage with nickels, dimes, and even quarters. Has our money really become so worthless than anything less than a buck is to be treated as the monetary equivalent of pocket lint? Or are we witnessing the results of the “whole math” classes our children took in public schools over the last twenty years in lieu of learning how to count? It does seem that the South Asian-run convenience stores and Indian restaurants are immune to the trend. This is, in any case, a homegrown thriftlessness.

Americans were tutored by Ben Franklin, even before the Revolution, that time is money, and we have taken the lesson deep into the national character. It is not only lawyers and lobbyists with their noxious billable hours, and plumbers and electricians charging by the craftsman’s minute, but all of us who feel, at some level, that our lives are worth something on a pro rata basis. Families that lost a wage-earning husband or wife in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center have been offered payment in proportion to projected lifetime earnings. The victims of priests who abused boys in the Boston Archdiocese are weighing a settlement formula that portions out awards on the basis of “how often” and “for how long.”

I don’t mean to criticize either set of victims. But Americans increasingly look to the courts to provide the nicely termed “compensation” for injuries that everyone soberly acknowledges can never be set right by mere money. Compensation inevitably cheapens the human reality, and those who receive the money end up with the new complication of having turned their troubles into cash. This truly is a problem for many people and the solution that seems to work best is to put the money aside for the benefit of the next generation. It’s as if time tragically converted to money is best redeemed by converting that money back into time.

The new disdain for small change is at the opposite end of the scale, but it reflects the same cultural premises. If time is money, money is also time, and the time it takes to bother with pennies and nickels is just too much for many impatient Americans. “It’s not worth my time to count the change,” the clerk and the waiter seem to tell us, and I guess a large number of people respond, “Nor my time, either.”

But surely this neglect of small change is a bad sign. It registers a neglect of details that an honest people cannot afford, and it speaks to a casualness that can’t long keep company with a scrupulous regard for other people. Because the clerk does not know whether I need my change, she should assume that I do, rather than take for granted that I don’t. Indifference to the small things is a kind of cultural decay.

If we are headed toward a nix-the-nickels, damn-the-dimes society, we should eliminate the coins. But until then, we should pay each other the respect of making correct change. The less they are actually worth, the more important it is to go to the trouble. Making correct change is a way of saying, “You are more to me than the transaction at hand. You are worth the extra attention.” And insisting on correct change is a way of insisting on civility. Conservatives, I think, ought always to demand good change.

Peter Wood, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, is the author of Diversity: The Invention of A Concept.

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