The world's greatest 2-bit racket

One of the most brilliant scams ever perpetrated has to be the 50 States Commemorative Quarters.

It’s amazing. The government spends three cents to make a quarter. Every single quarter in circulation is a twenty-five cent government obligation. Which means that every single quarter taken out of circulation and kept in a private collection is worth 22 cents the government gets to keep.

The person who came up with the idea of the quarters is a bloody genius. A complete set of 50 quarters (which won’t be done until 2008. At that point, every single complete set held privately will represent $11.00 in pure profit for the government. ($22.00 from the purists, who get one each from the Denver and Philadelphia mints.)

It’s a tremendous scam. It’s an entirely synthetic market, much like the Beanie Baby craze. There is absolutely nothing intrinsically valuable or useful about these quarters (apart from their usefulness at pay phones and vending machines), yet people are buying special albums and maps to display them.

That’s not to say they aren’t impressive in their own way. Connecticut’s tree is amazingly intricate. The Wright Brothers’ plane is features on both North Carolina’s (where it flew) and Ohio’s (where it was built). Ohio’s also seems to feature John Glenn, in violation of the “no living persons” rule. Florida shows the Space Shuttle. Wisconsin, naturally features cheese. Texas’ is, inexplicably, a model of simplicity and taste.

I’m probably prejudiced, but I think New Hampshire’s is the best. It features the now-lost and lamented Old Man Of The Mountains, making it in essence a two-headed quarter (and there was a hell of a fight over THAT), and proudly proclaims our fiercely independent motto: “LIVE FREE OR DIE.”

So it’s fun, but never forget that the primary purpose of these quarters was brutal capitalism: the government wants to make money, and has found a way to get people to pay more than 8 times their cost of manufacture for a trinket. Every single person collecting these State Quarters is giving the government free money.

And yeah, I have two albums I’ve gotten filled up so far through Oregon. What’s it to you?

Bonfire of the Vanities #117 - Reminder
Man's gotta have his priorities...
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