Decline in the value of the US dollar – What is a US dollar worth?


Published in the November 2011 issue

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Getty Images

FIG. 1: Michele Bachmann makes it clear: “A dollar in 2011 should be the same as a dollar in 1911. A dollar should be worth a dollar.

The last shot, sprung with equal odds at cocktail parties and Tea Party gatherings [fig. 1] and in opinion pieces and on the streets, it’s that the American empire is in decline. You no longer need to pretend to argue; you can just slip “the specter of American decline” into the conversation, even though the idea is patently, obviously absurd: America has the most productive economy in the world, even in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression ; its crime rate is the lowest in four decades; it has the most powerful and proven army in the world; and it remains the source of the best ideas, both technological and cultural, on the planet. This is not what empires look like when they decline. This is not what Britain looked like in 1956 or Rome in the fourth century. America is not in decline. He is losing his religion, and his religion is the US dollar. Faith in accountability is shaken like never before.

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ABC/Getty Images

FIG. 2: The Lord also apparently wants you to wear a shitty smile.

The dollar has long since become the transcendent value of American life. Even in American religion, money is religion. (The pastor of the largest church in the country, Joel Osteen [fig. 2], declares bluntly: “God wants to increase you financially. Pop culture, as an unofficial but actually practiced religion in the United States, is just as much a prosperity gospel. Movies are judged by their opening weekends, books by the size of their advances, actors by their fees per frame. The beauty of
Mint app for iPhone, the most popular personal finance app, allows you to see your self-esteem in real time. But as the dollar has become the only credible marker of judgment, the question of what a dollar is has become mystifying. It’s new, unprecedented and terrifying.

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FIG. 3: “Uh… uh… yeah… uh.” And the market collapses once again.

This month, the deadly debate over the debt ceiling is set to resume, and we can’t expect a better sense or outcome than last time around. The hysterical positioning covers a generalized and fundamental confusion. As strong as the dollar was once proverbial; now the expression can only be used ironically. Milton Freidman, after Nixon ended the gold standard in 1971, wrote that money had become a fiction that veils its fictionality. This veil is now beginning to tear and fray. For the far right, the debasement of the US currency is the latest shibboleth to identify true believers. South Carolina state legislator Mike Pitts introduced legislation to make U.S. currency illegal in his own state and make gold and silver legal tender, not because he thought it would pass one day, but because he wanted to make a point: the US dollar ain’t worth shit. Maximum-strength libertarian Ron Paul, who, it must be said, held true to his belief in returning to the gold standard with holy patience and personal integrity virtually unique in Washington, is no longer a marginal outsider. mad ; he is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Monetary Policy. His discussions with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke [fig. 3] are fascinating discussions of men starting from antithetical hypotheses. When Paul asked, “What is your definition of the dollar?” Bernanke could only give the non-answer “It’s the purchasing power of the dollar…that’s what’s important.” In another exchange, Paul asked, “Do you think gold is silver?” To which Bernanke replied, “No. It’s a precious metal.” Paul or Bernanke must be not only wrong but crazy, and yet they are the two men who have done the most to shape what the US dollar means.

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FIG. 4: Kanye and Jay-Z know how to make subtle album art.

Culture at large shares the identity crisis. Even Jay-Z, architect of a musical career around the Benjamins, seems to have reached a kind of financial and creative stasis. Look at the throne [fig. 4], his recent collaboration with Kanye West, once again celebrates all the splendours of easy money – from owning cars you don’t drive to buying works by Basquiat, the Artists’ Crystal – but also a new idea, “stash on a million”, perfectly still on a big stack of banknotes. The title of the album is revealing: the throne is the ultimate symbol of opulence, but it is also empty. Kanye and Jay-Z sit on it. But what are they sitting on? (Kanye has already acknowledged the problem in his big 808 and heartache lyrics: “My friend shows me pictures of his kids / And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs.”)

Kanye West and Ron Paul – diametrically opposed specimens of the human race in every other respect – are tormented by the same reality: they fear that the dollar will eventually run out. Symbol of pure materialism, the almighty dollar is supposed to comfort us with its certainty, when in reality nothing more vague, more ghostly. Paul thinks the gold will end the confusion, while Kanye wants to see if doing cocaine with a dark-skinned woman can help. Long-term satisfaction from either man is unlikely. Faith has been broken beyond repair.

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FIG. 5: “No, this time capitalism is doomed. Really. This time, for sure, it’s over. Poof.”

But losing faith, while painful, can also be liberating. The attraction of the dollar value, which Marx [fig. 5] predicted as the transformation of all “personal value into exchange value”, was not the same thing as greed; it was really just laziness. Cutting everything down to the dollar makes life so simple. Want to know if God loves you? Check your bank account. Want to know if your art is good? How much did it go? When the dollar gets confused, the ease of these responses disappears. Losing the dollar as a marker of all value could reveal new possibilities of value, for people and for things, even for the world. After all, there’s more to life than a little money, isn’t there?

MORE: Charles P. Pierce on the Big Sale >>

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