At the time of Oscar Wilde’s only published novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the philosophy du jour was a hedonism that held that the only things in life worth pursuing were physical beauty and sensory satisfaction. Wilde tells the story of a physically beautiful man named Dorian Gray who sells his soul to ensure that only a painted portrait of him will grow old. As Dorian participates in novel acts of debauchery, the face in his portrait ages over time; his own physical face and body stay forever young.
Fast-forward 81 years to 1971, when the dollar stopped representing gold and began living on a prayer. Since that time, the greenback has lost 81% of its value through inflation. And as the frightful chart below shows, it’s also lost 94% of its value since the original gold standard was first manipulated by the government in 1933.
In Wilde’s tale, Dorian Gray — after 18 years of thrills without consequence — fears someone is trying to kill him for one of his especially egocentric acts. His terror motivates him to change his decadent ways and he promises to act morally from that moment forward. Unfortunately, his promise doesn’t stop his portrait from continuing to age.
In a fit of rage at this realization, Gray furiously ravages the painting. When the police arrive, they discover Gray himself “stabbed in the heart — and suddenly aged, withered, and horrible.” Beside him is the portrait; the image of the youthful Gray has been mysteriously restored.
Although The Picture of Dorian Gray is considered one of the last works of gothic horror fiction with a strong Faustian theme, we’re living through our own non-fiction narrative — one that includes a deal with the devil.
We, my fellow citizens, are Dorian Green: We’ve defined our pursuit of happiness as a perpetual quest for an ever-increasing standard of living. To finance our dreams, we’ve sold the value of our labor for a tsunami of debt; we’ve made a bargain in which our currency decomposes so we can pretend to be forever young.
What elevates our story to the level of tragedy is the extent to which the current and future inflationary cycles will further reduce the value of our currency — representing all of the labor and contributions of our society as a whole.
I don’t raise this point to frighten people, but rather to encourage everyone to live and invest in the world with their eyes wide open. Those of you who understand the macro effects of our debt-boom-bust cycle will preserve and increase your wealth; some of you will make fortunes. But those of you who pretend our problems — crippling debt, for example — won’t really affect us will find your wealth “withered and horrible.”
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