It’s the idolatry that makes the trouble and brings with it the belief in magic. Let men imagine money as something somehow immortal, to be construed as Holy Writ instead of handled as a tool, and they lose both their sense of humor and their capacity to think. The depreciation of any and all values unable to pay a loan shark’s rate of interest transforms the company of gentleman adventurers into a colony of anxious squirrels. Other people come to be seen as objects, commodities, or product placements, and freedom, in practice if not in commencement speeches, as the license to exploit. The American dialectic ceases to flow in an alternating current, and the pathologies of wealth collect in pools of methane gas. The bad air induces mental disorders and breeds “pecuniary standards of culture,” named by Upton Sinclair as those “which estimate the excellence of a man by the amount of other people’s happiness he can possess and destroy.”
The energies began to drain out of the competing systems of American value in the decade of the 1980s, and the country has been suffering the ill effects ever since President Ronald Reagan set up his rose-colored telescope on the White House roof, convinced that, “The difference between an American and any other kind of person is that an American lives in anticipation of the future because he knows it will be a great place.” The Gipper’s revolution brought with it the preferred attitude that the dealers in rainbows seek to instill in the minds of the customers shopping for half-acre lots in the land of milk and honey.
For the last twenty-seven years, the news and entertainment media’s relentless booming of the markets in credulity, stimulated by the government’s doping of the banks with injections of access to cheap credit (a policy endorsed by President Clinton and both Presidents Bush), has raised and fattened a large herd of eager converts to the faith in golden calves. What is striking is the degree of their paralysis in the attitudes of holy dread. Never in the history of the world have so many people been so rich; never in the history of the world have so many of those same people felt themselves so poor. They stare into the mirrors of their well-publicized magnificence, the happiest and freest people ever to have seen the light of day, and because they expect from money more than money can supply, they’re disappointed to see a face unlikely to launch a rowboat, much less a thousand ships. They rent the Philadelphia Orchestra and complain that it doesn’t know how to play the music of the spheres. The feasts of voracious consumption testify not to a fullness of appetite but to a failure of the imagination similar to the one experienced by the Phrygian King Midas, who wished that everything he touched be turned to gold. The request was granted, and the king discovered that he couldn’t eat or drink the stuff. He would have starved to death had not Dionysus taken pity on his predicament and released him from the prison of his golden wish.
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