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Has the American Dream Become Our Nightmare?

The time is ripe for us to rethink some of our deepest beliefs about the way this country should work, and how we should live our lives.

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As if reflecting its elusively sacral quality, governments usually see to it that their currency is quite pretty in itself, each piece a little work of art. A good deal of thought obviously goes into designing and producing bills—finely engraved images of national landmarks, ancient legends, noble animals, impressive feats of construction like hydroelectric dams, historical personages, current royalty (or dictators)—often in vivid colors.

The face value of money is supposed to bear some relationship to its "real" worth, whatever that means. And yet, the assigned value, or "value," of paper money can, in dire economic circumstances, become a matter of sheer fantasy, a money mirage. Take the hyperinflated currency of poor Zimbabwe, where estimates for annual inflation in 2008 ranged all over the place, but Asia Forbes suggested that, at one point, it was as high as 6.5 quindecillion novemdecillion percent—that's 65 followed by 107 zeroes. Before the currency was revalued in February by the simple expedient of lopping 12 zeroes off its bills and issuing new ones, the notes were increasingly strange looking. One bill released last July was for a hundred trillion "Zim" dollars—$100,000,000,000,000—an absurd line of zeroes parading across the top of the bill. These are literally astronomical figures—100 trillion is the number of stars estimated to exist in the largest galaxy ever found in the universe. Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, contains an insignificant 100 billion. But you can buy this same 100-trillion note on eBay for $8.50, including shipping! The idea that the currency of another country can be worthless in its own country, but be worth something as a collectible sold over the Internet reinforces the dizzying sense of hyperreality in Moneyworld.

The American Dream

It's sometimes seemed that, in America, money hasn't been and isn't now the most important thing in life—it's the only thing. Alexis de Tocqueville, the most famous of all foreign commentators on American peculiarities (for good reason), wrote during the 1830s that the passions of most Americans "either end in the love of riches or proceed from it. . . . I know of no other country where love of money has such a grip on men's hearts or where stronger scorn is expressed for the theory of permanent equality of property. . . . The love of wealth is therefore to be traced, either as a principal or an accessory motive, at the bottom of all that the Americans do." For generations we've been told that "money doesn't buy happiness," which probably nobody in America really believes. As the many thousands of glossy celebrotainment magazines and fevered websites devoted to the doings of the rich have amply demonstrated, money can certainly buy some very lavish facsimiles of happiness.

Money trumps some of our most cherished assumptions. For example, we set great store by individuality—itself a kind of American folk religion. But can anybody afford a luxury like individual personality without adequate funds? How much of what we think of as our unique selfhood is defined by what we earn, what we've bought, what we own—our house and furniture, laptop and Blackberry, 42-inch plasma TV and CD player, home dŽcor, clothes, books and magazines, car or pickup truck, fancy hiking boots, special brand of handcrafted beer? Without money to pay for what gives substance to our naked, formless being, mere earthly clay, who in the world are we? In this culture, without the money to pay for our signifiers, so to speak, our much-nurtured singularity shrinks to a meaningless distraction. We don't even notice it much ourselves—can't afford to. There are too many other pressing worries.