One question agitating Americans today, as much as any other, is: what has gone wrong with the US dollar in world markets? How does one explain the acute illness of this proud currency, the money that was almost thought to be as good as gold? Because it has made front page news in America in recent times and seems to be getting no better fast, even people who never have much of it, are worried and somewhat crestfallen. There was always that vicarious thrill in knowing that “our” money was so universally venerated. What’s it all about?
The answer, in a word, is “pollution”. There are far too many US dollars held by financial and multinational institutions around the world. “No need to redeem them for gold”, was the assurance when the blizzard of US currency hit Europe in the 60s. “They’re as good as gold”. (Not that there was that much gold in the US Treasury but there was always America’s strong trading ability to bank on). And the quantity of US dollars in foreign hands, today, is out of all proportion to what is needed to consummate the trade that American capitalism can generate.
And thereby hangs another tale because, in theory, devaluation of a nation’s currency is supposed to bring increased trade for that nation’s exporters and this is not happening here. The adverse trade balance remains maddeningly huge and sharp debate concerning its causes is stirred among the “doctors” of economics. But whatever else may be involved, the fact is that this once top manufacturing nation is feeling the competition from an assortment of relatively vibrant economies in Europe and the Orient with more modern plant, equipment, and marketing “know-how”. Those “good-as-gold” US dollars in foreign hands have become so many not-so-hot IOUs and heavy holders are trying to get out from under by changing them into Japanese yen and Swiss francs rather than trading them for US goods.
The truth is that the US dollar has not been “as good as gold” for a long time. In fact, the Nixon Administration, in 1971, officially untied the dollar from gold and declared it as inconvertible to bullion everywhere, as it had been domestically since the first term of Franklin Roosevelt some forty-five years ago. So, while in those years following the Nixon action the dollar remained relatively strong and generally acceptable in Western Europe and Japan, propped up by hope, Nemesis was waiting in the wings.
To begin with, money is a commodity. It must be a commodity because it is used as a means of effecting the circulation of and setting a value upon commodities generally. And so, the quantity of paper bills and metal pieces that serve to represent money — gold — must bear a recognisable resemblance to the quantity of real money they represent. Otherwise they would be worth, on the average, the equivalent of the socially necessary labour time required to produce and reproduce them — damned little, indeed! So when paper currency and metal coins are churned out in America’s mints with little regard for actual money stores, eventually the bitter truth must sink into the heads of those who hold huge amounts of the stuff. Especially when it becomes apparent that US industry cannot compete so effectively on world markets.
(Not that this in an unalloyed evil for US capitalism. The Government, for example, wins a large quantity of those devalued dollars when it sells off portions of its gold bullion — the weaker the dollar the costlier the gold in terms of dollars. And since bond holders and other domestic creditors are guaranteed repayment in US dollars with no provision made for devaluation — it becomes a windfall for the capitalist class, as a whole. All big borrowers, in fact, have seldom had it so good although bankers, understandably, are responding by raising their interest rates and are discouraging long-term loans. And currency speculators, as patriotic as the next, no doubt, are making hay out of the difficulties of the American currency).
But what, if anything, does all this signify to US workers? Most of those who travel abroad will find it difficult to survive unless they visit the soft currency nations, where American money is still respected, and even then will find it difficult to live in the manner they have been accustomed to back home. But the over-production of currency in US mints also translates into continuing inflation in this country and while the rate is lower than in the competing nations it is high enough to bring more than the usual clamour by organised labour for substantial pay increases.
And there is at least one significant change about this otherwise predictable happening. A considerable and rising number of those in the forefront of “labour unrest” are public, or government, employees. In fact, the summer and early fall of 1978 seem to have brought a veritable tidal wave of strike action and threatened strike action by policemen, fire fighters, school teachers, transportation workers, postal workers, garbage collectors, and others in “public employ” forbidden by law to strike. Police and fire fighters, bus drivers and school teachers have in many instances gone to gaol for spurning court orders to return to work. And a number of postal workers, along with many of the fire fighters and policemen, have been summarily fired and forever blackballed from employment in those endeavours. (In the case of the postal workers, there is now an imposed settlement by a Government mediator on the cards and the possibility of more wildcatting by disgruntled employees in protest over the loss of ratification rights by the union membership).
What makes this current trend more interesting is that “public employees” are paid entirely out of tax revenue. The basic arguments of managements of such enterprises are: (1) we can’t find the money without a tax increase and nobody wants that, or (2) we must not make a settlement that is inflationary. A majority of those directly involved are doubtless unwilling to accept such reasoning, but since the majority of the working class believes it pays taxes and will have to foot the added bill, general support for such strikes is uncommon.
In truth, taxes come from surplus value, which is the property of the capitalist class. Certainly it adds to inflation when increases are paid by printing added currency. But there is no law that forbids the capitalists from taking less profit and assigning more of surplus value to those who operate their essential services — no law, that is, but the jungle law of capitalism ordaining that capitalists must strive for greater rather than lesser profit or be destroyed by competition.
Socialists find it worthy of note that public employees, even school teachers and police, now seem to identify more with their fellow workers than once was the case. And yet we hesitate to see the millenium resulting from it. Our pleasure is tempered sharply by the knowledge, gained through long years of experience, that union militancy does not lead, in itself, to understanding the class nature of capitalism and the need to abolish it. Police, militant or not, return to their jobs of protecting the masters’ property and clubbing other militant workers who threaten or defy the law. “We’re only doing our job!” they argue. Teachers resume their task of preparing future wage slaves for a general acceptance of class society and see nothing objectionable about that. And workers, generally, are content with the gains they make in their wages and conditions of work.
If only inflation would vanish! they reason today, either forgetting or not knowing of those long periods of deflation, when prices fell (including the price of their labour power), when hamburger was a quarter-or-less a pound but quarters were hard to come by, when the American dollar was a good as gold (at least outside the United States) and American industrial superiority was universally recognised. Were American workers better off in those times? If you don’t remember or never knew look it up or ask those who do.