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50 Years After Going Off Gold, the Dollar Must Go for Crypto

Niall Ferguson

By Niall Ferguson

It was Sunday night on Aug. 15, 1971, and many Americans were watching television — the most popular show that evening being the Western series “Bonanza.” (Older readers will recall that it chronicled the adventures of the Cartwright family — Ben, his three sons and their Chinese cook — on their Ponderosa Ranch in Nevada.) At 9 p.m. Eastern time, the Cartwrights and their rivals on the other two networks were interrupted by the somewhat less popular figure of President Richard Nixon.

The word “bonanza,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was introduced into American English in the 1880s to describe a highly productive or profitable mine, such as the silver mines of the Comstock Lode in Cartwright country. Ironically, Nixon was disrupting Sunday evening to tell Americans that the days of precious metal were over. The link between the U.S. dollar and gold — a link that dated back to the country’s adoption of the gold standard nearly a century before — was to be severed. The age of fiat money — that is, of currency backed by nothing more than the credibility of the U.S. Treasury — had dawned.

Not that Nixon put it like that. It’s worth watching a clip of his address to remind yourself just how terrible the production values of U.S. politics used to be. Nixon looks as if he is addressing the nation from a passport photo booth, a nasty blue curtain all but matching his equally nasty blue suit and tie. There were no teleprompters then, so he constantly looks down at his script. You would not know from his flat delivery how many hours he and his advisers and speechwriters had devoted to this historic text.

Americans by now were used to presidential addresses about Vietnam. It was less usual to have a lecture on the economy on a Sunday night. However, as Jeffrey E. Garten explains in his gripping account of the speech’s origins and consequences, “Three Days at Camp David,” the announcement had to go out before financial markets opened on Monday. In his own charmless way, Nixon was dropping a bombshell.

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