Why is gold valuable? Why is it worth anything at all? Sure, it’s yellow and shiny. But so is brass. It’s scarce, but so is osmium, and you don’t see anybody making jewelry out of that (actually, osmium is kind of poisonous, which is why it’s rarely used, and in those cases only as an alloy). Gold has got a low melting point and is very malleable, which makes it nicely workable, but also means it’s easy to scratch or dent. And it’s pretty damned cumbersome, too. So what’s so great about gold?
Actually, what really makes gold so great is its resistance to corrosion. It’s virtually impossible to dissolve, and doesn’t oxidize easily – meaning that it won’t rust, tarnish, or become discolored under normal circumstances. Remember the old redox potential tables from your high school chemistry? Gold is right up there near the top. Gold doesn’t get old. Sunken treasure can languish at the bottom of the ocean for centuries without losing its luster. Platinum has the same characteristics – except it’s more rare, and hence more valuable.
The Film: Fight Club
The Song: “Where is My Mind”
The Artist: The Pixies
Throughout the middle ages, gold (along with silver) was a primary medium of exchange. In more recent history (17th – 19th century), a gold standard was adopted by most countries, which means that certificates or coins were issued by the government and backed by a fixed amount of gold held in reserve. Theoretically, these monetary notes could be exchanged for the specified amount of gold – or silver. From 1944 to 1971, the international economies functioned according to the Bretton Woods system, which required the participating countries to maintain the value of their currencies (through monetary policy) within a fixed value relative to gold. This system collapsed in 1971 when the United States, in response to accelerating inflation caused by the Vietnam War, abandoned the system and all the world’s currencies were no longer fixed but instead floated against each other at variable rates.
The end result of all this is that modern currencies are fiat currencies, which means that they have no intrinsic value whatsoever. Their only value derives from the specific dictation of the government (fiat) that the currency must be accepted as a means of exchange. Essentially, money is one large consensual hallucination – it’s something we’ve all agreed upon in advance. The only reason it’s worth anything at all is because we all agree that it is.
At the end of David Fincher’s brilliant visualization of the Chuck Pahahniuk novel Fight Club (1999), Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), the alter ego of the protagonist (Edward Norton), declares that he plans to destroy the debt record – and set the balance of society back to zero. While in practical terms, it would be impossible to make billions of dollars worth of wealth disappear just by knocking down a few buildings (or would it?), the ending of the film provided a bit of a prelude to the global financial crisis that the world is currently embroiled in. Although the collapse of property values and the subsequent default of massive amounts of debt that was previously considered infallible didn’t happen overnight, it did happen very quickly from a macroeconomical perspective. As the housing bubble burst and financial firms that had made highly leveraged investments discovered that their prized assets – mountainous piles of mortgage debt – were worthless, insurance floors pancaked out and investment house after investment house began to collapse.
The Pixies song “Where is My Mind” blends perfectly with the final scene of Fight Club, as the homemade explosives detonate and the buildings of the financial district begin crashing to the ground. It’s the only song in the film (with the exception of Tom Waits’ “Goin’ Out West”) that wasn’t written and produced specifically for the film by the Dust Brothers. The score for the film is entirely appropriate, but nothing much could top the combination of power chords and lyrics in “Where is My Mind” that accompany the image of the narrator and Marla watching the financial buildings disintegrate and contemplating the future – both public and private – that awaits them.