Diary of a Dollar by Caroline Roy

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4. Hello inflation

Dear Diary,

rolled up together with two other singles and a few quarters in a cup holder of a NY city cab. I hear a shrill radio voice “…and will we have to brace ourselves now, John, in the face of  dramatically climbing oil prices…” The cab driver whines in a here-we-go-again tone about how everything is always getting more expensive. “That’s right!” someone agrees from the back seat. The radio voices turn into an agitated wall of sound.

Nobody likes to hear about rising oil prices.  People know that once the price for oil goes up, everything goes up. Except for one thing: my value. So, as of today, a dollar buys you 641 meters of a cab ride. At this time last year, the same cab would take a customer about 667 meters for their buck. In 1971, says my rolled-up dollar-colleague, a single dollar would have taken people 4,410 meters. Hello, inflation! Banknotes talk about it all the time. In the past 50 years, our purchasing power has continuously decreased. Sigh.

In the past inflation lowers my value by an average of 2-4% every year. What people could buy for one US dollar in 1971 will cost $6.88 today and even more in five or ten years. No wonder inflation is the number one topic when we meet. Right after how’re you and what’s your story? “The ongoing chatter between banknotes sounds like the chirping of crickets sounds to the human ear”, I heard a note saying once. I wonder how they know.

Anyway, inflation always worries me, but today I am in a reflective mood. For one, I am just an insignificant note, one of how many? The Federal Reserve calculates that about 50 billion US banknotes of all dollar denominations are in circulation at present, give or take a few. That is: everything from under people’s mattresses to the high security government vaults somewhere overseas. God knows how many of those dollars some oligarchs have stacked in cash in various places around the globe… but that is a whole other steam of thought.

One thing I learned about people is that money makes them emotional. And often that means, money makes them irrational. If I listen to people talk about money, I hear all kinds of dismissive comments suggesting “that money isn’t everything” or that “money doesn’t buy happiness”. I translate that into I cannot be bothered to think about money truthfully, because that means I must change my behavior.

For me, the monetary price of things people buy is a kind of knowledge that penetrates every fiber of my linen-pulp based existence. I feel it by the way people squeeze me, fold me, handle me.  How they do not bother to put me in a wallet anymore, how they keep me folded in the pocket of their jeans, and how they forget me in the pocket of a winter coat and find me, worth even less, in the following autumn.

And, my dear diary, my fear of inflation is not an irrational fear. It is deepest existential angst.  If you drew at a graph reflecting the buying power of one dollar from 1971 to 2021, you would see a line going down, and only down. Where can it go? It hurts to think about it. In 1980, you would be able to buy a decent coffee and a croissant for a dollar. I consider that a respectable exchange for a guy like me. But these days, the best you can get for a dollar is a chewy croissant and a refill in a dodgy neighborhood. I don’t consider myself vain or entitled, but I do want to do my job as a proud representative of the most trusted currency in the world. But how can I do that job if my value fades like the charge of an old battery? When will the day come when a single dollar won’t buy anything? When people need five, ten, twenty dollars, to buy a chewy croissant?

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