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Feces and the Gold Standard: A Psychological Explanation of Goldbuggery

This week, delegates at the Republican National Convention will decide whether the GOP should officially contemplate a return to the gold standard. Among plutocrat investor types the policy makes some sense—by pegging the dollar to the world’s gold supply, government spending remains in check, inflation stays down, and Uncle Scrooge’s piles of cash don’t lose their value. For everyone else, as my colleague Noam Scheiber argues, this brand of monetary policy makes no sense. So why has it caught on?

Noam supposes that Tea Party goldbugs are suffering from false consciousness, a misunderstanding of their material circumstances. For my part, I would suggest examining the GOP's potential unconscious motivations. Would Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, have anything to say about Republicans' gold obsession?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. The GOP's embrace of the gold standard isn't just a reversion back to nineteenth century monetary theory, it seems. It's also a regression back to psychological infancy.

Freud drew a connection between adults' covetousness of gold and babies' obsession with poop. “Freud had an idea that in the unconscious mind, that money and perhaps gold in particular, was equivalent to some kind of shit. Excremental substance,” New York City psychoanalyst Steven Poser told me.

According to Freud’s theory of psychosexual development, a turning point in a child’s so-called “anal phase” is the moment at which he is taught to use the bathroom, wherein he is forced to relinquish his droppings to his parents—or worse, to the sewer. “A baby has a predisposition to hold on to things,” Long Island University professor of psychology Geoff Goodman tells me. “That includes feces. When you give that up—you lose part of yourself.”

Babies who feel they are in a loving environment may bequeath their poop without a fight. Those who hold on tight (according to Goodman, a baby “gets aroused by holding onto his feces and letting go. Holding on, letting go.”) perhaps don't yet quite trust their parents with the goods. Freud argued that, for the latter, this formative experience of stinginess was apt to follow them their entire lives. Miserly people—those who hoard money, and in Freud’s day, gold—were the same types who hoarded their shit as children.

As it happens, Freud traced his gold-shit analogy back to antiquity, arguing that the relationship between the two was inextricable. “We [know] about the superstition that connects the finding of treasure with defecation," Freud wrote in “Character and Anal Eroticism,” to reinforce the point that on the subconscious level, feces have always been understood as a form of currency. "And everybody is familiar with the figure of 'shitter of ducats.'"

But even if gold and feces are connected—at least in the minds of Freud, and Michael Lewis—how does it relate to the gold standard? Simple. The stingy, hoarding, contractionary impulse that we all subconsciously associate with gold finds perhaps its perfect expression in the ideological demands to revert to the gold standard: It is what is driving the fear that the dollar will lose its value unless the government is barred from giving away too much of it. Or as Dr. Judith Schweiger Levy, a Westchester County analyst who studies money, puts it, the gold standard establishes a “sense of control and mastery of this very, very valued object, in effect, that can’t necessarily be flushed away by virtue of inflation.”

(Freud’s contemporary Carl Jung, for what it's worth, took a slightly different perspective. The purification of the soul, in his estimation, was analogous to the alchemical conversion of base substances to gold. It's fair to suppose that Jung would have thought of the Tea Party's gold advocacy as a well-intentioned, if not entirely virtuous, obsession.)

At any rate, if we are to take Freud's theory to heart, the term “goldbuggery” takes on a slightly more poignant meaning.