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Exorbitant Privilege? On the Rise (and Rise) of the Global Dollar System

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Things are going to break and central banks are going to have to respond, but the mental frame that most people will be using is not well suited for understanding how the world now works

The global dollar system, though repeatedly reported to be on its last legs—most recently in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, but most famously in the Nixon devaluation of 1971—has repeatedly instead consolidated and gone on to further geographical expansion (McCauley 2021). The key currency approach to international monetary economics, first put forward by John H. Williams in the aftermath of the 1931 devaluation of sterling, suggests that such resilience arises from the actions of market practitioners who appreciate the convenience of a global means of payment. So the question arises, why has the key currency approach remained a minority view, if not among practicing bankers then certainly among practicing academics? This paper proposes two main reasons—the discredit of monetary optimism during the depression, and the subsequent fateful adoption of Walrasian equilibrium as the frame for academic discussion after WWII.