Today is May Day. For many years I associated May Day with the Maypole and faeries and flowers and such. All very pagan and Mother Earth-y and all. I never knew that it was International Workers’ Day… likely because we don’t really familiarize ourselves with holidays that don’t offer days off, I suppose, and the US is not one of the 80 nations from around the world that recognize the date as an official state holiday because we celebrate our laborers in September. There are a few interesting wiki-factoids about the history of May 1st in the US here. A more global summary (or at least British) from the Guardian detailing the history of the International Workers’ movement can be found here.
Now, I was raised in a very labor-friendly environment. My family has always been pro-labor (as a pre-teen I interpreted this to mean that they quite enjoyed providing me with a nice variety of chores…) and I hail from a fairly humble socio-economic background coupled with a pretty liberal socio-geographic origin. As such, I believe in power-to-the-people, and worker’s rights, and I did not eat grapes until I was old enough to read about why I never got to eat grapes, and I support a livable minimum wage and fair labor practice law. Further, I do believe that the mal-distribution of wealth in our society is not a result of a working market economy and hard work v. indolence, rather it is a result of a cycle that is either virtuous or vicious, depending upon which side of the divide you stand.
Because of all these facts, I was met with some fairly amused raised eyebrows from one my colleague when I told him that the first available day that I was able to schedule my Econ classes for a tour of the Federal Reserve was May 1. Further, I was told by my contact ‘on the inside’ that “the vault was currently closed.” If the vault was closed in February, what was the likelihood that it would be open in May? On May First, no less, when the Occupy Movement was planning for their biggest day of action ever?
And so we would be in the vault of the SF Fed walking among millions and millions of dollars (hopefully), while outside there would be… well, we did not know.
I do know that last night as I sat in my apartment in the Mission, I heard people on the street yelling about “a party at Dolores!” which does make me wonder when I am thinking the point is to organize not get wasted…. And in less than an hour these people were trashing local restaurants, coffee shops, private cars, and the police station on my street. No matter how much I support labor and the ideas behind the #OWS movement, I find this kind of arbitrary vandalism not just counterproductive, but also ignorant and offensive. Really, of all the neighborhoods to fuck with? The Mission? Do your research assholes.
It is with this mood that I headed out to meet my kids to head to the Fed. I called my contact at the Fed this morning before I got to work to double check… “We are still on, right?” “Of course!” “Okay, I just wanna make sure, because… you know…” “We are all set, see you at 9:30!”
And so we went with the following objectives: tour the Fed, and then interview folks on the street and ask them about the economy, what is the economy to them? They were armed with templates and Sharpies and charm. My contribution is here:
We were unofficially greeted on the corner by a street crier dressed like a Minuteman and decrying the “system”. To be fair, much more articulately than I would have predicted. As we got to the entrance of the Federal Reserve Bacnk building, a small group of protestors put down their bongs (seriously) long enough to warn us: “Don’t go in there! They will brain wash you!” Hm. I always get annoyed when people tell me I can be brainwashed because of the implied suggestion that I am mentally feeble enough to be susceptible to brainwashing. We went in anyhow, obviously.
The tour at the Fed is actually really interesting, and it is always validating to have the presentation cover material that I have taught my kids *and* they remember. What is the Fed, officially? [The Bank for the banks.] Why was it created? [To deal with financial panics...] When was it created? [Under W. Wilson in 1913.] Who oversees the Fed? ? ? ? [Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. And he would be the mostly likely candidate to have any oversight over the Federal Reserve...]
The currency exhibit at the SF Fed is fabulous and the design of the main exhibit was the work of the husband of one of my colleagues [Cool factor: high.] We got to see one of the most comprehensive collections of paper currency ever, (even got a CD of it – woo hoo Fed swag… they did make 81.7 billion last year…) and then headed down to the Vault.
My kids talk about money with the term “stacks”. Lots of money is “stacks on stacks on stacks…” There was enough time to utter the word stacks enough times to even suggest the amount of currency we were looking at in there today. Millions and millions of dollars. Pallets of bills. Seriously. The standard box, when full of hundreds, holds 46 million dollars. We also learned that approximately 56 million dollars are shredded everyday (we all got a bag of the shreddings…) The place smelled so strongly of – well, of money - that it almost rendered you dizzy. We spent a lot of time trying to work out what effect working in this environment would have on one’s consciousness regarding money: would become obsessed? Jaded? Criminal? Prudent? It is hard to say. Seems like it would be awfully tempting to shove a few Benjamins in one’s pockets if you knew they were going to the shredder, no? Hard to say.
Ultimately, of course, the Fed presents itself in a very particular way. Though our guide was pretty candid (she told me they have never been robbed when they guard we were with told me he was not allowed to talk about things like that, and she talked about how transparency has become a real issue because for so long the Fed really was just like this giant, silent Mothership.) I appreciated her candor. When we left the building, there were a few more protestors here and there, but really, there was not much happening. [Tonight, it is clear we got lucky getting out early because things did get ugly in certain parts of the downtown area.] We walked around and breathed in the fresh air.
I contemplated the contrast in life on Sixth Street and a building holding more money than even my most voracious teenagers can fathom. It did seem strange. And in a way we did strike by not going to school today. But really, if my choice is taking these kids into the Belly of the Beast to show them what is going on, or to ave them breaking windows of local merchants in my neighborhood, I definitely choose the former.
We will be examining the other side of the story next week when we watch this little cartoon:
I am all for a fair and balanced approach….