#970: Fed Shreds

August 22nd, 2018

“In the six months since the aliens landed, demands for goods and services has dropped sharply,” said the video of a man whose eyes move along with the cue card.

Around me, children ran and squealed.

“Most consumers are either hiding at home or toiling beneath the cruel yoke of their new alien overlords,” the video continued. “This has brought the economy to a virtual standstill, despite many stores aggressively slashing prices to bring in customers. While the invaders have assured world leaders that they will soon be leaving, lenders are reluctant to issue loans to business customers, whose profits keep dropping.”

The world is in crisis. There is life beyond the stars and it is malevolent. The fate of the planet is in one set of hands — mine. Now do I raise, lower or retain current interest rates?

Welcome to the Money Museum.

Set in the lobby of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago along the LaSalle Street financial district where seven years ago the 99 percent chanted and squealed and Occupied, there is and was a children’s museum dedicated to the dollar. It’s free to enter, if the armed guard approves your ID and you get through the metal detector — precautions, I guess, against someone trying to pocket the giant acrylic glass cube of one million $1 bills.

From there, you enter a Wonkaverse of cash.

There are interactive games to play of spotting counterfeit currency, of deciding whether a bill’s too worn to stay in circulation or of learning trivia details on the sundry eagles, politicians and eyeball pyramids on our cash from the $1 to the $100,000 ($500, $1,000, $5,000, $10,000 and $100,000 bills do exist, but were taken out of circulation in the ’60s. The $100,000 bill, which featured Woodrow Wilson, was only used to transfer money between Federal Reserve Banks and cannot be legally owned by collectors.)

Kids get to put their faces into the $2 or $100 bills, either through interactive display or by sticking their heads through a large cutout and having mom snap a shot. They can tinker with inflation to see how little a million bucks will be in a few years.

Another interactive exhibit runs you, the newly appointed Fed chairman, through such scenarios as alien invasions, colonies on Mars, the retirement age made mandatory at 35 and pop smash hit “I Ain’t Got Time for Cupcakes” turning the nation’s youths against the foodstuff, devastating the American cupcake industry in the process. In each case, you must decide whether to raise, lower or maintain interest rates.

There was history of course — a few displays on the birth of the Fed, some Hamilton-specific ones dappled with quotes from the musical — but the most eye-catching display had little if anything to do with cash. It was a ceiling-high Rube Goldberg device of colored balls running, bouncing, clinking, jostling and otherwise being shunted through a 3D maze of tubes, trails and xylophone keys. There were some attempts to make the Goldberg about the economy, but even if you color-code the box the balls were pulled from blue for the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing and have a little gobbling bank man at the other end of the path, the only lesson this particular exhibit taught is that brightly colored bouncing balls are fun.

And throughout the museum, free bags of cash as souvenir.

Yes, the cash was former U.S. bills deemed too torn, worn, graffito-tagged or otherwise mucked up to head anywhere but a Federal Reserve Bank shredding machine, but the approximately $364 of mulchy “Fed Shreds” I’m gazing at as I type these lines make a fine memento.

I came to shred the Money Museum with the joy and anger I felt across the street the few times I chanted and squealed and Occupied, but I ended up falling in love with the place. Its lessons for kids were about saving and fiscal responsibility, about how economic policy should be a more nuanced beast than “One Size Fits Wealthy.” The handouts at the end included a kids’ pledge to save X amount in a piggy bank each month and the most-recent AgLetter from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago Public Information Center giving adults a rundown of recent economic indicators for the agricultural sector.

A tie-wearing hog named “Piggy Banker” led the savings pledge. In the ag sector, repayment rates for non-real-estate farm loans were lower in the second quarter of 2018 compared with the second quarter of 2017, marking the 19th consecutive quarter of deteriorating repayment rates relative to a year ago.

We live in a world of money. To pretend we don’t is to do the running, scampering, Mom-Mom-Mom-Mom-MOMMMMMM-ing kids skittering among cash a disservice. We can’t let them grow up thinking the world is just art, science and ballerina-princesses.

I hope what little information retained from a visit to one small museum on one small Tuesday somehow helps them to be smarter, to save and not take gambles with others’ cash. I hope they’ll learn to be frugal and kind so we never have to Occupy across the way, because that did not help. The people who know nothing but gamble everything still won.

As for the alien invaders vs. the Federal Reserve Bank?

“The committee agrees that lowering interest rates is the best chance to get the human resistance back on its feet.”

One of the scenes that told me Occupy was nonsense

And another one

A South Side bluesman’s museum to himself

A museum dedicated to the Pullman porter

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