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A Museum to Money

A cheerful young docent began our tour of the Wells Fargo Museum in downtown San Francisco with a ‘Q&A’: How many pioneers can that stagecoach, around which we sit, hold? Ten? Fifteen? The answer ended up being a seemingly impossible number (thirty-something I recall) and our cheerful guide continued loading our fifth-graders from Marin County onto the wagon, one by one, until collectively they resembled a terrifying creature with multiple protruding heads and limbs, rolling and writhing about in search of gold and prey.

At least that’s how I imagine many Native Americans, on first encounter, must have viewed them.

The museum was everything you might expect from a tourist trap devoted to a bank: a dumbed-down chronology of technological innovation and capital accumulation scrubbed of offending data, social conflict, or critical consciousness but with nods to major historical periods (the depression) and the bank’s prescient track record (they saw it all coming and are a huge success!).

Those plucky pioneers faced tough conditions, the museum seemed to say, but with plenty of grit and innovation, a healthy protestant work ethic, an insatiable desire for riches and the welcome stability of a solid financial institution, they endured and prospered.


I got a bit chippy with the docent when the kids were lined up for their turn to fondle gold nuggets and coins. This was structured as the high point of the tour–a creepy sensual indulgence in commodity fetishism. The kids, pupils dilated, perfectly represented the ‘idolatry of wealth’ the museum embodied. The docent gave me a bemused look when I refused to fondle her wares. But there are always cracks, however small, in any edifice built by humans; the Wells Fargo Museum being no exception.

On the museum’s second floor there was a cardboard standup replica of Black Bart, a notorious and apparently somewhat successful, stagecoach robber. He was appropriately menacing, all dressed in black and despite a nearby wall that featured “Robbers and Heroes” (a clumsy dichotomy, that one), the kids, grinning and pantomiming gun play, had their pictures taken with the Robber.

No one posed with the oversized oil portraits of William Fargo and Henry Wells that adorned the entrance to the museum.

I wonder why?

Is it because Black Bart was eventually caught and the bank now enjoys a certain satisfaction in his display, the children sharing in his capture and demise? Contemporary thieves pose no threat to our modern titans of finance, who are, after all, modern Robber-Barons. This is no doubt part of the answer, but not all of it.

I tend to look for the awkward non-sequitur in installations such as these; that little something that might reveal an unintended truth. Such a moment came as a creaky service cart, not unlike that used to haul dishes in a restaurant, was wheeled out. On the cart was propped a framed portrait of a black man, ‘William Robison, Stagecoach Driver’ together with a page-length biography of the gentleman. The display appeared as an afterthought; perhaps someone’s hasty attempt to redress a grievance.

I wonder what grievance that could have been?

The display was cringe-worthy and appalling.

Consider that for a black man in mid-19th century America to be a stage coach driver for Wells Fargo would be the career choice of someone with a death wish.  He’s the guy the robbers have to go through to get the loot, probably the most dangerous job in that entire industry, the one you are most likely to be killed performing. So the black guy, probably reeling from the suppression of the revolution that was Reconstruction following the Civil War, can go to work for white bankers. For Wells and Fargo–Bill and Hank.

Our kids enjoy posing with the (white) Robber who, in order to get his loot, must shoot the (black) stagecoach driver who works for Wells and Fargo (who, incidentally, probably wouldn’t loan a black person a dime). That sounds like an apt metaphor for our racialized political economy. People can sacrifice themselves for the good of a bank and are memorialized with a shitty little cart.

The physical placement of a picture of an African American man on a cart also suggests black people are an aside for Wells Fargo, an after-thought, to be wheeled out when needed and stored in a dark closet, when not.

There was one other awkward and offensive little cart that featured a similar framed picture of a white female Wells Fargo employee, but the display was softened by its implicit inclusion in a larger exhibit mounted on a wall featuring more contemporary, and presumably more powerful, female Wells Fargo employees.

I’d almost feel better knowing the field trip was funded by the bank, rather than public funds. Both options are repugnant.

How about a ‘Banks and People’ installation where students can learn about the social, economic and political effects of financial institutions, especially when they go awry? Was it really necessary for my child to visit this place? Is this a part of a new program, ‘No Child Left Out of Debt’?

The Pursuit of Happyness

If the Wells Fargo Museum is designed to obscure the role banks play in the reproduction of social inequality, the 2008 film The Pursuit of Happyness, starring Will Smith, reproduces a subtle and cruel irony about that inequality: the very institution that in the real world destroys men such as Will Smith’s character is the same institution that the film-makers offer for salvation.

The Pursuit of Happyness chronicles the heart-wrenching ‘true story’ of an African American man and his young son struggling to survive in 1980s San Francisco. While watching The Pursuit of Happyness I wept as the protagonist and his young son are slowly reduced to indebtedness, abject poverty, and homelessness. Although the film is well acted and watchable, the narrative lessons implicit in its story make it loathsome–as mendacious and despicable a cinematic rendering of the African American experience I can recall, all the more so because it is really, really, painful to watch.

Our hero’s salvation comes at a price, namely his community. Note that the money Will Smith’s character loans an investment banker (to Smith a truly precious $5.00, but nothing to the banker) is magnanimously and ceremoniously paid back at the end of the film; but the money Smith loans an African-American ‘friend’ is not. Note how the illusion of a meritocracy is upheld in this film; how the bureaucratic reality of high finance is softened with a nod to affirmative action, as when Will Smith’s boss says that ‘usually’ the highest score on a test wins the job, but not always. We don’t actually know what Will Smith’s test score ends up being, but we can entertain a warm and fuzzy feeling imagining Wall Street as flexible and dynamic enough to reward such heroic effort as a way to humanize their warped meritocracy.

Smith’s wife leaves both he and his child; a reversal of the oft cited absence of African-American males in the lives of their offspring. The domestic implosion that follows soon after is brutally and effectively portrayed.

While the film’s setting is 1980s urban San Francisco and we get the obligatory portrait of Ronald Reagan, drugs are strangely absent, as is the AIDS crisis.

The precipitating event that launches our character’s descent into hell is an IRS seizure of his last few dollars. This is a nod to the libertarian populism at the center of the film’s message: those plucky ‘up by your bootstraps’ exhortations so essential to Rand Paul’s right wing torch and pitchfork appeal. Paul’s attacks on Wall Street are geared towards ‘liberating’ financial services so they can feed unhindered, not restrain their rapaciousness or much less ameliorate their harsh social effects.

The film unconsciously displays the social Darwinism that underpins the competition Smith has sacrificed everything to win, without following up to show what it has wrought: the dozens of ‘losers’ who have for months given free labor to the company, only to be left with nothing.

Only one survives–and thrives. Plucky pioneers, plucky black guys.

I was recently with my 10-year-old in the the Richmond District of San Francisco, near Ocean Beach, where the Golden Gate Park meets the Pacific Ocean. I pointed out that San Francisco’s public bus benches are exquisitely constructed so as to make sleeping on them impossible, whereas in the film father and son often found welcome, if temporary, refuge on benches that at the time would accommodate them.

Kinder and gentler.

That is the most disturbing aspect of the film; how our society treats children. Banks, as top-notch predators within our winner-take-all economic system, help tear asunder our modern families, making them disposable: easy to assemble and just as easy to disassemble. Financial institutions and other corporations, having created the conditions which hurl children to the mercy of the streets, are only too happy to perform the largely empty task of charity and take over the role of government in providing for the social good.

Except they don’t.

The proximate causes of this catastrophe are those grand bi-partisan experiments with ‘welfare reform’ and ‘workfare’ undertaken in the 1990s together with numerous illegal and unjust wars and a frenzied scrapping of that post cold war ‘peace dividend’. After having eviscerated our ability to care for the young and old, infirm and differently abled, war veterans and everyone else, we have shunted this responsibility to the very institutions that caused it in the first place.

I’ll tell you how that happens: it happens when we allow depraved charlatans such as Rand Paul to pose as populist reformers, or radicals, when in fact they are blood sucking freaks. Even the normally reliable Frank Rich with the New York Times Magazine, (“It’s Hard to Hate Rand Paul”, September 22, 2013) gives this American neo-fascist a pass because he now supports overturning mandatory minimum sentencing. You remember this almost three decade-long experiment in mass incarceration that doubled the number of imprisoned Americans from about 1 million to 2 million through racist policing, ‘three strikes’ legislation, draconian drug sentencing guidelines and a frightening increase in the privatizing of prison services?

Why would Rand Paul be opposed to that, you ask?

Because the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a sort of right wing sewer where libertarian lobbyists and ‘free market’ policy experts coagulate, have figured out a way to make more money releasing prisoners than they can make putting more in.  In her article “US criminal justice system: Turning a profit on prison reform?” Charlotte Silver argues that some corporations are hoping to changes sentencing laws so as to make money off newly released prisoners:

“In competition with private prisons are other industries which are coming up with solutions to reduce incarceration costs that will benefit them. For instance, a 2007 brief by ALEC recommended releasing people early from prison with conditional release bonds, similar to bail bonds, effectively setting up bonding companies as private parole agencies.”

The report suggests, in other words, that there are plenty of other people happy to step in and make money off of an inevitable “reform”.

Newly released parents can come out of prison in debt, perhaps to the same company they will then have to work for.