Californians have memories so short that our politicians, from Gov. Jerry Brown on down, can’t stop reminding us that only just a few years ago, we were in a recession and a budget crisis. So now – even with decreasing unemployment, rising housing prices and a budget surplus – they say we must keep many state programs at recession-era levels.
Let’s say, “Bah, humbug!” to the Sacramento Scrooges. There are more productive ways than austerity to make sure we don’t forget recent economic lessons. Why not create a museum to help us remember?
California would be the ideal location for a Museum of the Great Recession. We practically invented the global economic meltdown between 2007 and 2009.
Our middle class, desperate to buy houses and keep up an unaffordable standard of living, led the way into ever-growing consumer debt. California-based Countrywide Financial, once the nation’s largest mortgage lender, led the way in making bad subprime loans that were turned into risky securities.
For all this, we paid a huge price the museum could document: double-digit unemployment, record state budget shortfalls, municipal bankruptcies and downturns in nearly every major state industry. Middle-class Californians became a minority of the population. And according to the world’s media, California became a failed state responsible for economic malaise from Spain to Shanghai.
This was our Great Recession, and we shouldn’t let anyone – particularly those vultures on Wall Street – open their own museum first. Here’s a plan to make it a reality:
The museum director should be former state Treasurer Phil Angelides, who led the U.S. Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that investigated the causes of the recession. The commission’s report should provide the content of the museum’s permanent exhibits, with California showbiz making things more relatable.
For example, to illustrate the Federal Reserve’s failures in financial regulation, Disney could produce audio-animatronic versions of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to talk with visitors – much like the Abraham Lincoln robot at Disneyland. Gamers could create immersive, room-size infographics to explain the credit default swaps and that whole business with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
The museum wouldn’t neglect the aftermath of the crisis. Visitors could don headphones and listen to recorded phone calls of homebuyers who were victims of myriad mortgage mistakes battling to get problems fixed. Museumgoers could compete with former professional “robosigners” to see who could sign more mortgage documents (without reading them, of course) in one minute. The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City could curate a room devoted to tea party economic fantasies and other discredited theories.
California offers many possible sites for the museum – a government building in bankrupt Stockton or San Bernardino, or any number of abandoned malls. My preference is the former Countrywide headquarters in Calabasas, at the western edge of the San Fernando Valley. At 230,000 square feet and with 700 parking spaces, the building has the size to be a museum. Signs on the fence say it’s available for sale or lease.
It might cost $35 million to buy the place, but I suspect the Museum of the Great Recession would pay for itself. The current rage for financial education would make the museum a natural for field trips. Californians have long supported institutions built on crisis. After all, arguably our most powerful think tank, at Stanford, is named for its founder, Herbert Hoover, who later ushered in the Great Depression.
Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column. He wrote this for Thinking L.A., a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.