The Potterization [Not Harry] of Society

On Christmas Eve day, my wife and I watched It’s a Wonderful Life. After it was over, she turned to me and said, “The world needs more George Baileys and a lot fewer Potters.” She wasn’t talking just about their differing outlooks on life, and her words got me to thinking. She was right, of course, because she usually is, but especially in the deeper sense.

George Bailey spends his entire life in the small town of Bedford Falls, running the building and loan society, making loans to the working people, occasionally giving them a month or day of grace in making their house payments. He judges people on their character, not on their balance sheets. He never makes enough money for a high standard of living, and he and his wife live in a drafty old house that she, largely, has fixed up. Mr. Potter, of course, is the banker and businessman for whom success is measured strictly by the dollars earned, the return on investment, the overall profitability. Potter won’t hesitate to foreclose, to call for a bank examiner, or even keep money inadvertently left on his premises by Uncle Billy. He will unhesitatingly employ any tactic to boost his profitability, even those marginally legal. Like so many of the recent Wall Street CEOs whose ill-considered pursuit of maximum profit at any cost led to the current financial and economic crisis, and who walked away with ill-gotten gains without either guilt or punishment, so does Potter. He almost destroys the better man, and he still gets to keep the money and is never punished. All along the way, George Bailey builds a better Bedford Falls, even using his honeymoon savings. Potter is a parasite upon the town, yet he represents himself as a financially responsible pillar of the community.

Critics of the film have called it “Capra-corn,” a pun on the name of the director, but Frank Capra produced a film that was not only feel-good and sentimental, but one that encapsulated an economic truth that has tended to be overshadowed by the holiday sentiment generated by the plot and actors. One of the sad things about the film is that, while we have accepted it as a “holiday classic,” so to speak, we’ve ignored the deeper meaning behind that sentiment. When we haven’t been watching the film, we’ve forgotten the George Baileys of the world, and idolized the Potters.

And now we’re paying for that ill-considered idolization.