Frank Capra's 1946 film, It's a Wonderful Life, to be broadcast again tonight at 8 by NBC television, is loved most for its personal message of discovery at Christmas: that its hero's life has been, unbeknownst to him, crucial to his family, friends, community and even his country.
Such general encouragement may seem more needed than ever these days; indeed, this may be, sadly, the cause of the film's popularity. But It's a Wonderful Life may be more important still for its overlooked lesson in democratic economics, a lesson arising from the struggle for survival of a combination credit union and savings bank, the Bailey Building & Loan in the Everytown of Bedford Falls.
The Building & Loan's founder and chief executive, Peter Bailey, has died and its board of directors is deciding the institution's future. The richest man in town, Potter, a misanthropic banker, ruthless landlord and board member, played by Lionel Barrymore, proposes to dissolve the Building & Loan, and his callousness angers Bailey's elder son, George, played earnestly by Jimmy Stewart, who has been working as assistant to his father.
POTTER: Peter Bailey was not a businessman. That's what killed him. Oh, I don't mean any disrespect to him, God rest his soul. He was a man of high ideals -- so-called. But ideals without common sense can ruin this town. Now you take this loan here, to Ernie Bishop. You know, the fellow who sits around all day on his ... brains, in his taxi. I happen to know the bank turned down this loan. But he comes here, and we're building him a house worth $5,000. Why?
GEORGE BAILEY: Well, I handled that, Mr. Potter. You have all the papers there -- his salary, insurance. I can personally vouch for his character.
POTTER: A friend of yours.
BAILEY: Yes, sir.
POTTER: You see, if you shoot pool with some employee, you can come and borrow money. What does that get us? A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class. And all because a few starry-eyed dreamers like Peter Bailey stir them up and fill their heads with a lot of impossible ideas. Now I say. ...
BAILEY: Now hold on, Mr. Potter. Just a minute. Now you're right when you say my father was no businessman -- I know. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante building-and-loan I'll never know. But neither you nor anyone else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was. ... Why, in the 25 years since he and Uncle Billy started this thing, he never thought of himself. Isn't that right, Uncle Billy? He didn't save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me, but he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter. Now, what's wrong with that? Why, you're all businessmen here. Doesn't it make them better citizens? Doesn't it make them better customers? You said that ... what did you say a minute ago? "They have to wait and save their money before they even think of a decent home." Wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they're so old and broken-down that they. ... Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000? Just remember this, Mr. Potter: that this "rabble" you're talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. ...
At the board's insistence, George Bailey takes over in his father's place to keep the Building & Loan going, and soon he forestalls a run on it, part of a general financial panic, by putting up the money he has saved for his honeymoon and by preaching to a mob of frightened depositors about how they should not withdraw their money but instead have faith in the institution, because their money isn't kept in cash in the safe but rather is invested in the houses, the mortgages, the very lives of their neighbors.
Of course this is Capra's metaphor for politics and the world: that there is progress when everyone is given a chance, a little capital and credit, when people play by the rules, look out for each other, and don't take too much more than they need, and that selfishness is the ruin of everything.
Something like this -- more or less a policy of helping to make middle-class everyone who aspired to it and would indeed play by the rules, a policy of democratizing capital and credit -- made the United States the most prosperous country and the most successful in elevating the human condition.
But for a few decades now the price of obtaining and maintaining those "two decent rooms and a bath" and the middle-class life to go with it has risen as real wages have fallen for most, largely under the pressure of government's unrelenting taxes in the name of services that have not really been rendered, a welfare system that has subsidized what somehow is not permitted to be called the antisocial behavior it is, and a plutocracy that has gained control of both major political parties.
There seem to be more people who, if too confused or demoralized to be dangerous, are still closer to being a "rabble" than the country saw even during the Great Depression.
Even at its best now Christmas is seldom more than an itinerant charity that, necessary as it may seem, tends to suppress the great political question of the day after Christmas, the question of how things can be organized to ensure that everyone has a good chance to earn his way in decency. But the great joy of Christmas is that the answer has been given, that we are not lost, that the country has been shown the way and can recover it -- that society can work for all, that it really can be a wonderful life if enough selfless people make it a political one.
Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, based in Manchester, Conn., and an essayist.