It’s Still a Wonderful Life

It’s interesting to watch It’s a Wonderful Life through the lens of the current economic crisis. Watching the run on the Bailey Building and Loan, and listening to George explain how bank loans work, I’m struck by how far finance as an industry has come, with so many labyrinthine variations on illiquid funds, debt, stocks, speculation, etc. A modern version might go something like this:

“You act like I’ve got the money back in the safe. But it’s in Joe’s house, and he’s mortgaged to the hilt because although he only makes $80,000 a year he wants people to think he makes $100,000, and he wants the jet ski and the Hummer and so you loaned him the money because you were in the same frat and why not? They’re just numbers, ink on a page. Everybody fudges the numbers, even Joe!”

And the scene where Potter tries to buy George out. It’s become the American Dream.

You wouldn’t mind living in the nicest house in town, buying your wife a lot of fine clothes, a couple of business trips to New York a year, maybe once in a while Europe. You wouldn’t mind that, would you, George?

I think most of Wall Street sold out to Potter at birth. It’s pretty much the goal of most Americans. But it shouldn’t be; and that’s actually one of the lessons of the movie that people miss.

The movie is trying to tell us that the stuff we think of as “important” – building big things, living the good life, fame, fortune – is so far, far less important than helping people and holding it down in your own corner of the world, wherever that may be.

One of the things Camille Paglia[1] talks a lot about is elevating the trades. We’ve become so materialistic that we assume that anyone who makes less than $30,000 or who doesn’t work in an office is automatically a second class citizen. We’ve got to find some way to be happy with who we are and what we do. Because it seems like no one is.

1.) Who by the way, clearly has a big crush on Sarah Palin, so I take her less seriously than I used to.