Saturday, December 23, 2006

It's a wonderful life in pottersville

"When we consider the character of any individual, we naturally view it under two different aspects; first, as it may affect his own happiness; and secondly, as it may affect that of other people."

-- Adam Smith, famous Free Market Philosopher

"Remember, no man is a failure who has friends."

-- Clarence, 2nd Class Angel in "It’s a Wonderful Life."

It’s the holiday season again. Millions of people will watch It’ a Wonderful Life, the 1946 Frank Capra movie starring Jimmy Stewart.

It's a life affirming movie with wonderful characters and a happy ending. There’s dancing and romancing. Good triumphs over evil. The little guy wins. It’s even got angels. In short, it has the kind of plot elements that appeal to the masses, but would normally make people like myself want to puke.

Yet "It’ a Wonderful Life" has somehow managed to transcend that angel sodden sugar plum plot synopsis and become an integral part of the holiday tradition, not just for those who believe in angels, but for others as well, including my own family.

Our eyes grow moist at crucial points throughout the movie. George saves his brother from drowning, saves the druggist from a tragic mistake, saves Uncle Billy from the mental institution, saves Violet Bick from becoming a drunken harlot, and ultimately saves Bedford Falls from becoming Pottersville. Tears flow freely when we learn that George Bailey, not Mr. Potter, is the richest man in town.

When the movie was released in 1946, few could have guessed that it would attain the status of timeless masterpiece. "It’s a Wonderful Life" was a box office flop and financial disaster that bankrupted its studio. Although nominated for several Academy Awards, it didn’t win in any category. It may seem strange to us now, but people felt that the movie was too political. And it is a very political movie. But with the passing of time and collective education, It's a Wonderful Life has become like This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie. Rabble rousing art turned patriotic blather for the masses. Everybody knows the words, but their meaning has been lost in the ether.

George Bailey is a child in the years immediately following World War I. He’s a teenager in the Roaring Twenties, a young man during the Great Depression and a middle aged family man through the end of the Second World War. Those years span momentous eras in the history of the United States. From the general economic well-being of the war years through the record setting prosperity of the 1920’s to the Great Depression of the 1930’s, society was rocked by wild mood swings and extreme changes in fortune and financial well-being. Radically different philosophies were embraced to explain the times. Each new era seemed to prove false the philosophy of its predecessor.

It’s a Wonderful Life presents those philosophical arguments just beneath the surface. George Bailey’s struggle with Mr. Potter for the soul of Bedford Falls pits the individualistic moral universe of the Roaring Twenties against the community oriented struggles of the Great Depression and war years. The arguments pitting the good of the community vs. the greed of the individual are not only illustrated by the parallel lives of George Bailey and Mr. Potter, but also by the parallel universes of Bedford Falls and Pottersville.

In Bedford Falls, freshly fallen snow blankets the town square. Patriotic buntings deck the walls and buildings. Main Street is empty at night save for a few parked cars and some lonely tire tracks in the snow. The trees are bedecked with Christmas lights. Precocious little boys sled down a hill onto an icy pond. Little girls in ribbons and bows twirl on soda fountain stools. People treat each other with respect. The cops and the cab drivers are nice, happy people. Christmas wreaths and glowing candles in the windows of classic American homes appear warm and inviting.

In Pottersville, nothing is warm and inviting. Certainly not its Main street panorama of nightclubs and bars that serve "hard liquor to people who want to get drunk fast." Blinking lights and cold neon signs garishly advertise the Blue Moon, billiards and fights every Wednesday night, the Indian Club, cocktails, pawn brokers, dancing at the Midnight Club and gorgeous girls who will jitterbug for a dime a dance.

The same men who are warm, fun loving guys in Bedford Falls – Bert the cop Ernie the cab driver, Nick the bartender; are angry wrecks living in broken down shacks in Pottersville. Women like Mary and Mrs. Bailey who were safely ensconced in the warmth of family and friends in Bedford Falls are lonely, cold and afraid of strangers in Pottersville.

The message was clear in 1946. George Bailey’s community spirit resulted in a better society than Mr. Potter’s relentless pursuit of financial self-interest.

Judging by the box office, people didn’t want to hear it back in those days. But somehow in our own time, that message has much more resonance.

It’s a bit ironic, because, let’s face it, we’re living in Pottersville.

An aspiring Capra could easily put together a montage of images depicting a Pottersville-like panoply of strip clubs, porn shops, casinos, bars, cops, and mean drunks in any decent sized city in the USA. The necessary footage is all too easy to come by.

And the similarities between Pottersville then and USA now do not end with the nightlife. Like the 1920’s that Pottersville depicts, we live in a time of record setting prosperity and technological revolution which is creating, or at least further entrenching, a class of super wealthy and a government that exists to protect their interests.

Then, as now, the rich, and the minority of people who participate in the stock market are getting richer a lot faster than those who have to work for a living. In 1920’s Pottersville the wealthiest 1 percent' controlled a statistically inordinate amount of the nation’s wealth and that number was compounded daily by the inexorable march of interest. Today, the top 1 percent of Americans own more than 35 percent of the nation's wealth, and one half of the population has less than $1000 in net financial assets. The government of both eras exacerbates the disparity though regressive tax policies and loopholes for wealthy campaign contributor types, John D. Rockefeller has been reborn as Bill Gates.

Then, as now, a technological revolution has provided more jobs. Back then skilled labor gave way to assembly lines that have now become customer services and teleservices and shipping and handling. Working in a phone center in Tucson or an IT department in Manhattan is the 1990’s equivalent of working on the assembly line in the 1920’s. No serious education is required.

As wages for the majority stagnate or decline, consumer debt keeps setting new records. The mailbox is full of easy credit.

We know that the 1920’s ended with the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. To the great surprise of conservatives everywhere, it turned out that things such as ever increasing income disparity and massive consumer debt that could not go on for ever didn't. One rich family could have thousands of times more assets than thousands of middle class families, but they didn’t buy a thousand times more washing machines. Not then, not now. Business fundamentals eventually brought stock valuations back in line with reality.

Although It’s a Wonderful Life deals with these grand issues, what sets it apart from other political message movies is its focus on the value of an individual life.

And paradoxically, that is the great lie at the heart of the movie - that the life of anyone like George Bailey would have any significant influence on the life of a city like Bedford Falls, much less the country.

Wars and recessions; boom times and depressions will come and go. Adam Smith’s "Invisible Hand" will continue to assure social results that are independent of individual intentions.

Ultimately, what separates people in It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t their interest in accumulating wealth but their attitude towards it. George's life long friend Sam Wainwright pursues wealth with the same single-minded intensity of Mr. Potter, but he wants his friends to get rich too, unlike Mr. Potter who tries to keep it all for himself.

Like the great majority of Americans, George Bailey never becomes inordinately wealthy. But, like most of us, he learns that the value of family and friends is more dear than the value of money.

George Bailey will be the richest man in town in any era. Although Pottersville may be just outside the door, that’s not an entirely bad thing. If one is so inclined, what’s so wrong with enjoying a jitterbug with a pretty girl in a gin joint from time to time? We can still be good people, even here in Pottersville.