Americans like the movie It’s A Wonderful Life (see its ranking according to the American Film Institute). Yet, I am not sure that those same viewers and reviewers have taken the morals of the film to heart. Specifically, I will discuss two key themes and how American society has trended away from the lessons of the story.
The main villain, Mr. Potter, runs a heartless bank. In contrast, George Bailey continues in the family business and operates the local savings & loan. George wants to help local residents get into a new single-family home (which look like they are part of a new suburban subdivision). George ends up being the hero as he is a compassionate local businessman while Mr. Potter is cruel.
But, hasn’t the large, impersonal, profit-driven bank won out in American society, particularly as it comes to providing funding for single-family homes? Even as the film was made (in 1947), significant changes in the mortgage industry were already underway to help provide more long-term mortgages and government support for private mortgages. As the decades passed, more and more local banks were bought by national and international banks. The savings and loans organizations disappeared, particularly toward the end of the 20th century. The housing bubble of the late 2000s largely involved huge financial institutions who had invested in mortgages. The situation is a far cry from the era depicted in the film.
The megabanks of today may be more impersonal than cruel but the idea is the same: they do not have as much interest in local communities as George Bailey and his family. George’s institution needs to make money and he seems to be doing okay with a home and job. but it also feels a responsibility toward local residents. Even if Americans say they like the idea of small businesses and local businesses that part of communities, haven’t they given over control or assented to a financial system dominated by large firms?