Candidates: Want to Win? Get A Clue How from 'It's A Wonderful Life'
January 4, 2016
Another holiday season has ended, another season when Clarence won his angel’s wings by saving George Bailey from the clutches of that mean banker Henry Potter.
Yes, this year, as in the past 70 years since the film was first released, it’s been a wonderful life with a happy ending in Bedford Falls. Imagine, 70 years for a film produced on a budget of $3 million. It continues to ring up millions more each year as families ritually watch it together for for the multeenth time on cable networks or well-worn DVDs.
Ah, but this is a political column, not a movie review. And the politics embedded in the Bedford Falls saga, and our reaction to it, is worth considering as we enter this presidential election year.
In the film, George Bailey runs a community savings and loan offering rates and terms that make homes affordable for the good people of Bedford Falls. Bailey and his family haven’t become wealthy from this business, but they are well off and live comfortably. Henry Potter is a greedy banker who sends George to the brink of bankruptcy, jail and suicide. With George and his competitive bank out of the way Potter would corrupt and impoverish everyone in town to bulk up his own fortune.
Clarence, the good angel, gives George the courage to go on, and the grateful townspeople come to George’s rescue. Those who live in Bedford Falls realize that if George goes down they all suffer. It’s a heartwarming ending.
As for political messages, the most obvious is that working together the community can save George Baily, something none of them has the power to do on their own. A related political message is that without competition from Bailey’s savings and loan Potter would charge outrageous interest and impose exploitive terms. Competition means choice. It’s worth fighting for.
That’s the way it was in fictional Bedford Falls, 1946. Compare that to the reality of the U.S., 2016 and you can’t help but see us slowly becoming Potterville.
Two thirds of all the banking assets in the U.S. are controlled by just six banks. Three companies control the health insurance market. Need a cell phone carrier, a plane ticket, a hook up to broadcast and cable? Options are limited and being squeezed down more each year as companies merge to achieve “competitive scale.”
There are many brands of eyeglasses but one company that owns them all. After the Live Nation-Ticketmaster merger, that combined company controls 80% of the event-ticketing market. Drug stores? Walgreens just bought Rite Aid. Drug makers? Pfizer and Allergen are combining in the biggest merger ever. In fact, 2015 was the biggest year for mergers in U.S. business history.
Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley---the big banks make enormous fees with each merger. Managers of merged companies often reap tens of millions in contract benefits. Shareholders almost always rejoice. That’s the upside. The downside is usually job cuts, reduced service, higher prices and all of the negative consequences economics 101 courses warn result from monopoly.
All of this contraction is contributing to the ever wider gulf of inequality as managers and shareholders and bankers make huge economic gains while middle class and lower paid workers’incomes stagnate.
There’s another message worth gleaning from It’s A Wonderful Life. George Bailey’s savings and loan wasn’t a growth company. But it was profitable year-after-year. Somehow we’ve fallen into the trap of accepting a “need” for accelerating growth from our corporate world. If a company doesn’t show big gains Wall Street punishes it. Even Apple, now the most valuable company in the world, is under the gun because big investors worry it can’t keep growing 20% a year as iphone sales tail off. Would it be so terrible if Apple just made the same $13 billion this year that it did last?
Why are public companies, and those owned by equity funds and other quasi-public entities required to do the unreasonable to satisfy those who can’t stand the thought of slow growth? And what does this investor class actually contribute to the nation’s economy or anything else? With IPOs and private investments for expansion those with money help create new companies and strengthen existing ones. But moving money around to gain a few points on the stock market serves no purpose for company management other than to pressure managers to merge, cook books and do other things to dress up stock portfolios for quick hits.
In Bedford Falls life went on, homes were bought and sold, the economy remained stable. There was equilibrium and a satisfying sense of security. That’s not what we see reflected in the 2016 presidential campaign. Why else would people be ready to vote for inexperience and political extremes if they were not feeling extremely insecure with what we have?
Yet, except for Bernie Sanders, no candidate is elevating the what’s-wrong-with-capitalism issue. They’re missing a big opportunity. Any of them could be a real-life George Bailey, who, according to American Film Institute ranking, is the 9th greatest hero ever in cinema. And, as Bailey, that candidate could take on Henry Potter, in the form of Wall Street. AFI ranks Potter as the 6th greatest villain. Political polls show the same public distrust of Wall Street and the U.S. financial system as Bedford Falls' citizens had for Potter.
In this year when the presidential campaign is shaping up as a unique drama, candidates could do well to adapt a version of It’s A Wonderful Life as their script.
(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)