. . .we wouldn’t be having this financial meltdown! Washington Post columnist Ross Douthat puts the blames our current financial meltdown on George Bailey, of Frank Capra’s masterpiece It’s a Wonderful Life:
Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey was actually a pretty savvy businessman. And it’s even easier to forget the precise nature of his business: putting the downscale families of Bedford Falls into homes they couldn’t quite afford to buy.
This is the substance of the great war between Bailey and Lionel Barrymore’s Mr. Potter, the richest, meanest man in Bedford Falls. Potter is against easy credit and the suburban dream, against the rabble moving out of his tenements and buying homes, while the Bailey Building and Loan exists to make suburbia possible.
The Bailey vision is economic and moral all at once. In a mid-movie peroration, the hero lectures Potter and a gaggle of local entrepreneurs on the virtues of democratizing homeownership: “You’re all businessmen here,” he presses them, sounding for all the world like a politician defending Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac against their critics in 2004 or so. “Doesn’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers? . . . What’d you say a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait? . . . Do you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars?”
In the movie, George Bailey has God on his side, but a real-life Bailey would have had Uncle Sam. “It’s a Wonderful Life” debuted in 1946, more than a decade after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Housing Act kicked off a half-century of federal policymaking aimed at making it dramatically easier for working-class Americans to buy and keep their homes.
It’s true that the same lenders people are condemning as “predatory” were praised not long ago for devising ways to allow lower-income people to buy their own homes. Douthat does say that George Bailey’s goal was an admirable one and worth making possible, but still, such well-intentioned schemes helped bring down the economy.