American Madness (Frank Capra Relevant Today)

American Madness (Frank Capra Relevant Today) April 4, 2020

If you want some economic advice from a man who got America through the Great Depression, watch American Madness by Frank Capra. This is not  Capra’s best motion picture, but even workaday Capra is better than most motion pictures and more educational than an entire online university.

After all, Frank Capra kept calm in the panic of the Great Depression, hated the fascists, and resisted Communism. He did this while entertaining us and making films that are (mostly) still relevant almost a century later. That is better than most academics of the 1930’s and 1940’s could claim.

Banks tottered during the Depression and many failed. Frank Capra saw that economic malaise was not the most serious problem. People were the problem. Americans lost their heads. A rumor about a bank would travel the social media of the day, the newish telephone. Bad news travels, because bad feels like it must be true. If we act quickly on our inside tip, then we can save our family and friends. To save them, we must tell them and so rumor speeds, creating confusion, panic, disorder. Capra saw what Homer knew:

And in their midst blazed forth Rumour, messenger of Zeus, urging them to go; and they were gathered. [95] And the place of gathering was in a turmoil, and the earth groaned beneath them, as the people sate them down, and a din arose.

Rushing to get their own money, Americans would often topple an otherwise sound institution in a “run on the bank.” Perversely, a run punished the good with the bad.  If too many people were hotheaded gossips, the virtuous people who were calm lost their money too when the bank could not pay.

Do not overlook the role of a new technology in panic. Information could suddenly in the 1920’s and 1930’s travel at the speed of sound. The fact that one heard bad news over “the instrument” . . .the highest tech piece of equipment one had in the home or office. . .gave weird authority to the utterances. Social media on digital platforms may still be new enough to cause us to take it too seriously. The amazing abilities of my iPad may cause me to take the rumors to be truth.

What to do? People will gossip, bad news does travel and new technology is here to stay. In the film, Capra relies on what we know: each other. If we know our co-worker is a person of integrity, more than a rumor or a bit of circumstantial evidence should be needed to convict him. He wants people to go local, as much as they can, so they can talk to their banker. In our context, this might mean a credit union. If you know your banker, and you should, call him and ask.

If he is a good man, he will tell the truth. The temptation when things are going wrong is to lie, hoping somehow one can fix the problem before destruction. A good person will not lie. This is a reason to look for integrity in corporate leadership. Thankfully, such men and women do not exist only in a Capra movie, I know many.

We all can. The more we know the people with whom we do business, the less rumor will panic us. The American madness that was a part of the Great Depression came when folks easily accepted “facts” that did not fit what they knew from experience about people and institutions.

While sheltering in place, this is a good time to register for an education at Capra U.

Watch American Madness.

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