Tuesday, December 16, 2008

It's a Wonderful Indebted Life

George Bailey. George Bailey the selfless hero. George Bailey the irrational enabler of irresponsible debt. Yes, this is the disturbing revelation I had as I watched "It's a Wonderful Life" this evening. Granted, this is an exaggeration, but part of me wonders how deeply entrenched frantic borrowing and desperate house buying is in our culture.

Bailey Brothers Building and Loan helps poor (but good) people finance their homes. When Black Tuesday strikes, George explains to his clients that everyone's money is wrapped up in the equity of other people's homes. That's standard, but George Bailey Sr. apparently lent at a charitable, practically nonexistent rate leaving little room for error let alone profit. The movie's message is that you have to be a martyr to be a good, respectable businessman. At another point Old Man Potter's rent collector says that Bailey only charges half of what it costs to build the home. All for the sake of getting everyone a home. At what price? To what end?

I've questioned the rationale for a state interest in home subsidization before but this gets me thinking even further. Some companies and charities help subsidize home ownership in the name of social equity, fairness, and economic empowerment. Granted much of this was financed by a home ownership push by the Clinton Administration and continued under Bush, but a lot of private organizations honestly believe in pushing home ownership. However, if a person is not capable of saving a reasonable down payment or can earn a decent, steady salary - can they be trusted with the equity in their home? Can they be trusted to meet their payments? When Ernie the taxi driver or Mrs. Welsh the school teacher or Violet the town tramp can't make their payments, it hurts George Bailey's ability to finance other people's homes or to pay back the bank. Altruism isn't all that it's cracked up to be. How's that for a Christmas sentiment?

Well, I still cherish this movie even if only for nostalgia's sake. I believe in civil society - just not using private company as a charity. I love the part when Mary offers their honeymoon nestegg up to help the Bailey Building and Loan clients during the Black Tuesday crisis. That's a responsible individual volunteering to help. I also love how Bedford Falls rallies around George and his family. I believe in the goodness of individuals and in the Christmas spirit.

Happy Holidays everyone!

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