White: And the relationship between morality and banking comes up really early, right when we see that the newly wedded Baileys won’t be taking their honeymoon, but will instead be using that money to temporarily bail out the Building and Loan. Here’s some of the speech that George gives that sets him on that course:
If Potter gets hold of this Building and Loan, there’ll never be another decent house built in this town … He wants to keep you living in his slums and paying the kind of rent he decides. Joe, you had one of those Potter houses, didn’t you? Well, have you forgotten? Have you forgotten what he charged you for that broken-down shack? Here, Ed. You know, you remember last year when things weren’t going so well, and you couldn’t make your payments? You didn’t lose your house, did you? Do you think Potter would have let you keep it? Can’t you understand what’s happening here? Don’t you see what’s happening? Potter isn’t selling. Potter’s buying! And why? Because we’re panicking and he’s not. That’s why. He’s picking up some bargains. Now, we can get through this thing all right. We’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.
I found that speech interesting not just because it sets up the rest of the movie and how George views his banking career, but also because it focuses on some issues that our economy is still wrestling with today, notably the power and relative security that society offers to homeowners in contrast to those who are perpetual renters and subject to the whims and graces of landlords. Of course, prices have risen and loan products have gotten infinitely more complex (not to mention regulated), but I thought the conversation about foreclosure and housing security was still relevant to our current economy.
Lam: There clearly wasn’t renter protection in Bedford Falls, and the housing market didn’t have enough competition. It was a Potter monopoly without regulation. But the issue of who should and shouldn’t get credit is still a conversation our society is grappling with, especially in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
Potter talks about this early on when he challenges Bailey: Why would you give Ernie Bishop, the taxi driver, a loan? You know he’s going to miss payments and foreclosure might be a possibility. Bailey gets to be the good guy who makes risky loans and forgives people when they miss payments, but he’s also risking his business along with it.
I also couldn’t help but think about payday loans during this movie. Bedford Falls is a middle-class town, but there are working-class people—such as Ernie and Martini—who can barely afford a house. Without George Bailey, the two would wind up living in run-down rental shacks with nothing to show for their blue-collar work. But Potter thinks that the working class should be “thrifty.” He questions why people can’t just be more disciplined and save money, the same way people with means today wonder why anyone would take out something as awful as a payday loan. I think the movie explores a lot of the questions we grapple with when it comes to credit, like who should have it and on what terms.
White: I think part of what makes It’s a Wonderful Life such an appealing movie is that people can easily rally around Bailey as the savior of the community. He’s a hard-working and self-sacrificing businessman, who is helping out his neighbors. In the end, the community saves itself. I think what’s interesting is that in reality, many places probably didn’t have a George Bailey. And certainly now—with bank consolidation—there are fewer and fewer neighborhood financial institutions and certainly fewer individuals who could help bridge those gaps. In those instances, people who are having a hard time would have much less heart-warming options: government services or dangerous, expensive short-term loans, like payday or auto titles.