At my house the other night we watched again the movie that has become a staple of Television at Christmas time. It’s a Wonderful Life has been one of my favorite movies of all time. I have seen it many times, but because of our December schedule the last couple of years, it has probably been two of three years since I had last seen it. Watching it this year, I found myself being uncomfortable because it suddenly seemed to be a movie with a biased slant against capitalism. I had never felt that way about this movie before and the reaction both puzzled and bothered me. Why after all these years why would I find myself reacting that way?
I decided pretty quickly that Mr. Potter was the money-grubbing capitalist and obviously evil person in the story who was out to ruin the good and good-hearted George Bailey. In recent years – particularly in the last five years – what we have seen in movies and the news media has been heads of corporations characterized as Mr. Potters. The implication is that the heads of companies are all bad guys – callous, unfeeling, greedy, money-loving people out to not pay their fair share of taxes or anything else. They are Mr. Potters. The ones that usually makes the news are the ones being accused of something illegal. They have been politically attacked as a group for being “greedy”, uncaring of their fellow citizens, and not willing to help people who need it. They have – and I’m not the first to say this – become the primary “bad guy” types for movies. (Someone suggested that the script writers since the end of the cold war, can’t pick the someone from the USSR and others are “politically incorrect”, so capitalist are what’s left.) Now I believe there are evil people in the world and some of them are capitalists who are wealthy and head large companies. But I don’t believe that they are the majority of business people or company leaders.
But it really bothered me that here was one of my favorite all time movies that seemed to be sending a message that I felt was not fair or accurate. Then it occurred to me that George Bailey was also a capitalist. He was the head of a private company that was also required to cover expenses to survive. He wasn’t giving money away, he was loaning it with the expectation that it would be repaid. So what we really have in this movie are two capitalists, one a good guy and one not. The message of the movie I have always thought was that the good guys do things in life that make a difference even though they don’t necessarily realize how much difference they are making. They do what’s “right”, and gain people’s admiration and respect more than they may realize. But that doesn’t mean that bad things will never happen to them. But when it does they have the friends and family that can help them through it.
But today it occurs to me that their may be another message in this movie as well. Both Mr. Potter and George Bailey are capitalists. If one defines a “capitalist” as my dictionary does, it is a person who owns or runs a private company. Not only is George a “capitalist”, but many of his fiends and customers are as well. This would include the bar owner with whom he had a home loan mortgage, to his younger brother and his high school friend in the plastics business. In fact, if one thinks about it, most of the people in the movie were “business people” and the only one out of the many that was a “bad guy” was Mr. Potter. Having arrived at this point in my thinking, I would offer a few observations:
- The thing that bothers me the most about this is that even though I believe that a free market economy is a good and probably our best alternative, I have become so inundated by the politicians, press and media portrayal of capitalists as being bad guys, that I immediately thought of Mr. Potter as THE capitalist. I didn’t even think about the good guys in th movie being capitalists also. If I react that way without realizing it, the subliminal propaganda must be pretty pervasive. That is not good for the country.
- Management schools and management thinking in the last several decades have believed that the way to business success has been to take care of the customer. Companies that value, care about and understand their customers, are the ones which tend to be the most successful they have argued. They build customer loyalty which helps them through good times and bad. The movie makes this point clearly. George Bailey knew, understood and cared about his customers; Mr. Potter did not. In the end it was his customers, and his “good guy” capitalist friends that saved him. That, I think, is a point that should not be missed in this movie.
- There are evil people in the world and some of them are “capitalists”. But some of them are also politicians, government workers, and even people like coaches, and religious leaders. I don’t know why one should think any particular occupation should have more or less of the evil doers. But I do believe that the evil doers are a minority of the population – that most people are honest and trustworthy regardless of their occupation.
- It’s interesting to note that today after the housing crises, we are civil suits and even criminal charges against loan officers who made loans to people who did not re-pay them. That on the surface seems to be what George Bailey did, give money to people could not get it anywhere else. What’s the difference? Probably three subtle, but important differences 1) In 1946 people were expected to put probably 20% down to get a loan. So they had something to lose, both in terms of money and in respect since there was more cultural stigma to default. 2) George Bailey was keeping the loan, he wasn’t selling it to Fannie Mae or anyone else – he had something to lose. and 3) His customers knew he needed the money to stay in business and they were loyal.
It’s a Wonderful Life is still one of my favorite movies. If anything this experience has given me more appreciation for it. But it’s interesting how much our public perspective has changed since the movie was made in 1946. And the public perspective is important to how things work.