“It’s a Wonderful Life” remains the most-watched film of this holiday season. In this 1946 classic, George Bailey jumps up on the counter of his savings and loan company to counter the run on his small bank, triggered by the rich banker, Mr. Potter. Bailey points out that the money is not stored there, but is invested in the modest new houses across the community of Bedford Falls.
But when the deposit money is misplaced, Bailey doubts the value his life and ends up on the bridge over the river, contemplating suicide. That is where the novice angel Clarence intercedes, showing Bailey what the community would be like if he had never existed. Bailey, returns home, the community contributes to cover the lost money, and a bell indicates that Clarence finally earned his wings.
But this year, that plot seems unlikely. Times have turned. And the passage of the new tax bill is just another signal that Mr. Potter’s world will be the theme of future Christmases. Our dark and sooty future is more akin to Potterville, the name given to Bedford Falls when it came under the total influence of the rich Mr. Potter. It is a future where the gap between the one percent fabulously wealthy and the lower working class grows to historical dimensions.
This decline did not begin with last month’s tax restructuring that channels tremendous amounts to the rich corporate elite forever while handing a few coins in tax relief to the lower classes for a few years.
It is the rich corporations that won the battle to kill net neutrality—and the rich who will enjoy higher speed internet.
It is the rich who will send their children to private or charter schools that can hire away the better teachers. And it is the poorer children who will be left with the financially starved public schools with more underqualified and alternative teachers.
It is the rich who can afford the elite universities, while more lower and middle class students become unable to attend good “public” universities without loans. With state schools becoming privatized due to dwindling state support, forcing poorer students to take loans benefits Banker Potter.
The massive tax breaks for the wealthy will generate a tremendous national deficit and almost certainly will generate attempts to cut social security. Before social security, the elderly were by far the largest group of Americans in poverty. “It’s a Wonderful Life” spoke to the heart of a new elderly generation that had just risen out of that poverty. We now enter a dark time when our legislators are likely to return to the “I got mine, you get yours” Depression Era mindset.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” clearly contrasts the consequences of societies that operate for private profit or for public good. The movie may be fiction, but it portrays some stark realities supported by research. Thomas Piketty's book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” a recent award-winning study of several centuries of empirical economic data, clearly shows that rich owners of capital accumulate wealth far more rapidly than the working class.
Frank Capra directed this film after World War II and when the Great Depression was still in mind. It was a time when optimism reigned and everyone knew tomorrow would be better than today, because today was better than yesterday. But for some time now, American parents have seen their children on average get less education and make less money. And while the number of American millionaires has never been greater, the gap between the rich elite and our dwindling middle class and growing lower class has grown.
Will American communities continue to become more politically bitter? Will a new film re-make be titled “It’s a Wonderful Life for the Rich”? Will a new film script see Bailey jump from the bridge? Will Clarence not get his wings? And will the theme for our future be the popular 1920s song “Ain’t We Got Fun” where “...the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer”?