I doubt I need to recount the story for you.
Watching It’s a Wonderful Life is almost as much of a holiday tradition as gathering round the TV for another showing of Scrooge. I recently re-watched Frank Capra’s movie after a two-year hiatus but there were Christmases when I couldn’t change the channel and not see George doing everything in his power to stop the nefarious Mr. Potter from taking over Bedford Falls.
It’s a classic David & Goliath tale. As George’s dreams of travel and adventure fade, he manages to create something far more important. The small Building & Loan company his father founded makes it possible for just about everyone in town to achieve their dreams. While his friends are leaving to get rich, George helps the town’s working class immigrants buy decent homes and launch their own small businesses. Even when Potter steals the $8,000 Uncle Billy lost, the wealthy banker can’t break the Building & Loan.
Angels and ordinary citizens
Why? The answer is simple and it’s got little to do with George’s eccentric guardian angel, sent by God to save the day. It’s the townspeople who come together to save George — just as he has saved each one of them. In the end, it’s ordinary citizens who create the kind of democracy that can’t be broken by corporate greed and self-interest.
The 1947 movie is far more visionary than it seems at first glance. Whereas Scrooge is firmly grounded in a trickle-down theory of economics, It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t buy into Dickens’ faith in the potential selflessness of the elite. The film even caught the FBI’s attention for the producer’s dark view of the One Percent’s capacity to act against its own interests.
According to the report, the film contained “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. . . a common trick used by Communists.”
Capra’s magnum opus, as he liked to call it, will likely remain a Christmas staple for years to come, in spite of — or because of — its sentimental idea of what a community can be. Sadly, that idea is now just that: an idea with little relation to reality. The pandemic has made the Mr. Potters of this world richer than ever. As for the rest of us, well, we’re at their mercy.
It’s a Wonderful Life’s rosy ending was never wholly accurate. Even in post-WWII America, the rich held more power than they should have. Companies exploited the environment and most people, especially minorities, worked for low wages.
But things were markedly different.
There was a solid middle class, unions protected workers, students weren’t crippled by loans and the income gap wasn’t nearly as large as it is now. People could afford to take care of their families if they got sick and retirement was something many older Americans looked forward to.
Ballfields and ketchup sandwiches
My father’s father never went to college and he worked as a machinist for General Electric for most of his life. He didn’t make a lot of money, yet he was still able to send all four of his kids to good colleges. Despite the ketchup sandwiches they ate when GE workers went on strike, my grandfather and his family lived comfortably.
Baseball was always a passion of his, so much so that he and his buddies decided in the 1950s that they wanted to create a baseball field. They put up their own houses as collateral for the local bank loan they took out. Afterward, they made the night lights for the ballpark in their off time at GE. Thousands of kids played ball at that field over the years.
It’s hard for me to imagine a similar scenario happening now. Nobody who falls into the working class could risk using their house as collateral for a baseball field today. Or for anything at all. And it seems unlikely a company would allot time for something that doesn’t make money.
Even more to the point, could a machinist buy his own home and send four kids to college in this economy? To believe this seems as fantastical as arguing that unicorns are real.
A January 2021 Bankrate.com study showed that less than half — just 41 percent — of adults living in the U.S. could pay for a $1,000 emergency. An additional 37 percent of respondents said they would have to borrow money to cover the $1,000 expense.
One of the things that strikes me about Capra’s movie is that it’s not just the houses, the businesses and the town center that are different in the George-free version of Bedford Falls. It’s the people too. They’re harder, angrier, more bitter versions of themselves — wary people who have learned not to trust those in power or even their own neighbors, their own families.
That’s where we are now. You might not get this from watching all the TV inauguration fare, but how many people actually put their faith in the power brokers who call the shots?
We’re here not only because of the pandemic and Trump’s presidency, but also because the Potters of this world are making a grab for wealth unlike anything we’ve ever seen in this country. According to the Harvard Business Review, the richest Americans have added one trillion dollars to their coffers since Coronavirus began in 2020.
Moreover, the Institute for Policy Studies recently announced that 56 more Americans have become billionaires since the pandemic began, bringing the total to 659. Last year, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk alone increased their net worth by $217 billion.
Though Bezos’ company had paid no taxes at all since its inception, Amazon did fork over a measly 1.2 percent of its profits for the first time ever in 2019. Compare this to what the average single American contributed: a whopping 29.8% of their earnings went to three taxes in 2019 — income taxes, Medicare, and Social Security.
Will President Biden call any of that into question? Maybe. But even a brief glance at his inaugural donors makes me wonder. Amazon (*cough*), Google, Boeing, Microsoft, Qualcomm and Comcast are just a few of the corporations that funneled millions into the virtual inauguration. I won’t even mention the individual billionaires on the list.
Despite an open letter signed by dozens of watchdog groups calling for him to reject such donations, Biden chose not to pass up the money pouring in for the event.
Why have the elites profited so much?
One reason is the financial sector’s success. While nearly 400,000
Americans died of coronavirus in 2020, the stock market had a historic run. The S&P 500-stock index rose more than 16 percent. The Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Nasdaq gained 7.25 percent and 43.6 percent, respectively. Despite — or because of — the pandemic, both The Dow and S&P 500 reached record levels.
There are a number of reasons for this and several involve bankers. According to The Guardian,
In addition to providing incredibly low interest rates, central banks have directly backed private bond markets. This is “an unprecedented intervention in the case of the US Federal Reserve. These private bond purchases should not be thought of as monetary policy in a conventional sense. Rather, they resemble a quasi-fiscal policy, with the central bank acting as an agent for the Treasury.”
Sound like Mr. Potter’s powerplay during the run on the bank? It does to me.
What about the rest of us?
We’re not doing so well.
In addition to the hundreds of thousands of deaths, nearly 8 million Americans have fallen into poverty since March 2020. For all the talk about diversity, minorities have been hit hardest of all. Forbes reports:
Due to the coronavirus pandemic’s decimation of the labor market and the months-long expiration of benefits from the government relief package keeping families afloat, the poverty rate in the United States surged from 9.3% in June to 11.7% in November, according to a report released Wednesday by analysts at the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame, creating the biggest increase in a single year since the government began tracking poverty in 1960.
Those without a college education, many of whom are minorities, have been disproportionately affected, as have children. According to the study, the poverty rate for Blacks has increased 3.1% since June. Likewise, the rate for individuals without a college degree climbed from 17% in June to 22.1% in November.
Medicare For All is nothing but a pipe dream, even though millions have lost health insurance. Up to 43 percent of Americans lack proper coverage or have no insurance at all. Yet there is no change in sight.
According to David Sirota:
Biden’s new health care plan lifted its proposals from insurance lobbyists’ letter — it would provide lucrative subsidies to insurers that pumped cash into the 2020 election. It avoids a promised public option & Dem legislation to expand Medicare.
A Pottersvillesque dystopian dream
The town next to mine used to be known for highly crafted furniture. Over the years the factories closed, the malls emptied and the downtown morphed into a gutted mess of empty storefronts interspersed with weed dispensaries, pizza places, laundromats, vape shops and liquor stores. The theater on Main Street shut its doors decades ago but even the local cinema now only advertises private showings — which, I doubt, are happening at all.
All the negatives associated with poverty are on the rise. Heroin use reached record levels in 2020. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), provisional data shows that last year is on track to be the deadliest year for U.S. drug overdose deaths in recorded history.
Suicide has increased as well. The CDC study states that one in four Americans have contemplated suicide in the past 30 days. Even more disturbing, suicides among young people have skyrocketed. The suicide rate for those ages 10 to 24 rose nearly 60 percent between 2007 and 2018. And that was before the pandemic hit.
Maybe childhood was never the fairy tale it is in It’s a Wonderful Life, but we’re pretty far from Zuzu and her flower petals.
This state of affairs is unlikely to change, in part because the people who are supposed to represent us are wealthy themselves. The median income for a member of Congress is just over a million dollars but that doesn’t begin to capture the wealth some of our senators and representatives possess.
Mitch McConnell (R-KY), former Senate majority leader and current minority leader, is worth $34 million. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the senior Democratic member on the powerful Judiciary Committee, is worth more than $58 million and is married to billionaire Richard Blum. Senator Rick Scott (R-FL), new chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has nearly $255 million in assets. Mark Warner (D-VA), head of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, is worth $300 million and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) is worth $100 million.
The list includes plenty of representatives and it’s not confined to one party. According to Open Secrets, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is worth $120 million. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) has a net worth of approximately $283 million. Issa left politics in 2018 but has successfully returned, despite past allegations that he used his former position as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to increase his own fortune. Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), Vice Chair of the Joint Economic Committee, is worth $31 million. And on and on.
Many of these wealthy politicians have gotten even wealthier during the pandemic and some of their backers couldn’t be happier about politicians’ reluctance to help those who really need it.
Take a look at contributions to McConnell, the man who sabotaged plans to give Americans a mere $2,000 just days before Christmas (a Potter allusion seems in order here and I’m not talking about Harry). None of the rich senator’s wealthy donors seem to have an issue with his decisions during the pandemic. One might even conclude that the opposite is true.
There has been much talk about President Biden’s stimulus plan but I wouldn’t bank on it. Pun intended. Even before it goes to Congress, it contains a proposal to give Americans $1,400 not the $2,000 Biden promised. Despite the fact that 70 percent of Americans support universal health insurance, it isn’t even on the table.
Meanwhile 900,000 Americans filed new unemployment claims last week. Last time I checked, if you lose your job you usually lose your health insurance. Which isn’t ideal during a pandemic. In addition to those who are out of a job, there are millions without insurance who are barely scraping by in our gig economy.
Moreover, many believe the stimulus proposal won’t pass — at least not in a form that gives Americans anything close to what they need. Senate Minority Leader McConnell (aka Potter-not-Harry) has already voiced his opposition, no doubt because he’s certain his fat-cat donors will be pleased as punch.
On the other side of the aisle, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), net worth $10 million, has also expressed doubt about the stimulus payments. No matter that he represents one of the poorest states in the country. Almost 30 percent of children under 6 in West Virginia live in poverty and nearly 25 percent of kids between 6 and 11 years of age fall into that category.
Not that the senators’ potential opposition is a pressing matter. There is at this time no date set for negotiations on the stimulus plan. Instead the Senate will be considering former President Trump’s impeachment.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote “Reserving judgment is a matter of infinite hope.” I’m more or less done with reserving judgment when it comes to judging those who wield real power in this country. I’m going to hold those who purportedly represent ordinary Americans to the same standard their benefactors routinely apply to us. In other words: Show me the money.
As for the way out of this morass, it seems unlikely we’ll be able to wish ourselves into a better version of America the way George Bailey did on that distant Christmas Eve.