A wonderful life … for some

What would George Bailey do?

It’s a Wonderful Life is a holiday classic movie that follows the life of George Bailey, a dreamer with aspirations of world travel. But life has other plans for him. He loses hearing in one ear while saving his brother’s life. When World War II breaks out, that disability keeps him home, minding his father’s savings-and-loan business, competing with Mr. Potter, the flint-hearted banker who preys upon the working people of Bedford Falls, the archetypal American town where both characters live. Jimmy Stewart plays George, who offers affordable loans to working people. Lionel Barrymore plays Mr. Potter, who wants to run Bailey Savings and Loan out of business so he can jack up interest rates and fulfill his ambition to own the town completely. When the Bailey Savings and Loan misses a payment to Potter, the villainous banker threatens George with ruin. Desperate, George attempts suicide, only to be saved by an apprentice angel named Clarence.

Clarence shows George how different things would have been had he never been born. Meanwhile, the people in Bedford Falls are summoned to help George, and they do, turning up on Christmas Eve to provide him with a heartfelt bailout.

That sounds pretty corny 62 years later, when so many people are being thrown out of work and driven from their homes by predatory real-life lenders even more heartless than Mr. Potter. When big money institutions like Bear Stearns began to make all those sub-prime loans and then sold that bundled paper to investors, the seeds were sown for a financial crop failure.

Meanwhile, the trolls who work for the corporate equivalent of Mr. Potter are busy blaming the victims. If only those grubby low-income people had not sought home loans … If only Democrats had not pressured Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to spread mortgage money around to minority folks … And if only all those greedy poor people hadn’t tried to catch the ride of ever-escalating home prices, then all would have been jim-dandy. But those bankers were banking on the idea that home prices would continue to rise, and failed to vet the credit-worthiness of people to whom they were doling out dough.

Angels named Paulson and Bernanke rushed to rescue all the Mr. Potters who’d gotten so much when the getting was so good. It wasn’t the George Baileys they sought to comfort. Instead, they handed out billions of taxpayer dollars to the Potter types, with no strings attached.

There were no angels, however, for the millions whose homes were in foreclosure, and no support for those few remaining small-town savings-and-loans where business was still conducted between people who kept a close eye on the bottom line.

An unregulated financial sector had run wild, turning a legion of Potters loose to gorge themselves without oversight. There was no George Bailey, and there was no angel named Clarence to watch over those who lacked the means to afford a battery of lawyers and lobbyists.

Was it a wonderful life?

For some, it was. While it lasted.