Why Every Banker In America Should (Re)Watch “It’s A Wonderful Life”

Our greatest film-makers (and Frank Capra most certainly was one of them) do far more than just entertain. They convey profundity and wisdom – and often in ways we’d never expect.

This holiday season, whether you’re someone who says “bah humbug” whenever the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is inevitably replayed each Christmas or have instead always been a admirer of Capra’s immortal lesson that “no man is a failure who has friends,” I strongly urge you to at least watch (and then read) the below scene – one which, to me, teaches virtually everything America desperately needs to relearn about the moral compass of economics if we’re ever successfully going to rebuild this great country and, in the process, transform banking back into the honorable profession it can and ought to be.

Sure – banking isn’t the first thing most people think about when they think about Christmas. These days, however, it should at least be one of them. Perhaps that was Capra’s greatest stroke of genius: the ability to perfectly illustrate exactly why the same ethical values we celebrate during the holidays are so essential for maintaining a healthy and vibrant financial system.

In the short yet brilliant burst of dialogue below – a violent clash of wills between stodgy old Mr. Potter and entrepreneurial young George Bailey – we are presented with two vastly different understandings of capitalism. We learn exactly why America’s best hope for the future lies 100% with the latter rather than the former. And, without doubt, everything spoken here is as relevant to our present-day Great Recession as to those long dark years following the 1929 crash.

Importantly, George is no socialist. His argument is that traditional American values like honesty, transparency, innovation and opportunity are far more likely to generate wealth and sustain functioning markets than locking up money in vaults and wasting human potential in the name of austerity.

This is absolutely NOT a contest between worn-out Washington DC slogans like “freedom” and “big government.” It’s a frank and important discussion about how and why “Christmas spirit” is still 100% relevant to the best practices in the banking sector – and, of course, to finding real happiness and meaning from life. Unlike our tired politicos, Capra doesn’t pander. He respects his audience. He isn’t afraid to wake them up.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s a lesson from which all us (bankers or not) could benefit by remembering a lot more frequently than merely once a year.

And with that, a merry Christmas to all!

From the script (a reformatted version of the scene in its entirety)

POTTER: “Ideals without common sense can ruin this town. Now, you take this loan here to Ernie Bishop . . . You know, that fellow that sits around all day on his brains in his taxi. You know . . . I happen to know the bank turned down this loan, but he comes here and we’re building him a house worth five thousand dollars. Why?”

GEORGE: “Well, I handled that, Mr. Potter. You have all the papers there. His salary – his insurance. I can personally vouch for his character.”

POTTER: “A friend of yours?”

GEORGE: “Yes, sir.”

POTTER: “You see, if you shoot pool with some employee here, you can come and borrow money. What does that get us? A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class. And all because a few starry-eyed dreamers like Peter Bailey stir them up and fill their heads with a lot of impossible ideas. Now, I say . . .”

GEORGE: “Just a minute –– just a minute. Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You’re right when you say my father was no business man. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I’ll never know. But neither you nor anybody else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was . . . Why, in the twenty-five years since he and Uncle Billy started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn’t that right, Uncle Billy? He didn’t save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter. And what’s wrong with that? Why . . . Here, you’re all businessmen here. Doesn’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers? You . . . you said . . . What’d you say just a minute ago? . . . They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait! Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they’re so old and broken-down that they . . . Do you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars? Just remember this, Mr. Potter: That this rabble you’re talking about . . . they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!”

POTTER: “I’m not interested in your book. I’m talking about the Building and Loan.”

GEORGE: “I know very well what you’re talking about. You’re talking about something you can’t get your fingers on, and it’s galling you. That’s what you’re talking about, I know. Well, I’ve said too much. I . . . You’re the Board here. You do what you want with this thing. Just one thing more, though: This  town needs this measly one-horse institution if only to have some place where people can come without crawling to Potter.”

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