Wed, Jul

It’s A Wonderful Community


AN ESSAY - ‘Tis the holiday season.  And for some, the holiday traditions include repeated viewings of such holiday classics as How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (and other Rankin-Bass classics), Love Actually, Die Hard, the much-underappreciated musical Scrooge, and, of course, It’s A Wonderful Life.

For a number of reasons, It’s A Wonderful Life has always been one of my personal favorites and continues to inspire and touch, even after repeated viewings.  Director Frank Capra was known for depicting small town “everyman” figures who, armed only with moral character, went up against the forces of self-interest and greed, usually personified by urban elite figures.

In contrast to some of the Northern European social democracies, America has long been known as country where “rugged individualism” has held sway, sometimes to the point of glorification (especially in the last half century by an assortment of acolytes of Ayn Rand) and where, ultimately, it’s chacun pour soi, every person for herself.  The objectivist ideal stands in stark contrast with those of us who recognize the irreplaceable importance of Community, writ large.

When it was originally released in 1946 and for several years thereafter, the FBI considered It’s A Wonderful Life to be Communist propaganda. Casting the rapacious and heartless Mr. Potter as the unmistakable villain was somehow seen as an “attack” on capitalism, never mind that almost a half century prior to the production of the film, President Teddy Roosevelt took aim at the oligarchs and Mr. Potters of the Gilded Age.  And yet, Frank Capra was certainly no Communist.  Opposing corporate greed and belief in the power of Community doesn’t make someone into a Communist.

While It’s A Wonderful Life is by no means Communist, it is very much a communitarian film, even more so than some of Capra’s other pictures, which also feature distinct elements of communitarianism.

I love It’s A Wonderful Life because it so completely embodies the values of Community, by turns tender-heartedly and humorously, but always forcefully.  For me, It’s A Wonderful Life is a communitarian masterpiece that balances the importance of each individual life with the larger context of the Community.  The picture highlights the individual’s essential role within a Community, her identity in part defined by her connections within the Community.

In It’s A Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey makes sacrifices for his Community, and, in a critical plot point, loses hope when Uncle Billy misplaces the Building and Loan’s cash, which could lead to the Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan’s insolvency.  While the viewer knows that the unscrupulous Mr. Potter has the cash in his own possession, George blames himself for the impending charges of financial malfeasance and considers suicide; momentarily, he believes that his Community would have been better off had he never been born in the first place.

Angel-in-waiting Clarence Odbody shows him just what Bedford Falls would be if, in fact, George had never been born.  This alternate reality convinces George to beg Clarence to restore his life, his despair having been replaced by a new sense of purpose.  George returns home, fully expecting to be arrested for financial misconduct on account of the missing funds.  Instead, the community members come together and all pitch in to come up with the missing money.  George is uplifted by the Community he has served his entire life, and even the bank inspector, who was prepared to arrest George, tears up the warrant and joins in the community caroling.  George has saved his Community and, in turn, George is saved by his Community.  We are all truly in this together.  It truly is a wonderful life – or can be if we honor the promise and the connectedness of Community.

At least that’s my communitarian take on the Capra classic.

But not everyone sees the picture that way.  Not everyone even considers Mr. Potter to be the villain.

“The Henry George Program,” for example, a podcast that bills itself as “conversations on housing, economics, and morality” devoted an entire episode to a “Georgist analysis” of It’s A Wonderful Life.  A “Georgist analysis” would – in theory at least – mean a discussion of the movie through the lens/prism of the economic and political theories of 19th Century American politician Henry George, who advocated for a single-tax based on land value.

While the podcast host (Mark Mollineaux) and guests (Connor and Derrick) seem to embrace an outdated version of Georgism that ignores the planet’s shrinking supply of natural resources, their “analysis” of the film seems to focus on Bedford Falls’s urban form and George Bailey’s role as the head of the Bedford Falls Building and Loan Association.  As Connor (or is it Derrick?) cynically remarks: “The true meaning of Christmas is easy credit.” Derrick (or is it Connor?) follows up with his own zinger: “Hope Santa gives you a race-restricted single-family-home in the suburbs this year.”

The 78-minute podcast is marked by more than just a tinge of cynicism, including imposing today’s standards of racism on Frank Capra (pointing out the absence of Blacks in the film and how none of the residents of Bailey Park are Black), while – of course – ignoring Henry George’s own problems with racism and the open, vile anti-Jewish racism of Georgists such as Albert Jay Nock, who would have been a contemporary of the fictional Peter Bailey, George’s father in the film, living in roughly the same part of the country.

The podcast goes into some measure of depth discussing the film’s Building and Loan, which offered an alternative to Mr. Potter’s predatory bank, as well as why this cooperative form of lending ultimately died out in the 1970’s (basically because the building and loans or savings and loans were forced by the government and circumstances to take bigger risks than simply home mortgage lending).

However, in a most un-Georgist twist, the podcast largely leaves Mr. Potter unscathed.  Henry George lived in the Gilded Age and loathed the robber barons and monopolists, who were personified in the film by Potter.  Contrast Potter, a monopolist and slumlord with Peter Bailey, who knows that his life’s work is important within his Community, despite son George’s own desires to leave Bedford Falls for something “bigger”:

You know, George, I feel that in a small way we are doing something important.  Satisfying a fundamental urge. It's deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace, and we're helping him get those things in our shabby little office.

The homes produced by Bailey’s community-oriented Building and Loan stand in stark contrast to Potter’s slum rental apartments, with Potter’s rent collector, Reineman (played by legendary character actor Charles Lane), pointing out to Potter that the Baileys are undermining Potter’s entire enterprise:

There's the old cemetery, squirrels, buttercups, daisies. Used to hunt rabbits there myself. Look at it today. Dozens of the prettiest little homes you ever saw.  Ninety per cent owned by suckers who used to pay rent to you. Your Potter's Field, my dear Mr. Employer, is becoming just that. And are the local yokels making with those David and Goliath wisecracks!

When Potter responds that the Baileys haven’t earned a dime from their development, Bailey Park, Reineman responds:

“You know very well why. The Baileys were all chumps. Every one of these homes is worth twice what it cost the Building and Loan to build.”

For Reineman and, of course, Potter, not profiteering off of housing makes the Baileys “chumps.”

The Georgists downplay the alternate reality Bedford Falls, the Pottersville that would have resulted if George had never been born.  In fact, they suggest that it’s a version of urbanism they feel is being unfairly depicted negatively.  They “blame” the Baileys’ enabling of homeownership for depopulating the urban core, which, these Georgists claim, is responsible for Pottersville, because it’s pulling “investment to the periphery.”

What’s more, Derrick (or is it Connor) suggests that the Baileys’ enabling lower class residents to own their own homes would “tie them to Bedford Falls” as jobs disappear from Bedford Falls and land values crater.  The “liberated serfdom” that homeownership provides these families would ultimately preclude them from moving to more job-rich areas, presumably to emerging “Superstar” cities. (It should be noted that a common thread among productivists, WIMBYs, and other self-styled “urbanists” and growthists is rejecting the notion of place-based connections. In this anti-communitarian view, people should be perfectly mobile, ready to move at the drop of a hat to where the jobs are, i.e. to where capital says they will be most productive).

Instead of considering the Bailey Building and Loan in the spirit of latter-day mission-driven nonprofit housing organizations, the Georgists consider the Baileys and Potter to be two sides of the same coin.  The difference between George Bailey and Potter, they seem to suggest, is merely one of style and magnitude. It’s a contrast between big capital and small capital.  If George Bailey would build homes and sell them for what they are worth, he could become a millionaire, according to Connor (or was it Derrick?).

Perhaps this is why the three Georgists don’t really take Mr. Potter to task, which isn’t either exactly surprising considering host Mark Mollineaux’s absolute detestation of individual homeownership, as a quick Twitter search will confirm.  In his pseudo-Georgist take, homeowners are the “enemy” and while he, in theory, might support public ownership of housing (though evidently not in any full-blown Communistic way), he doesn’t seem to have a problem with corporate ownership of housing or corporate profiteering off housing.

Seen this way, the residents of Bailey Park are the “enemy,” while Mr. Potter is simply a crotchety investor who isn’t all that different from the Baileys, since no “third alternatives” seem to be available in Bedford Falls (such as community land trusts or public rental housing).  If left to his own devices, Potter becomes Blackstone, and that ain’t such a bad thing in Mollineaux’s book.

At the same time, the Georgist trio recognizes that there is a prevalent pro-ownership, anti-Blackstone, anti-big-bank mindset today, which prompts them to ask the question: “How do you square having mass homeownership/people be homeowners without banks getting rich?”

While in 1946, the Baileys themselves and their Building and Loan that is the centerpiece of It’s A Wonderful Life would seem to provide the answer to their (evidently non-rhetorical) question, today we can look at mission-driven nonprofit housing developers, community land and housing trusts, as well as robust anti-speculation housing policies aimed at housing affordability and stopping the banks (and speculators) from getting rich, while allowing more ordinary Americans to become homeowners.

But WIMBYs of all stripes seem singularly uninterested in anti-speculation housing policies, which would take aim at profiteering off of housing, since that might somehow reduce supply and dampen growth.  For them, greed is a tool to increase supply and spur growth, whether such growth is sustainable or not (more on that later) and whether an increasing supply of increasingly commodified housing puts homeownership even further out of reach of ordinary Americans of the Bedford Falls variety.

Since his goal is not to increase individual homeownership or to expand the American middle class, blaming homeowners for the lack of housing affordability is a way for WIMBYs like Mollineaux to distract from the Blackstones of the world and is a way to distract from corporate profiteering.  Developer and private equity profits may not be Mollineaux’s main goal, but he doesn’t seem to have as much a problem with them as he does with widespread individual homeownership (which, despite everything, currently remains at around two-thirds of all Americans).  Mollineaux, unlike George Bailey, doesn’t want to expand individual homeownership; he wants to eliminate it, and if the Blackstones can help him with that goal, he seems perfectly fine with it.  Never mind that Henry George himself would have despised Potter and would have undoubtedly rooted for the Baileys.

Other WIMBYs, on the other hand, can’t deny the obvious: Mr. Potter is a villain, no matter how you slice it.

Nolan Gray is the research director for CAYimby, the largest WIMBY group in California, funded by various Big Tech donors and a vast array of dark money, some of which likely can be traced to right-wing radical libertarian and market fundamentalist corporations and billionaires such as the Koch Bros and Farris Wilks.  Unsurprisingly, Gray himself remains connected with the Koch-Bro-funded, radical libertarian Mercatus Center.

In his ongoing efforts to turn for-profit developers into latter-day folk heroes, Gray uses It’s A Wonderful Life to contrast Mr. Potter, a stereotype of the “bad, greedy” developer, with George Bailey, whom Gray portrays as a “good developer.”  Unlike the Georgists, Gray doesn’t beat around the bush or try to relativize Potter’s villainy. 

For years, I’ve suggested that developers are like cholesterol: there’s the good kind and the bad kind. Gray seems to acknowledge that. What he doesn’t seem to acknowledge, however, is that the bad kind are very often motivated by greed, a quality that Gray is only quick to dismiss as a “trope” but that he is not willing to condemn as actually being, well, a bad thing.

On the other hand, like the Georgist trio, Gray seems to disparage small towns and rule out the possibility that people in Bedford Falls or Iowa might love their own communities and might not want to move to “Superstar” cities. Gray shits on “rural Iowa” as a stand in for the Northeast rust belt of Bedford Falls because, you know, who would ever want to live in Iowa or Bedford Falls?  Presumably, Gray, even if he espouses the philosophy of “If you build it, they will come,” has never seen “Field of Dreams,” another film in which predatory greed characterizes the bad guys.

Leaving aside Gray’s obvious bigotry/bias against small towns and Middle America, his attempt to contrast (rather than conflate, like the Georgists) Potter with George Bailey and defend developers (“they’re just like farmers and doctors”) turns out not to be a defense of developers and builders, but a defense of market fundamentalism and -- not surprisingly -- an underhanded endorsement of greed.

Interestingly, while Gray decries the “greedy developer trope,” he doesn’t really seem to have a problem with greed itself, much like self-styled urbanist Josh Stephens, who writes “it’s time to stop demonization of developers.”  For Stephens, developers aren’t only like doctors and farmers; Stephens seriously compares for-profit developers to teachers.

This being the season, it seems more than likely that we can expect Gray and Stephens to make a plea that the uncontrite Ebenezer Scrooge was a poor, unfortunate, misunderstood soul.  After all, moneylenders provide a service here, and the service costs money.  Hey, developers and moneylenders are just like librarians, plumbers, doctors, farmers, and teachers...

Might we perhaps look forward to another slick video in which Gray and Stephens (cue Joe Raposo) team up to rehabilitate in song the much maligned images of these “people in your neighborhood”?

For your understanding I would plead.

There’s nothing really wrong with greed.

It really isn’t very strange,

That my greedy nature leads to change.

A moneylender is a person in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood.

A moneylender is a person in your neighborhood.

A person that you meet each day!


Building condos isn’t very funny.

But it makes me make a lot of money.

Who cares about your neighborhood?

The main thing is that greed is good.

A developer is a person in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood.

And a moneylender is a person in your neighborhood.

They’re the people that you meet when you’re walking down the street, they’re the people that you meet each day!


For Gray and Stephens, to the extent that It’s A Wonderful Life’s Potter is to be condemned, well, it isn’t really his fault.  According to Gray: “The way we plan cities makes developers do bad things.”  Zoning and urban planning are the real villains according to market fundamentalists like Gray and Stephens.  They force developers to “buddy up with power players and policy makers” (unlike, say, the lobbyists of Gray’s employer CAYimby, which spends inordinate amounts of time and scads of money influencing Sacramento politicians to create laws that will directly and indirectly benefit CAYimby’s Big Tech, real estate, and dark money donors).

According to Gray, the “evil developer” trope has morphed into “all change is bad” – not because of It’s A Wonderful Life, but thanks to the film classic “Hey Arnold!”  Both Gray and Stephens attempt to paint people who aren’t fans of greedy developers as simply those who “oppose change.”

And yet Gray forgets that it isn’t only developers who are like cholesterol.  Change is also like cholesterol.

Not all “change” is good for humans or for the planet.  Climate change is just one example…

And while “change” may sometimes be a useful and effective disguise for greed, no matter what, the end cannot justify the means.

As if profiteering or gouging, whether it’s in relation to real estate, pharmaceuticals, food, big oil, defense contracting, or -- to complete Stephens’s list -- financing is ever okay (NB: private equity greed is often coterminous with real estate greed).  As if some people don’t inherently have a problem with greed and react allergically when greed is accepted and/or condoned as a means to public goods, and as if many don’t double over in disgust when WIMBY wags try to convince the rest of us that greed itself is supposed to somehow lead to affordable housing.

So, according to market fundamentalist WIMBYs like Gray and Stephens, people who oppose letting developers run riot in our communities without rules, regulations, or boundaries are just “anti-change,” regressing from the 50’s optimistic, Disneyesque “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” (never mind that today’s WIMBYs hate Disneyland for a variety of reasons, including nostalgia).

In short: taking offense at developer greed and demonizing the Potters of the world is just a case of Luddites opposed to “change” itself, as well as – according to Stephens -- simply a ploy on the part of “selfish homeowners” to “block more housing” in an attempt to protect their own property values.

The risible “argument” that homeowners are more interested in their property values and block new housing, while opposing upzoning in an effort to maintain their property values because of scarcity, isn’t exactly logical.  According to Stephens, these homeowners oppose new housing so that scarcity will make their own homes worth more.  At the same time, WIMBYs like Stephens advocate for broad-based upzoning and the elimination of single-family neighborhoods.  Of course, eliminating single-family neighborhoods and single-family homes would have the impact of making single-family homes themselves even more scarce.  In turn, according to the WIMBY theory of scarcity, this would make those single-family homes worth even more (not to mention create a financial windfall for incumbent homeowners as a direct result of any upzoning).  

Yes, despite their supply-side fetishism, WIMBYs want to eliminate single-family neighborhoods.  If they truly were “pro-housing,” one would think that the WIMBYs would start advocating for a greater supply of the kind of homes and neighborhoods overwhelmingly preferred by a vast majority of Americans of all stripes: single-family homes in single-family neighborhoods like Bailey Park.  The WIMBY monomaniacal crusade to eliminate single-family neighborhoods certainly helps to explain the Georgists’ cynicism towards George Bailey, his Building and Loan, and Bailey Park. No WIMBYs today would ever support George Bailey in his efforts to help his neighbors become the owners of their “own roof and walls and fireplace” in Bailey Park.  Condos?  Maybe.  A detached home with a roof, walls, and yard?  Never.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, considering the fact that Gray’s employer, CAYimby, is devoted to eliminating communities such as Bailey Park, Gray’s video devotes a whole section to the “Death of George Bailey as a hero.”  Of course, Gray blames government regulations and zoning for today’s affordable housing crisis.  He claims that zoning and regulations mean that “no new housing can be built.”  This false narrative is often used by WIMBY lobbyists in their attempt to chip away at zoning and environmental regulations.  While the whole point of zoning is that not everything can be built everywhere, and the whole point of good urban planning is to create harmonious neighborhoods to allow people a plurality of neighborhood choices with transitional zones, it is pure deception to claim that “no new housing can be built.” 

Los Angeles, for example, where Gray currently lives (having “successfully” escaped Kentucky), has zoned capacity to triple the current population.  LA is in fact losing population, as is California as a whole.  Between 2021 and 2022, just under 6000 Californians moved to Kentucky while some 22,500 moved to neighboring Tennessee.


In fact, despite Gray’s urban supremacist assumptions that yokels from Iowa and Kentucky are hostages just looking for any means of escape, life in the Bluegrass state sounds rather enticing and, well… livable: “If you are moving to Kentucky, you can be sure to find a place to call home, whether it’s a ranch outside of Lexington in the Blue Grass region or a condominium in Covington.”


While the elimination of zoning (and with it, effectively, urban planning) and the repeal of environmental regulations might be the dream scenario for market fundamentalist WIMBYs, predatory growthists, radical libertarians, and other anti-Community objectivists, it is singularly bad for communities themselves, if by Community you mean a group of people connected by ties that extend beyond the purely economic. 


Twenty years ago, the Beverly Hills Planning Department produced a video called “It’s A Wonderful City” that riffs off of It’s A Wonderful Life to paint an alternate reality in which for-profit developers can build wherever, whenever, and however they want in order to maximize their profits, the WIMBY utopia.  Despite the frequent stereotyping, Beverly Hills, where more than half the residents are renters and more than 60% of the housing units multifamily, on its best days is much more like Mayberry or Bedford Falls than most people might think (and on our worst days, as a resident once quipped, we’re like Peyton Place in an Ibsen play).


Jimmy Stewart lived in Beverly Hills for decades and toward the end of his life remarked that “it’s been a wonderful life in Beverly Hills.”  The famous scene in which the gym dance floor Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed dance upon opens up into a swimming pool was filmed at Beverly Hills High School and is still the school’s swim gym and basketball court.  So, you see, for many of us, Beverly Hills is, in a way, Bedford Falls.  The Planning Department’s video 20 years ago is the best response to Gray’s suggestion that zoning and urban planning are the reason we don’t have more George Baileys.


Even if one views George Bailey as more of a communitarian than a “developer,” and while building and loan societies don’t really exist anymore (as discussed by the Georgists), there still are some neo-George Baileys around.  Good mission-driven nonprofit affordable housing organizations, as well as community land and housing trusts, can serve the role of the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan.  In most cases, affordable housing developers build or preserve covenanted affordable rental housing, but there is no reason why there shouldn’t be more Bailey-esque, communitarian organizations to help more Americans realize the continued dream of homeownership.  We should, in fact, be actively promoting more community-based land and housing trusts.


Even if Nolan Gray considers George Bailey to be a “good” developer, what motivates George is entirely different from what motivates Potter.  It’s something that Gray ignores completely in his discussion of the two.  For Potter, housing – and everything else within Bedford Falls – is a means to profiteer, to increase his own wealth and power.  For George, housing is a means not to profits or power, but to providing his neighbors with their own homes.  Housing as an investment vehicle vs. housing as a place to live - a home - is exactly what separates commercial for-profit developers today from the community-minded, mission-based nonprofits.  Both build “housing,” but the difference between the two could hardly be greater.


If we really want to encourage more George Baileys while shutting down the Potters of the world, then we need first to acknowledge that greed, rapaciousness, and predatory behavior are real and present in our society, especially within an unchecked and uncontrolled market.  Real estate magnates, investors, and speculators often care about one thing and one thing only: profits and ROI.  This puts them in the same bed as Potter, for whom social control was a way to ensure continued profiteering (for example, his comments about the importance of a “thrifty working class”).


“Land development isn’t inherently bad,” says Nolan Gray, and while we won’t debate that issue here and now, maybe we should start from the premise that greed is not good.  (Interesting that with all the film references, including “Blazing Saddles,” Gray doesn’t mention Pixar’s Up nor Oliver Stone’s Wall Street with its antihero Gordon Gekko).  If we really want to encourage homeownership a la George Bailey, then we need to shut down the Potters of modern-day America and recognize that homes are primarily for living in. Deregulation and market fundamentalism only empower the Potters.  Robust anti-speculation housing policies would place a focus on housing as a home, would promote homeownership, and would hamstring latter-day Potters such as Blackstone.


Unchecked capitalism is both predatory and acquisitive and unending by its very nature.  It’s the biggest Ponzi scheme of all, and greed is at its core; greed is what makes it tick.  Market fundamentalists try to sell us the narrative that a deregulated market is the best and most efficient way to provision public goods.  Some WIMBYs even try to suggest that market fundamentalist policies lead to more equity.  The question is: would leaving the Mr. Potters of the world to their own wiles with no restrictions lead to a more equitable world?


For those of us for whom the market fundamentalist Kool-Aid is a strong form of ipecac, deregulation is not the answer.  It wasn’t even the answer in the Gilded Age when TR’s trust-busting and attempts to contain the greed of the robber barons led to a regulatory framework in which laws like the landmark Sherman Anti-Trust law of 1890 were finally enforced.  Deregulation won’t “unleash the ‘magic’ of the Market.”  It would unleash the avarice of corporations and oligarchs like Mr. Potter and make it almost impossible for other community members to have any agency.


During the bank panic of 1932 in which there is a run on the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, Potter offers to buy the panicked residents’ shares for fifty cents on the dollar.  George pleads with them:


If Potter gets hold of this Building and Loan there'll never be another decent house built in this town.  He's already got charge of the bank.  He's got the bus line.  He's got the department stores.  And now he's after us.  Why?  Well, it's very simple.  Because we're cutting in on his business, that's why.  And because he wants to keep you living in his slums and paying the kind of rent he decides.


Not only are the Potters of the world good arguments for why we need rent control (and why we should support initiatives like the Justice for Renters Act in California), but they are living advertisements for the need for reasonable governmental regulations and measures against market fundamentalism.


Want more George Baileys and fewer Henry Potters?  Institute policies (including the anti-speculation housing policies mentioned above) to stop Potter, not to empower him.  In a dog-eat-dog world, the ruthless Potters will always benefit, and will always have the upper hand.  Potter almost has the upper hand in Bedford Falls, and it is only through a Capra-esque Community intervention with the help of divine intervention that George, the Building and Loan, and the Community itself can be saved.


Sadly, the false narratives circulating today, fueled by Gray, his employer CAYimby, Stephens, and a host of other WIMBY interests - paid and unpaid - aim to create support for policies that would only bolster the Potters of the world.  In an interesting empirical demonstration of horseshoe theory, we see that there isn’t a heck of a lot to differentiate between the California legislature’s blue supermajority and the red Canadian Tories, north of the border:


The Ontario Tories express, in the crudest terms, the consensus among governments in this country that the supply of housing must be met, to the extent that it is, by subordinating everything to the dictates of profit-making.


Clearly, the prevailing view that housing should be treated as a commodity and a source of speculative wealth is at odds with the needs of communities and the equitable and sustainable use of urban space.


The “ruinous greed” is the uniting factor in the policies embraced by California Democrats, Montana Republicans, and Canadian Tories – or for that matter by Nolan Gray and Josh Stephens.  Don’t expect to see more George Baileys in a country in which money is speech, corporations are people, and communities are given the shaft by the people elected to represent them.


In regard to It’s A Wonderful Life, Gray and Stephens’s Ayn Rand Weltanschauung may contrast slightly with the podcast Georgists’ skewed take on Henry George (however, the actual views of George himself and Ayn Rand are in some respects night and day), but both of them downplay Potter’s greed and at least by implication indict Community and homeowners, including the newly minted homeowners of Bailey Park, as part of the problem rather than the solution.


Far be it from any of them to discuss society’s underlying problem with growing income and wealth inequality, and how these economic issues – not the existence of zoning or urban planning – are largely responsible for the lack of housing affordability and for the increasing inability of ordinary Americans to afford a home.


Perhaps they come from different directions, but the Georgist Siskel-and-Eberts and right wing, libertarian WIMBY Nolan Gray, along with Josh Stephens, are all Ponzi schemers, apostles of the Urban Growth Machine.


Unlike in Henry George’s day, in which natural resources were plentiful and seen as “free,” we now should be painfully aware that we live on a finite planet with limited – and depleted – resources.  Sadly, many of us are in denial and are unable to accept that the Ponzi party has to end – one way or another.


While Frank Capra may have lived in a time of optimism in which growth was unquestioned, his optimism was based on a sense of Community in which people came together and were motivated by the creation of public goods rather than greed.  (It should also be noted that in 1946 when It’s A Wonderful Life was released, the world’s population was below 2.5 billion people. Today it is over 8 billion).

Particularly the Ayn Randos such as Gray and Stephens, on the other hand, embrace policies whose highest values are GDP, productivity, and a spiral of perpetual growth, which is simply not possible on a finite planet, which we have already overexploited and which is already in a serious state of ecological overshoot.  Instead of “shrinking toward abundance,” these market fundamentalist growthists think we can somehow continue to grow towards abundance, thereby ignoring physical limits to growth, as well as the laws of thermodynamics. And so, in the name of profits, greed, and predatory capitalism, they continue to push policies of densification and unsustainable growth.

Maybe if we could remember the sense of Community which infused Bedford Falls and motivated George Bailey, we could begin to acknowledge the problems that overconsumption are creating for the Bedford Falls of today, and would start working together within our individual communities to move towards a sustainable steady-state economy before it is too late.

In short, if we want more George Baileys and fewer Henry Potters, then we need to reject greed as a motivational factor and focus on each of our roles within our individual (and often overlapping) communities. We need to lean into the communitarian spirit of George Bailey and the residents of Bedford Falls.

For Potter, like for many latter-day market fundamentalists and assorted Ayn Randos, it’s all ‘bout the money.  Greed is good, because for them it’s greed that makes the world go round.

Not so for George Bailey.  For him it’s all about Community, which is an extension of family.  Yes, for George Bailey, we really are all in this together.

Despite the consumerism that has been ingrained in us all from childhood, we all would do well to remember that the family, home, and Community symbolized by Zuzu’s petals are ultimately worth more than Mr. Potter’s entire fortune.

As Clarence Odbody reminds George at the end of the film: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”

And that’s what Community’s all about.


(John Mirisch was elected to the Beverly Hills City Council in 2009 and has served three terms as mayor.  He is currently a garden-variety councilmember and a contributor to CityWatchLA.)

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