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"It's A Wonderful Life" Isn't Just a Movie - It's a Prophecy
We've become a world of slumlord Pottersvilles
“This town is no place for any man unless he’s willing to crawl to Potter… get out of here.”
There are two traditions in my family that you need to know about:
We watch Frank Capra’s legendary 1946 classic It’s A Wonderful Life every Christmas without fail.
Whenever a new family buys a new house in our neighborhood, we head over with sourdough and sea-salt and a bottle of Bordeaux and re-enact the scene where Mary and George Bailey christen Giuseppe Martini’s new house:
“Bread, that this house may never know hunger. Salt, that life may always have flavor. And wine, that joy and prosperity may reign forever.”
People love it.
Sadly, homeownership will soon be as out of reach for the middle class as it already is for the working poor.
Because we’re not heading toward an idyllic Bailey Park.
We’re driving full-speed into Pottersville.
It’s A Wonderful Life
For those who haven’t seen the movie — no judgment, but what are you doing with your life?!—it’s a story about an angel who, according to IMDB, is “sent from heaven to help a desperately frustrated businessman by showing him what life would have been like if he had never existed.”
But the B-story is a prophecy about the times in which we live.
George Bailey (played by the great Jimmy Stewart) runs the Bailey Bros Buildings and Loan Association, a company that contributes to the community by building affordable homes for owner-occupiers.
Henry F. Potter hates George’s guts. Rather than contribute to the town of Bedford Falls, Potter’s full-time job is extraction — he owns the bank, the bus lines, the department stores, and plays slumlord to a tenement called Potter’s Field.
While Potter dreams of bankrupting the Baileys so he can create a housing monopoly to milk the middle class, George Bailey dreams of building “airfields, skyscrapers a hundred stories high, bridges a mile long.”
But George Bailey’s day-to-day goal is singular:
To help every working family own their own home.
Monopolists and their sycophants will tell you that homeownership doesn’t really matter, but they’re all wrong — if you don’t own your house debt-free, someone else does and you are at their money-grubbing mercy.
When you’re an owner, you have pride of ownership.
When you’re an owner, you have locational stability.
When you’re an owner, you have skin in the game.
When you’re an owner, you aren’t enriching a passive leech.
When you’re an owner, you can start growing real roots in a community.
When you’re an owner, you’re more protected against the corporate-captured government robbing your wealth via inflation.
When George Bailey is granted his wish and gets to see what life would’ve been like had he never been born, he’s shocked by the results:
Because there was no one to fight for market competition and justice and equality and opportunity and ownership for the working poor and middle class, the town is renamed Pottersville and descends into a $#itsburg hellhole.
Pottersville is packed with bars, strip clubs, casinos, and pawn shops. It’s full of cops and traffic and lights and noise and strangers. It’s filled with colder, harder people, with more violence, gambling, mental illness, debt, and rampant consumerism.
All the wealth to all the workers
George Bailey understood what you and I already know:
That workers create 100% of the wealth in our economy thanks to a.) their work and b.) their spending.
Accordingly, they deserve the lion's share of society’s spoils.
As George Bailey put it:
“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?”
Apparently, affordable homeownership is far too much to ask in our times, as Potter-like Boomers and institutional investors devour the residential real estate market in order to enslave the generations to follow.
Sadly, instead of living in a contribution economy, we now live in an extraction economy, where the wealthiest in society are those who contribute the least — bankers, land-lorders, insurance brokers, corporate insiders, middle-man monopolists like Airbnb and Amazon and Uber, crypto speculators, Millennial grifters on Robinhood, and the elite shareholders who wield their capital advantage to siphon wealth away from the real builders of civilization.
It turns out that It’s A Wonderful Life was a prophecy of what happens when you let rent-seekers take over the global economy.
Call to action
The Christian church’s greatest service to the world will always be the proclamation of the Good News— and just as Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry, the way in which we share the gospel matters greatly. Our faith isn’t a head-faith, it’s a heart-and-body belief that’s paired with action.
The church needs to get serious about housing, like pastor William Lamar's Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in D.C. We’re missing a huge opportunity to spread the gospel, serve millions of people in need, and create sustainable economic structures to fund future ministries.
We desperately need more George and Mary Baileys — people of goodwill who serve instead of siphon, who are pro-human instead of market-driven, who knit together the fabric of society instead of tearing it apart.
We need more people to build Bailey businesses — companies that give instead of take, that contribute instead of extract, that cement communal stability instead of undermining its foundations.
This means rejecting the powerful temptation to play any role that profits from the extraction economy.
Because easy money is hard on the poor.
It’s also hard on the soul.