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Life Is Earnest

No wings for this angel, but Mr. Potter was right.

Dec 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 15 • By MEGHAN CLYNE
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Potter makes other attempts to fold the Building and Loan into his operations. At the board meeting after Peter Bailey’s death, Potter claims the institution is not necessary and moves to dissolve it. Later he takes a more subtle approach, attempting to lure George to work for him (and thereby abandon the Building and Loan). As early as the 1930s, Potter knows that competition among banks is a passing fad. He also knows who really holds the keys to prosperity in the financial kingdom. During a meeting with his rent collector, Potter’s secretary informs him, “Congressman Blatz is here to see you.”

In short, Potter was ahead of two important curves: bank consolidation and crony capitalism. The old man anticipated Dodd-Frank before it was a gleam in the New England lawmakers’ eyes.

Then there’s the film’s climactic dilemma. George’s absent-minded Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) is at the bank to deposit $8,000 in Building and Loan cash; while taunting Potter, Billy folds the cash into his newspaper, shoves it in Potter’s face, and merrily bumbles off to make his deposit. Minutes later, Billy realizes he’s missing the money, and Potter opens the newspaper to discover what’s inside.

One can argue that Potter should have returned the money. But Potter knows that financial firms can’t just go around losing their customers’ cash. As a stockholder and member of the Building and Loan board, he cannot tolerate the Baileys being so reckless with investors’ deposits. When George Bailey comes begging to Potter for $8,000, Potter sees a teachable moment, contacting the state bank examiner and asking for authorities to swear out a warrant for George’s arrest. 

In the end, of course, George’s friends and family bail him out, and not another thought is given to Bailey’s negligence. Even the bank examiner kicks in a contribution. Only Potter stands for responsibility and the rule of law.

And here, too, Potter is ahead of his time. Bailey’s predicament calls to mind former New Jersey senator and governor Jon Corzine, whose bankrupt brokerage firm, MF Global, is “missing” a vast sum of customer money—estimated at $1.2 billion (in Bernanke dollars, the rough equivalent of Bailey’s $8,000). Do most Americans want to see Corzine’s friends in finance and politics get him off the hook? Of course not. We want to call in Potter.

The truth is, whether we want to see fairness, economic good sense, and the rule of law triumph over fuzzy ideology, or whether we welcome (and participate in) the new rule by mega-bankers and their Washington allies, Henry F. Potter blazed a trail for all of us. George Bailey may be a model of some wonderful virtues, but in modern-day America, We Are All Potters Now.

Meghan Clyne is managing editor of National Affairs

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