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Mr Bailey and Mr Potter….

[In a week or so I will be delivering a paper on accountability and the current financial crisis, and I have been struggling with the most effective way to make my argument. The drafting process has been tough, but it seems to be coming together. I thought it might be helpful to get some reaction to bits and pieces of the paper as they go through revisions. Here, sans cites or links, is the opening section. Comments welcome…]

Prologue: Mr. Bailey and Mr. Potter

If we have contributed nothing else to the advancement of world culture, Americans have certainly made our mark in the area of memorable movie characters. It is perhaps a tribute to our superficiality as a nation that we are bound together by our common cinematic experiences and the shared mythologies drawn from the “silver screen” and its TV-VHS-DVD progeny. From memorable lines such as “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” to “Play it again, Sam” and “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” we have been able to connect despite our diversity and prejudices. Similarly, certain characters have emerged as iconic representations of what Americans both aspire to be and seek to avoid.

Assuming an anthropological perspective, we can extend that observation about Americans and their beloved (or despised) cinema characters to enhance our understanding and appreciation of the current efforts to deal with the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions. This more than a mere “academic” exercise, for in fact there is a proliferation of metaphorical and analogical references made to cinematic narratives in the mass media as well as the fast expanding new media forms.

Consider, for example, the sense of “outrage” unleashed by the recent news regarding the payment of bonuses to AIG officials who were at the center of the unit responsible for the corporation’s collapse. The anger was already building before news of the bonuses triggered everything from a very public expression of indignation from the President to street protests and even physical threats to AIG officials. One particular pre-bonus outburst by a major business commentator (Rick Santelli of CNBC) became a YouTube hit and gave a taste of what was to come. In their efforts to describe the sense of outrage, however, many references were made to lines spoken more than three decades earlier by Howard Beale, a character in Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” played by Peter Finch:

I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth; banks are going bust; shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter; punks are running wild in the street, and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it.

We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat. And we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be!

We all know things are bad — worse than bad — they’re crazy.

It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out any more. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, “Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials, and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.”

Well, I’m not going to leave you alone.

I want you to get mad!

I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street.

All I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad.

You’ve gotta say, “I’m a human being, goddammit! My life has value!”

So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!!””

The relevance of Beale was not lost on many commentators, the the “Howard Beale” moment was duly noted by several.

In the pantheon of American film characters, however, Beale is a minor icon whose name and outrage emerge infrequently and who quickly fades into the background until the next relevant episode of collective indignation emerges in our increasingly mediated society. More considerable importance would be placed on characters who have become an constant reference point for successive generations. The sustained popularity of these characters might be due in part to the repeated screenings or mention of the film on TV and in other media outlets, but there is also some moral attraction (or guilty pleasure in some cases) that also contributes to their prominent place within our cultural iconography. Mention “Dorothy” or the “Tinman” to most Americans, and you will likely generate a common response based on shared familiarity without having to be more specific. Inquire further of the individuals about what these or other characters from The Wizard of Oz represent to them, and you are probably going to find a surprising degree of consensus on some basic “American” values. (At times it is the actor rather than the character that generates the shared response. Consider, for example, the values associated with roles played by actors such as Clint Eastwood, John Wayne or Henry Fonda.)

Which brings me to the subject of this discussion: the characters highlighted in what some regard as the best American movie ever made (an opinion held by its director as well as many critics): It’s A Wonderful Life. Released in 1946 to rather mixed reviews, by the 1970s it became a “seasonal” (for its association with Christmas and angels) favorite broadcast with considerable frequency; (copyright limits comment here) in recent years is likely to be found in a typical family collection of VHS and DVD videos. But beyond its status among the classics of American cinema, the film created two memorable characters who have been elevated into that pantheon of widely identifiable icons: George Bailey and Henry Potter.

Both characters are “bankers” in the town of Bedford Falls. George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) heads the small building and loan association which he reluctantly takes over after his father’s unexpected death. Such associations (predecessors of today’s US savings and loan banks) were not technically banks, but rather mechanisms for pooling the savings of individuals who lacked access to mortgage credit from mainstream banks. In a community such as Bedford Falls, the building and loan association would maintain a depositer’s (or even borrower’s) relationship with the local mainstream bank. In the film the local bank is owned by Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) whose wealth and economic control of the town extends well beyond his interest in the bank. A major subplot of the film is Potter’s desire to gain control of building and loan association and its assets and the efforts of Bailey’s father (and subsequently George Bailey as well) to resist such a takeover.

The pervasive influence of these two characters in America’s postwar popular culture can not be overstated, and the contrasting images of bankers and the banks they operate is having important policy implications as the US government deals with the current crisis. Putting aside the criminal act committed by Potter that is central to the film’s plot (he essentially steals an $8000 deposit from the association that would have kept it solvent), each represents a distinct example of the kind of individual we rely on to run one of the core institutions in our economy: banks. As such, each reflects a different view of who we “entrust” and therefore who we regard as having the integrity we expect of people in powerful (or pivotal) positions.

On the one hand, there is George Bailey who Americans trust because overtime he demonstrated a caring and compassionate attitude toward others in the community, and especially to those who are part of his association of savers. His treatment of people is the foundation for the expectation that while he will follow the rules and standards of good banking, he can also be expected to take into account the needs and circumstances of others with whom he has established a relationship of mutual respect. The immigrant family that needs special consideration for a loan, the taxi operator who requires some slack in his mortgage payment schedule — these are the risks that the Bailey bankers are expected to take. It is an image that finds much support in American culture.

On the other hand we have Mr. Potter — a character whose subscription to the logic of “greed is good” is articulated decades later by “Wall Street’s” Gordon Gekko.  Eliminate the criminality of his actions, however, and you have another model of the ideal American banker — an individual who maintains the integrity of his bank by avoiding high risk loans to those same immigrants and taxi drivers. He too represents trust and integrity, but in a way that director Frank Capra portrays as evil. It is clear that Capra skews our choice — we certainly would favor the integrity of Bailey over the integrity of Potter.

Take the characters out of the scripted context of Bedford Falls and place them in the circumstances of the the past decade and Americans might wish there were more Henry Potters making decisions about loans and risk. At least that is the way many Americans are viewing the current crisis when thinking about what needs to be done to reform the system. Handing over the failing banks to the Potters is found to be increasingly desirable, and if we cannot find an individual driven to Potter-like integrity by greed, then perhaps we can impose and enforce regulatory constraints that will rein in any Baileyist tendencies. That said, the Bailey-like character retains a powerful attraction as the ideal banker we all want for our local communities….

Which brings us to a reality check, for it is obvious that neither cinematic characterization has a place in the complex narratives that unfolded over the past ten years. The individuals who populate the modern banking system — whether they sit in the local bank manager’s seat in Butte, Montana or in front of an array of Bloomberg terminals in some global money center office overlooking the Hudson or the Thames — would hardly fit the image of either Bailey or Potter. Theirs is a world driven by investments rather than loans, or securitized assets rather than mortgages, of Gaussian copula functions rather than flawed human judgment. As the financial bubble expanded in recent years, the compassionate risk taking of George Bailey was replaced by the urgency to feed the securitization monster, and the risk averse greed of Henry Potter has been set aside in favor of the Gordon Gekko gamble.

But despite the changed realities, the Bailey-Potter imagery remains a powerful force to be contended with as we search for answer to the current problems on our financial markets.

[More to come]

March 24th, 2009 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments