The Logic of Pottersville

Victor Davis Hanson // National Review

In director Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, an initial bank panic sweeps the small town of Bedford Falls. Small passbook account holders rush to George Bailey’s family-owned Bailey Building and Loan to demand the right to cash out all of their deposits — a sudden run that would destroy the lending cooperative and its ability to issue mortgages or preserve the savings accounts of the small town.

The villain of the story, Henry F. Potter, who is a cash-laden, though miserly rival banker, played brilliantly by Lionel Barrymore, offers to buy up the depositors’ shares in the Building and Loan — but at a steep 50 percent discount.

Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) tries to explain to his panicked cooperative depositors the logic of their frenzy, with the exclamation, “Potter isn’t sellingPotter’s buying! And why? Because we’re panicky, and he’s not.”

Capra’s post–Depression era movie, even in its black-and-white morality, reminds us that, in crisis, the majority has limited liquidity and cash. And sooner rather than later they must sell assets — property, stocks, shares, and household goods — to operate their businesses or keep their homes until things pick up. In a real depression, those with the least cash fail first and in great numbers.

And the minority who do have cash are always willing to buy, even in a depression, albeit at their price, which is usually steeply discounted. Panic, not logic, eventually takes over the collective mind, as we now see with the downward spiral of the current stock market and the hoarding of goods otherwise in plentiful supply.

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