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We’re All Living in Pottersville Now

January 20, 2011

Blame it on my misadventures in the stock market, or a lingering upper respiratory infection, or even the recent effusions of ice, rain and slush that have chilled and saturated my neighborhood. Maybe I’m just suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder.

I’m convinced that the massacre in Tucson had something to do with it, along with the fact that Arizonans turned out en masse to purchase semi-automatic pistols like the one used by the deranged assailant. The extension of Bush-era tax cuts for the rich probably didn’t help. And now the newly cocksure Republican majority in Congress has voted to dismantle the program that would have set up a healthcare safety net — however imperfect and full of holes — for all Americans. They won’t see their vote become law, but their amoral zealotry still disturbs me.

On top of that, I’ve seen none of the movies and TV shows that nabbed top honors at the Golden Globes. Worse yet, I have little or no desire to see them.

How do I describe the deepening sense of alienation that has settled over me this winter? Here’s how: I feel as if we’re living in Pottersville now.

You probably know about Pottersville. In the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Pottersville is where nice-guy George Bailey (played by the inimitable Jimmy Stewart) found himself during a nightmarish scenario arranged by his guardian angel — a lesson thoughtfully designed to demonstrate how desolate a place his hometown would have been without him.

George Bailey finds himself in a familiar town whose soul has died

Pottersville was George’s own Bedford Falls, an idyllic American small town, transformed into a seedy sinkhole of prostitution, boozing, indigence and general degeneracy. Why the transformation? Bedford Falls had fallen into the clutches of the merciless Mr. Potter, the local plutocrat (played with diabolical gusto by Lionel Barrymore). After all, George Bailey wasn’t there to keep Potter from wrapping his tentacles around every enterprise in town.

Aside from the honky-tonks and poverty, Pottersville still bore a striking resemblance to Bedford Falls. But something deeply disturbing had happened: its soul had died.

In my darker moments, I have to wonder if America’s soul has died. Plenty of Americans, at least on the right, still wave the flag, but the brand of patriotism on display today strikes me as ugly, arrogant, narrow and combative. A hefty slice of the left no longer even identifies with America, preferring a kind of boutique chauvinism — an allegiance based on race, gender, religion (or lack of it), educational attainment, sexual orientation or their preference in California varietal wines.

The American Dream, however you define it, is being crushed before our eyes; the virtuous George Baileys are losing out to the powerful corporatist Mr. Potters. Upward mobility is increasingly reserved for a happy few with the right connections or a knack for turning technological whimsies into IPOs. Individual hedge fund managers can score a billion dollars a year while the once-great middle class is melting like a snowman caught in the rain.

Corporations continue to downsize and outsource with reckless enthusiasm… banks charge up to 30% interest on credit cards while offering 0.5% on savings accounts… homeowners increasingly find themselves surrendering the house keys to their mortgage masters… big-money lobbyists have turned our congressional representatives into marionettes… our presidents make endless war against foes who will never surrender… our airports resemble the old checkpoints between East and West Berlin… more and more college graduates find themselves jobless, homeless or (if they’re lucky) living a sad shadow existence in the homes of their parents… illegal immigrants willingly add themselves to our burgeoning underclass… political correctness censors our speech and even our private thoughts… a generation of boys withdraws from academic life, effectively surrendering their futures while reveling in the soulless and often brutal dreamscapes of their video games. And I haven’t even mentioned the reality shows.

What happened to us? How did America become Pottersville? Can  we bring back Bedford Falls? Should we? Jimmy Stewart is dead, and there’s no resurrecting him. We’re on our own here.

George Bailey confronts Mr. Potter, the town plutocrat

Just as Bedford Falls became Pottersville in George Bailey’s absence, the United States is declining because too many of us in the center of the political landscape have been morally absent. We need to speak up and band together when we see the extremists commandeering the ship. We need to care more about the rapacity of the Mr. Potters, the poverty spreading upward to the middle-class casualties of the system, the subtle war being waged against the center… against people like us.

Maybe we all need to be the George Baileys of our own communities — modest emissaries of decency, kindness, generosity of spirit, and old-fashioned American neighborliness. Our country needs us.

After the rampage in Arizona, President Obama rose to the occasion with a fitting and proper elegy for the dead. He called upon the better angels of our nature, imploring us to wash away the partisan rancor and restore an America true to its founding ideals… an America that would make our children proud.

Obama isn’t a Lincoln or a Churchill when it comes to coining deathless phrases, but his Tucson speech was an inspiration: a model of both sensitivity and good sense. Here was a former career leftist stepping boldly and unabashedly into the center, calling for an end to rancor and something more: the rebirth of the American soul we seem to have lost during our descent into Pottersville.

We still have a long winter ahead of us, at least in these parts. We’ll probably be residing in Pottersville until the George Baileys among us find a way to wrest control of the town from Old Man Potter. It won’t be a bloody struggle, but it might prove to be even more challenging: we’ll need to convince the vast, silent, dejected American middle that they matter, that they need to be present — that, in fact, their country is depending on them to lead us out of Pottersville and back into the light.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2011 2:01 pm

    Each of us interprets what we see in the world differently. I am scared – very scared, but not of the same things that concern you.
    I look over my lifetime and further and see what has made the least of us better off, my life better, this country great, and government is not on that list. The Bedford Falls allusion is instructive. Potter’s ville is an impossible myth. It is impossible for mythical Potters to get rich by depriving everyone of their needs – they will have not be able to afford their vices. Wealth has always been created by trading value for value – with each party receiving more than they gave. Bailey’s Building and lone would have failed quickly with little benefit to anyone if the loans it made were not paid back with interest. Even Loan Sharks do not loan money to people who can not possibly pay them back. Capitalism can not exist without wealth creation, it fails – possibly catastrophically when real wealth is not created, as we see with the current housing crisis. No one, not Potter, not Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, nor your local Amway distributor can become rich without creating wealth for others. Money is not Wealth, Houses, Cell Phones, Flat Screen TV’s are wealth.
    Conversely Potter is our social security system. Prior to Social Security 95% of Americans owned stock. Like George Bailey they were betting on themselves, their neighbours – on a brighter future. Social Security converted private investment in the future into public investment in government – little or nothing was created. That Ponzi scheme is starting to fail. Soon we will be unable to sustain either social security or the other government spending it financed. Potter’s Bank – the government where social security was invested has spent all that money on past vices and riotous living.
    We are living in Potterville, but we are slowly grasping that we need to begin to rebuild Bedford falls. That the best way to help our neighbour is to succeed ourselves. That we fail collectively unless we succeed individually – rather than the other way around.
    If you want to cure unemployment, increase the availability of healthcare, and improve those less well off, go out and start a business. Create something, grow and hire others. If the best you can do is a sub minimum wage sweatshop, you have still done more than government. Everyone you hired is better off – otherwise they would not work for you.
    I am very scared because government has constructed mountainous obstacles in front of us, and the right has little clue while the left has none. But I do not believe that the American spirit has been crushed or that American exceptionalism is dead. I believe that recovery is inevitable because we are still sufficiently free as individuals to pull the collective yoke.

    • valdobiade permalink
      January 20, 2011 4:11 pm

      Dave wrote: That the best way to help our neighbour is to succeed ourselves.
      Actually, nowadays I can see a lot of successful ones gaining from the failures of neighbors. OOPS! Isn’t that the definition of “Capitalism”?
      Well then, “Communism” would be defined as a failure of ourselves and no way to help our neighbor, while “Moderates” should be defined as succeeding ourselves and… that’s all.

      I remember Bush II saying once: “America has “Have’s and Have-more”. And also he said that we shouldn’t throw rocks at “successful”. God bless his little heart! He was a truly Moderate.

      Yes Dave, “recovery is inevitable”… unless we are hit by a wandering meteor or worse… another bad policy.

    • January 22, 2011 2:43 pm

      Dave: You make a good case for the free market system, though of course I see a few holes: 1) With two stock market crashes in the last decade, it’s pretty clear that we can’t depend on private investment alone to guarantee ourselves a reasonable retirement nest egg; the Nasdaq, more than 10 years after the dotcom bubble-burst, still treads water at about half its 2000 level — pretty dismal; 2) Plutocrats like Potter don’t totally demolish the wealth of others — they simply redistribute wealth upward, away from the middle class and toward people like themselves. That way, the former middle class still has enough money for simple amusements — though not enough to afford college tuition or even, increasingly, their own homes; 3) It’s difficult to start a viable business these days without significant capital unless you’re a computer wizard; 4) banks are virtually conspiring against the middle class with the huge disparity between credit card interest (15-30%) and savings account interest (typically a fraction of 1%). What goes on here? 5) Real income for the top 5% of the population has been climbing aggressively over the past 20 years, while real income for the middle class has been stagnant or dropping. This is an ominous pattern in a society that needs its middle class earners, producers and consumers. Destination: Pottersville.

  2. Priscilla permalink
    January 20, 2011 4:46 pm

    Valdo, Gaining from the failure of others assumes a zero-sum economy – this is the economic fallacy perpetuated by all socialists ( I am not calling you a socialist, mind you, just sayin’…) A r0bust capitalist economy based on free private enterprise, rather than government economic planning, can grow, providing opportunity for many more people. An economy based on redistribution….not so much.

    And therein, Rick, lies the “roots of your malaise”….our economy is not robust at the moment, and, far from encouraging and supporting growth in the private sector, we are stifling and inhibiting it. The government can’t create wealth, it can only take it from the private sector through taxation (or by printing more money) and try and spread it around. Sure, some people might get their government jobs, but private corporations will still be forced to lay off workers and outsource production…or simply to go out of business. Eventually, that zero-sum belief becomes reality.

    It is pretty depressing :\

    • valdobiade permalink
      January 20, 2011 8:10 pm

      Priscilla, I’ve never read about the “zero-sum” theory up until now. For what I understand from it, is that “nothing is gained, nothing is lost, but everything transforms”. Lavoisier said that in chemistry, and I can see how it applies in economics as: “Money itself isn’t lost or made, it’s simply transferred from one perception to another. ”
      Redistribution of money can bring an equilibrium, like making everybody equally rich. I have to get a lot of money for this idea, but then I will destroy this equilibrium 🙂

    • January 22, 2011 3:00 pm

      Priscilla: Zero-sum is the worst-case scenario; we’re not there yet, but we’re heading in that direction. As long as businesses can create wealth for large numbers of people, we have a healthy economy. But lately those businesses are excluding more and more Americans from the club; you’re implying that it’s because of a punitive tax system. But how has that tax system changed since the boom years of the ’80s and ’90s? (I honestly don’t know; maybe you do.)

      You can’t deny (well, you could, but I know you’re intellectually honest) that more and more money is shifting away from the middle of the income pyramid toward the top. How do you explain that phenomenon? I think part of the problem is that investors will dump a company if it doesn’t blow away Wall Street expectations. (I own a stock that topped expectations, and it actually dropped 5% the next day!) So the companies have to do everything in their power to insure robust profits — including shipping jobs to India. Mavbe if we outlawed shorting (my old bete noire), companies wouldn’t live in such morbid fear of disappointing investors.

  3. Priscilla permalink
    January 23, 2011 9:00 pm

    Thr point I was trying to make about zero-sum was that a free enterprise capitalist system is not zero-sum at all…..but to hear lefties and liberals talk about the economy, it certainly seems that they believe that everytime someone gets rich, it is at someone else’s expense. That is simply not true, and it is a simplistic, easy-to-peddle, easy-to -believe lie that too many politicians use to drum up support for tax increases and huge spending programs.

    As usual, you make an excellent point about the “rich getting richer” issue that is, in fact, true and I think is largely due to the corporatist policies of the last few administrations – Clinton, Bush and Obama all corporatists to the hilt, just that Obama uses anti-business rhetoric and is also more beholden to the big unions, so it’s harder to tell (by the way, I must point out that even you imply the zero-sum condition by saying that income is “shifting” to the “top of the pyramid”….. when much of the problem here is unemployment and underemployment, not pie-cutting)

    It would be hard not to attribute the boom years of the 80’s and 90’s to the tax-cutting and investment friendly policies of Reagan, the tech boom and the housing boom – even Paul Krugman (!) has written that Clinton’s tax hikes had virtually nothing to with the growth in GDP fueled by the amazing tech bubble. No deficit was too big, no credit-crunch to be seen on any horizon……..

    Anyway, I guess my bottom line here is that unemployment, which is at the heart of our current recession, is not going to abate as long as the government insists on “punishing” businesses for hiring by imposing ever-increasing costs on the employer, in addition to high corporate tax rates. Right now it costs a business owner or corporation about $75,000 to pay a worker about $50,000, and Obamacare, should it not be repealed, will increase that burden enormously – which is why many big, politically connected corporations have already received their Obamacare waivers from HHS (almost 230, to be exact), or are planning on dumping health benefits entirely and forcing their employees into the risk pools. And why a lot of smaller corporations are just not hiring until they know what they are in for……

    And that’s just for starters… we’ve got horrible debt, cities and states on the verge – or already in – bankruptcy due to overspending and pension obligations. It’s not that the rich are getting richer (even though they are), it’s that our politicians have not got the will to make hard choices. And yes, I do blame the Democrats more for this, but I also believe that they are the only party that can effectively solve many of these problems, so I root for them to step up.

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