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How Bailey Park Ruined America

Ross Douthat has written a smart analysis of the way that the roots of the current economic crisis can be traced back to the conflict portrayed in “It’s A Wonderful Life” between the hero, George Bailey, and his nemesis, Mr. Potter. Most will recall that George Bailey – having failed to escape from the stifling […]

Ross Douthat has written a smart analysis of the way that the roots of the current economic crisis can be traced back to the conflict portrayed in “It’s A Wonderful Life” between the hero, George Bailey, and his nemesis, Mr. Potter. Most will recall that George Bailey – having failed to escape from the stifling confines of Bedford Falls – invests his boundless energy in ensuring that the dispossessed of the town slum, “Pottersville,” are given the opportunity to purchase their own bit of the American Dream. Through his mortgage firm, “Bailey Savings and Loan,” the ordinary, hard-working citizens of Bedford Falls/Pottersville – such as the Martini’s, an immigrant family whose paterfamilias runs the local pub – are enabled to purchase a cookie-cutter 1950’s suburban house in a Levittown-like development called “Bailey Park.”

Douthat notes that objections to suburbia have been around at least since Mr. Potter’s tight-fisted and mean-spirited objections to lending money to the unwashed masses. Moreover, objections to suburbia have been bipartisan, with the Left objecting on ecological grounds: “Potter-style skepticism about these trends endured…. The Potters of the right griped that banks and government agencies were being forced to take on too much risk in the name of expanding minority homeownership — and that besides, renting was often more economically sensible and investing your money in the stock market instead of your home delivered higher long-term returns…. The Potters of the left, increasingly vocal since the 1960s, argued that the whole business was unsustainable: If overpopulation or oil shocks or anomie didn’t bring suburbia crashing down, then global warming would, and the only thing to do was to de-sprawl and retrench.”

For all the disapproval of the suburbs by enlightened voices on the Right and Left, people marched with their feet, first to the inner rings of the city and eventually to the “exurbs,” the transformation of farmland into McMansion developments preferably accessed by the largest possible vehicles. Still, Douthat observes that the mortgage crisis, concerns over global warming, and long-term trends in energy costs are likely to severely constrain the further expansion of suburbia. And, he’s even willing to grant that the “Potter skeptics” may have a point, and that “to some extent this retrenchment may be healthy.”

Yet, his conclusion is that we should not go so far toward “Potterism” to let the mid-twentieth century American dream slip away. In his conclusion, he argues that it is our suburbs that make America a unique place in the world today – undergirding our patriotism, entrepreneurialism, optimism, higher birthrates, and other features that distinguish us from Canada and Europe. He perorates, “to let it slip away entirely, though, in the name of efficiencies environmental and economic, would mean giving up something that’s uniquely precious about American life…. [Suburbia] offered the average American something no country on Earth had ever offered its citizens before — the promise of an equality rooted in ownership, a citizenship rooted in self-sufficiency and an entrepreneurial spirit rooted in security.”

This is a remarkable conclusion, given the way that current events have shown how much of that “ownership,” “self-sufficiency” and “security” is illusory. Because of the particular shape and scope of our massive reallocation of resources after World War II, we have become increasingly a nation of debtors, not “owners”; we have become increasingly dependent on economic growth that ties itself to “globalization” and renders us less “self-sufficient”; we have ceased to power our way of life using domestic and sustainable resources, and have instead become dependent upon petroleum from regimes that are despotic and ultimately hostile toward us, and has thus undermined any easy claim to “security.”

It was from our suburbs that much of the contemporary success of the Republican Party was staked. Anti-government, anti-tax sentiment in places such as Orange County fueled the rise of Ronald Reagan and the success of modern Republicanism. Yet, Douthat reminds us that suburbia was in fact to a great extent the result of “big” and ever “bigger” government, the result of massive public investments. “For three generations, suburban homesteading has been underwritten by our infrastructure spending, our zoning policies, our banking regulations and our tax code. Easy credit, inexpensive mortgages, cheap gasoline, wide-open highways, the heavy hand of federal regulators on any bank that declined to lend in low-income or minority neighborhoods — if it made homeownership cheap and suburbia accessible, Americans were for it, never mind what the critics said.” Ironically, the very policies that made “homeownership cheap” now has forced the government to make ever more visible its massive role in propping up this unsustainable way of life.

Indeed, the rush by governments around the world to prop up financial markets that are melting down due to toxic mortgage debt reveals with ever-greater clarity the basis of suburbia in a kind of blinkered short-sightedness. What was required to lead individuals to the conclusion that what was best for them was to move away from settled communities – to transform farmland, and America’s agriculture base, into a society based upon consumerism and debt – was a cultural transformation that allowed us to neglect our obligations to past and future generations and to think instead in terms of narrow and immediate self-satisfaction. In building out the suburbs we implicitly declared that had embraced a culture of consumption based upon immediate extraction. The transformation of farmland to tract housing meant that our farming methods needed to become industrialized, regardless of the long-term damage to top soil and our reliance on petroleum inputs (increasingly foreign – our “domestic” food supply is now based on the good will of the Saudis). It meant that we eschewed the principle of living within our means, and inaugurated a society-wide embrace of debt as a way of life. It disrupted our sense of connection between our places and our economy, and thus obliterated the idea of local ownership and stewardship, ushering in instead the era of “economies of scale” in which the cheapness of product came to trump the health and vitality of local economies – including a decent domestic manufacturing base and small-scale ownership of shops and retail. And it ensured that Big Government would be the nanny of first and last resort, having disrupted traditional communities in which one could rely on extended family and a community of longstanding neighbors to help one out in times of trouble.

As I have written elsewhere about the film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the film is actually a tragedy. At its heart is a deep and sad irony: in creating Bailey Park, George Bailey not only emptied Pottersville, but he ultimately destroyed the vibrant small town of Bedford Falls. At the end of that great and instructive film, George Bailey discovers that his accounts are short $8,000 (due to the forgetfulness of dear old Uncle Billy). The movie ends with the moving scene in which hundreds of fellow citizens of Bedford Falls appear in order to offer George even their meager savings to make up the shortfall. “They didn’t ask any questions, George – they heard you were in trouble and asked how they could help,” says Uncle Billy in the midst of the heart-warming salvation of George. Yet, one can’t help to think – especially during this coming Christmas season – that part of the film’s perhaps unintended message is that George’s children – growing up in Bailey Park – will not be able to rely upon the help and assistance of extended family and long-standing friends and neighbors who will lend a hand “without asking any quesitons” because they know you well. Instead, they – like us – will turn to the Government in times of distress, and it is the Government that will give the banks the $8,000, asking instead only that we allow our businesses and bureaucracy alike to grow a bit bigger, to insinuate themselves a bit more deeply in our lives, and to promise us that our own expansion of appetite will be accompanied at every turn by the expansion of “the vast tutelary State” which Tocqueville predicted would come about NOT from sources of oppression, but as a consequence of our disconnection from community and the helplessness induced by our individualism.

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