From the Vault – Overrated – George Bailey’s lending practices (and the vilification of Ebenezer Scrooge)

Ned Bitters

Ned Bitters

[Editor’s Note – Ned Bitters is in his annual pre-Christmas drinking binge, so today we bring you this classic Bitters Christmas column that originally ran on the site on December 16, 2008.]

This week’s inductees into the “Overrated Hall of Fame” are … George Bailey’s lending practices (and the vilification of Ebenezer Scrooge).

At least one good thing might come out of the economy going straight down the shitter. Maybe the sappy lot of bleeding heart Americans who get gooey-eyed watching two classic Christmas movies every December will realize that they’ve been rooting for or against the wrong characters all these years.

I’m talking about Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol and George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. To the mindless viewer, Scrooge is a merciless moneylender, a sniveling rat hellbent on collecting debts from poor, put-upon peasants who can barely keep their cobbling and coopering businesses afloat. George Bailey is set up as a paragon of all that is right and true in the good ol’ U.S. of A., helping alcoholic cabbies and half-assed cops buy houses they can barely afford.

If you’ve read the paper at all in the past three months, you’ll note that a large part of this economic apocalypse is due to George Baileyish lending practices and un-Scrooge-like credit practices. Perhaps this financial shitstorm could have been avoided had we a few more Scrooges manning the books and a few less George Baileys financing McMansions for third string cooks at the local diner.

Let’s start with our favorite usurer, Ebenezer Scrooge. His sin, at least in viewers’ eyes, is collecting payment from people to whom he lent money under clearly defined, prearranged conditions. He even has the gall to expect these payments to be made on time. This, apparently, makes him the devil. I suppose he should just let people pay whatever they can whenever they can. You know, like the payment program afforded so many debt-saddled Americans in the past decade. Maybe he should just let them default on the loans with very little penalty. You know, just like so many living-on-18-percent-credit Americans have in the past decade. Maybe he should lend them even more money, burdening them with even greater debt that they’ll never be able to repay. You know, like so many …

Scrooge is in the lending business, which means he is also in the collecting business. People who are in the borrowing business automatically enter the repayment business. Scrooge might lack sympathy for the lowlife debtors he hassles for payments, but he is not in the wrong. Instead of sneering at Scrooge, maybe we turn throw some of our distaste upon the unwashed milliners and candlemakers who borrow beyond their means to repay.

And I’m tired of being forced to feel disgust for the way he treats his employee, the sadsack Bob Cratchit. Maybe Mr. Cratchit wouldn’t be so stressed about feeding his family if he didn’t see fit to produce a passel of dirty-faced urchins to feed. Note to Bob: Pull out and shoot a load on your wife’s back from time to time. Your food dollar will go a lot further. And quit feeling sorry for yourself because you get only one day off for Christmas. If you wanted an extended holiday break, you should have been a teacher or a Cleveland Brown. It’s not like you have a ballbuster of a job anyway. You copy figures all day. You’re a human ditto machine, and you get paid like one. You want more money? You should have worked harder in school. Like Scrooge did.

Then we have George Bailey, everyone’s most inept mortgage broker. Maybe if he weren’t up to his substantially long neck in self-pity, he’d have more sense than to trust his addled uncle with eight thousand dollars cash. Even sending one of the two other knuckleheads in his hire would have been a wiser move.

Many economists cite predatory mortgage lending as culprit number one in the Who’s Most Responsible for this Economic Clusterfuck blame game. Yet when George “Just sign here and the house is yours, Mr. Deadbeat!” Bailey is selling houses to the most high risk halfwits in Bedford Falls, why, he’s an Everyman Hero.

Sure, banking competitor Mr. Potter is a lowlife heel deserving of jail time when he keeps Uncle Billy’s misplaced cash, but otherwise, he’s a hero. While George Bailey is running the family savings and loan near into the ground by doling out loans willy-nilly, Mr. Potter instead runs a solid company that makes well-founded, low-risk loans. Would that Wall Street had more Mr. Potters in the past few years. I want Potter’s sharp, nosy eye on the other titans of business. Somehow, director Frank Capra has created a mess of populist claptrap that manages to manipulate us into rooting for the whiney, retarded businessman while vilifying the astute one who worships at the altar of the bottom line.

So here’s the plan. When you’re sitting in your cozy, tree-lit living room watching one of these holiday classics, try something a little different this year. Give actual “thinking” a shot. Sure, it might ruin two of the best movie-endings this side of The Lives of Others (What? You haven’t seen it? Of course not. It has subtitles, you illiterate rube), but at least you’ll no longer be just another movie-viewing sheep.

Don’t hate Scrooge. Scream for the excuse-making Londoners to pay up before the whole of England’s economy goes kaput. Tell George Bailey that the bill has come due for a lifetime of half-assing the family business.

And finally, stop applauding Scrooge for excusing all those loans in a fit of post-ghost euphoria, and stop applauding the cash-wielding Bedford Falls nimrods who save George Bailey’s about-to-be-indicted ass. Stop calling it the triumph of man’s innate goodness winning out over his more evil urges. Stop calling it a perfect-world fantasy where people care for their brothers and sisters who are in need.

Just this once, use your head and call them what they really are: The original bailouts.

Ned Bitters is, in fact, overrated. You can contact him at

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