We could use a George Bailey right now

A movie scene keeps playing in my head. Jimmy Stewart is delivering lines from the Christmas classic, "It's a Wonderful Life." It's the run on the bank scene. Stewart, playing George Bailey, is frantically attempting to calm the nerves of depositors at the Bailey Building and Loan, who are clamoring to withdraw their cash.

Stewart conducts an impromptu Economics 101 lesson, explaining to each anxious customer that the building and loan doesn't actually keep their deposits in cash reserves. One woman's money is invested in another's house, and another person's money is invested in another neighbor's needs, and so forth.

Where is our George Bailey now? The country could use some soothing tones we can actually believe. Where is the man or woman with the ability to explain this mess to the average Joe, be he a six-pack drinker, a wine-sipper or a teetotaler. Because taxpayer cynicism is about to hit an all-time high if bankers continue their antics. There is evidence that banks do not intend to use the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) as we were led to believe.

The plan was sold as a necessary step to get banks lending again, so that a credit crisis could be nipped in the bud before it dragged the whole economy down with it. Eventually, we were told, the banks would rebound and there would be profits and plum pudding for taxpayers who footed the bill for the bailout.

Right. Now, it seems, a disproportionate amount of federal bailout money is going to the biggest banks, and they are using it to acquire smaller distressed banks. Yes, we're paying them to eat the competition.

There may be arguments in favor of consolidation in the bloated finance industry, but to do it using bailout funds is contrary to TARP's basic justification. An executive for JPMorgan Chase, already a recipient of $25 billion of taxpayer bailout money, made that pretty clear in an internal conference call a few weeks ago. Joe Nocera of the New York Times was listening in as another employee asked the executive how the bailout money was going to change the bank's lending.

His answer: "What we do think it will help us do is perhaps be a little bit more active on the acquisition side or opportunistic side for some banks who are still struggling." And what about the lending? The same executive: "We would think that loan volume will continue to go down as we continue to tighten credit. ..."

As Nocera put it, we may have been sold a bill of goods.

Meanwhile, American consumers have the next chapter of the financial crisis to look forward to, and this one is happening in the credit card industry. The New York Times reports that credit card companies are preparing to cut credit limits for existing cardholders, "especially those who live in areas ravaged by the housing crisis or who work in troubled industries." Cardholders "who shop at the same stores as other risky borrowers or who have mortgages from certain companies" may also find themselves cut off.

Wow, so simply your field of employment and where you live can affect your access to credit? I'm not going to argue that stricter and stingier credit card standards are a bad thing. But this harsh new reality isn't going to go down easily for most Americans, many of whom have turned to debt to replace stagnant wages. And if a family has just lost an income and there are utility bills to be paid and children to be fed, it's going to be hard to do without the plastic.

This much is clear: Our nation's financial system has been corrupted for too long by moral hazard, and an economic recovery will not happen unless a sense of fairness is restored. In "It's a Wonderful Life," George Bailey calmed his worried depositors by assuring them that if they kept their faith in the institution, times would improve and all ships would rise. When the going got tough, Bailey didn't take his wad of loot and bolt for a sunnier locale.

Oh, yeah, that was only a movie. We taxpayers are stuck with real life characters.


Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at msanchez@kcstar.com.