(p. 219) Actually, it’s not so strange. The norm for bankers was never just moneymaking, any more than it was for doctors or lawyers. Bankers made a livelihood, often quite a good one, by serving their clients– the depositors and borrowers– and the communities in which they worked. But traditionally, the aim of banking– even if sometimes honored only in the breach– was service, not just moneymaking.
In the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, James Stewart plays George Bailey, a small-town banker faced with a run on the bank– a liquidity crisis. When the townspeople rush into the bank to withdraw their money, Bailey tells them, “You’re thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here.” He goes on. “Your money’s in Joe’s house. Right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Backlin’s house, and a hundred others. Why, you’re lending them the money to build, and they’re going to pay you back, as best they can…. What are you going to do, foreclose on them?”
No, says George Bailey, “we’ve got to stick together. We’ve got to have faith in one another.” Fail to stick together, and the community will be ruined. Bailey took all the money he could get his hands on and gave it to his depositors to help see them through the crisis. Of course, George Bailey was interested in making money, but money was not the only point of what Bailey did.
Relying on a Hollywood script to provide evidence of good bankers is at some level absurd, but it does indicate something valuable about society’s expectations regarding the role of bankers. The norm for a “good banker” throughout most of the twentieth century was in fact someone who was trustworthy and who served the community, who was responsible to clients, and who took an interest in them.
Schwartz, Barry, and Kenneth Sharpe. Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.
(Note: italics in original.)