By Susan Zakin
During the December holidays I feel the urge to watch old black and white movies, preferably those starring Jimmy Stewart. This year, "It's a Wonderful Life" is too painful, a reminder of what we used to be but aren't anymore. I prefer screwball comedies like "The Philadelphia Story" with its sympathy for alcoholics and philanderers, and schizophrenic alternation between class rage and craven worship of old money.
In "The Philadelphia Story," Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn play an upper crust couple who, though divorced, still love each other. Hepburn almost, but not quite, falls for Stewart, a writer from a modest background. Every time Hepburn waxes nostalgic about the sailboat Grant designed for their honeymoon, the True Love, she murmurs in that wonderful Connecticut lockjaw, "My, she was yare." This means, in boat language, fast, agile and resilient. When she says this, my eyes brim with tears along with hers.
Christmas has become the time when we take stock of our collective disillusionment. The season lost its innocence in the 1970s, around the same time we did. In my Manhattan barrio, children spent the holidays being passed back and forth between divorced parents, teenage girls devoured Vogue articles about Christmas in St. Bart's and Mustique (Mick Jagger and Princess Margaret sightings obligatory), and parents engaged in the holiday standbys of drunkenness and depression.
In the 1980s, Mom and Dad settled into corporate harness, the stock market boomed, greed was good. We agonized about the commercialization of Christmas, but it didn't stop us from buying things.
In retrospect, these stirrings of disquiet seem like relics of innocence. In the 2000s, "the season of giving" just adds to the overload of marketing. I'm beginning to wonder whether forking over cash on "Giving Tuesday" actually makes things worse. This is perhaps best exemplified by a tweet I saw from celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito. After announcing that 50 million Americans suffer from hunger, DiSpirito urged me to click on a website to which each donation for food will be matched dollar for dollar by Bank of America.
The number of ways this is wrong is so staggering that it is difficult to know where to begin. It goes without saying that I am not a subscriber to DiSpirito's Twitter feed. More important, the real beneficiary of my largesse would be Bank of America. Sure, a few people might get fed, but the real benefit is to BofA's brand, in poor repair and deservedly so: The bank is one of the worst offenders in the economic meltdown. Before the crash, Bank of America acquired Countrywide, the nation's highest-profile purveyor of subprime mortgages, as well as the venerable stock firm Merrill Lynch. The federal government sued the bank for allegedly engaging in a practice known as "the hustle," churning out mortgages at a feverish clip without proper checks on wrongdoing. Another lawsuit alleged that the bank's top managers lied about Merrill Lynch's troubled financial state while in the midst of closing the deal to buy the firm.
The bottom line? This is the same bank that cut 30,000 jobs in 2011 and the following year rewarded CEO Brian Moynihan by quadrupling his annual pay to $8.1 million.
This is not Jimmy Stewart's bank. Ironically, it started off that way: Frank Capra modeled George Bailey, the good-hearted small town banker played by Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life," on Bank of America founder A.P. Giannini, the self-made millionaire who was the first to offer loans to the working stiffs of America, people he believed to be generally honest.
I wrote back to DiSpirito, telling him that if Bank of America's management really cared, it would stop laying people off.
In reality though, it's not Moynihan's job, or yours or mine to (fill in the blanks): feed the hungry, buy textbooks for public schools, keep hospitals open, bankroll local arts councils or even put up money for animal shelters.
We're all OK with Bon Jovi and Bruce rocking for hurricane relief, but buying into the fiction that corporations should be playing the role of government will not end well. Foundations shouldn't be the fount of good works, either. It's not Bill Gates' job, or Warren Buffett's, to decide which diseases to cure or what kind of equipment should be in schools and libraries. Good works on a broad scale should not be subject to the whims of private individuals and certainly not to the self-interest of corporate CEOs, former or otherwise.
Call me a grinch, but even dropping a dollar in a bucket so little Brittney can have a new kidney is a capitulation. Our good works mean there is less pressure on insurance companies to do the right thing, and on government to force them to do it—or for the government to provide health care directly to citizens, which is what Obamacare would have looked like in a sane America.
It wasn't always this way. In 1988, Americans bought into President George H.W. Bush's exhortation, written by Craig Smith and the vile Peggy Noonan, to become volunteers, one of the "thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky." Bush's maudlin call for volunteers was the logical next step after Ronald Reagan's deregulation of corporate America, attacks on labor unions and cutbacks in social programs.
We stepped up. What else could we do? Helping others made us feel good so we kept doing it. We donated to heart disease research. We ran for the cure.
People kept giving, but Americans kept getting poorer. By 2011, a record number had slipped below the poverty line—15.9 percent, totaling 48.5 million people. That's not even counting the millions above the poverty line—$23,050 for a family of four—who are, by anyone's standards, in deep economic trouble. As Paul Krugman recently wrote, none of the economic remedies being proposed on either side of the aisle will solve America's real problem: mass unemployment.
Mitt Romney was right when he complained about the 47 percent of Americans who are dependent on government aid, even though he got the reasons wrong. Staggering under the escalating cost of living—higher college tuition, rising rents driven by the housing bust that made bankers rich—we are becoming aid junkies, just like our cousins in Africa. We have no choice. We don't have jobs, or if we do, they don't pay us enough for a decent life. At the same time, our defunded government is externalizing its costs, like bankrupt airlines charging $25 to carry a piece of luggage.
Reaganomics was bigger than us, and bigger than President Obama too. He may be willing to look over the fiscal cliff, but in the name of pragmatism, he appears to have given up on pushing an economic stimulus to create jobs.
I try to be a realist too but the culture of giving feels demeaning and hopeless. As I prepared for my first Christmas in New York in more than a decade, I found myself remembering when giving a few bucks felt real. As a girl living in Manhattan, I could tell the Christmas season was off and running when I saw a neediest case article in The New York Times. These were heartbreaking stories of people who lived beside us, but whose hardships we rarely knew about. Now, of course, those people are us.
The paper's Neediest Cases Fund celebrated its centennial this year. The fund started on Christmas Day 1911 when publisher Adolph Ochs encountered a shabbily dressed man on the street. The man struck Ochs as a respectable fellow who was simply down on his luck. Ochs gave him a few dollars and a business card.
"If you're looking for a job, come see me tomorrow," Ochs said.
If that sounds like a scene from a Jimmy Stewart movie, it played out pretty much that way. The Neediest Cases articles began the following year, and the fund has raised $250 million.
But it's the story of Ochs and the homeless man that makes me swallow hard this Christmas. The old story is new again, as profound as one of those Stewart films. Because Ochs didn't just give the man a handout; he also gave him a job.
My, we were yare. Weren't we?