The Common Good

We Aren’t At Their Mercy As Much As They (or We) Think

NEW YORK — The ancient dream of making money by simply moving money took a hit last week when Citibank announced plans to lay off 11,000 workers.

Photo: Citibank logo, Gerry Boughan /
Photo: Citibank logo, Gerry Boughan /

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Across town, the dream of making money by actually making things – a dream that had seemed lost to foreign labor – got a boost when Apple's boss Tim Cook announced plans to make some computers in the U.S.

Citibank's move sent shock waves among people educated to take meetings, crunch numbers, and parlay networking into fees for passing money through their hands. There's no actual creation of wealth; just dipping a large ladle into wealth as it flows past.

Apple's small and somewhat symbolic move, by contrast, stirred hope that manufacturing might return again to American shores and stimulate the manufacturing wages and productive attitudes that once built a middle class.

A third element emerged last week, as well. Facebook prepared to rewrite its rules to wring even greater revenues from information we had thought was private. Companies admitted they were using data mining to stitch together disturbingly complete profiles of web users. Privacy took a back seat to profits. The new ladle dipping, it seems, will be shadowy ventures preying on our appetite for web-delivered services.

These three developments have one common feature: powerful forces changed direction on self-determined whims, and people were expected to fall in line like sheep.

Citibank's 11,000 unfortunate souls were expected to slink away without protest, a one-time hit on earnings for Citibank and total life disruption for them.

Facebook's billion customers were expected to tolerate more ads and more intrusions. After all, where else can they go to exchange brief glimpses into their lives, thoughts, and family news?

While encouraging to American workers, the subtext of Apple's announcement was clear: Apple will do whatever is best for Apple. If you want a sleek iPhone or iPad for Christmas, you'll have to deal with its being made in a Chinese sweatshop.

So what will happen? It could be that, like Japanese costal dwellers waiting for a tsunami, more and more people accept being powerless.

Or it could be that people rise up and reclaim at least some personal potency. After all, voters recently shunned nearly $2 billion of right-wing campaign spending designed to make them afraid and angry. Television watchers are disrupting networks by recording shows and fast-forwarding past the ads. More and more jobs are being created in small businesses, where potency arises from entrepreneurial zeal and a sense of being a valued employee.

More and more young adults are spurning traditional campus-based college education in favor of remote learning, targeted learning and on-the-job learning. I recently attended a conference in New York where a roomful of young techs, mostly male, gathered to explore ideas, not to meet girls.

Online shopping is itself a declaration of independence from big-box retailers and their monolithic taste. Similarly, the movement away from religious denominations and toward hopscotching through megachurches and online faith offerings is showing a younger generation that they can find God without benefit of doctrine, institutions, and tradition.

Where will this lead? It's hard to say. A lot of money goes into compelling our behavior, not liberating it. And into pleasing the powerful, not disrupting them. But I sense the tide of personal potency is turning.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus" and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.

Photo: Gerry Boughan /

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