Recession and Opinion and Economy and Government & Economic Development

In times of trouble, encountering a chance to let it be

March 9, 2009
I went to church Sunday night. It wasn't a religious experience — wasn't supposed to be, anyway. It was a concert by my friend Steven Stolen.

When I walked into Trinity Episcopal, many pews were filled. But there was an open seat next to my friend Tamara and her husband, and she beckoned me to join them.

As we waited for Steven to begin, we chatted. We did the family update, talked about mutual acquaintances, then turned, as many conversations do these days, to the economy.

Tamara told me how her nonprofit is faring. I gave her an update on my business. Then we talked about people who've lost jobs, people struggling to find them, people hanging on by a thread.

"I feel especially bad for young people coming out of college," I said.

"I know," she said. "I used to meet with lots of them. Now, I don't even want to see them; I don't know what to say anymore."

The night before, I got to visit with one of those college students — my son Zach, a sophomore at IU Bloomington. We went to dinner and then to a movie. We saw "The International."

Starring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts, it's one of those travelogue thrillers in the James Bond/Jason Bourne mold. In a well-timed release, this film centers on villainous banks, their quest for world dominance, and governments' impotence to stop them.

In one scene, our hero and heroine meet with the head of an Italian arms manufacturing firm. His deal with the movie's bad guy — a power-hungry multinational megabank — has gone bad.

The arms dealer tells our protagonists that the megabank has been buying cheap weapons and trying to influence Third World conflicts, not because it cares about the outcomes, but because it wants to generate debt.

"The [bank] wants to control the debt," he says. "Whoever controls the debt, controls everything. ...This is the essence of the banking industry, to make us all slaves to debt."

This reminds me of another movie — one from 30 years ago. Called "Network," it's about a deranged former anchorman, Howard Beale, and his on-air, ratings-boosting rants.

"I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore," he screams.

My favorite sermon from "Network" is delivered to Beale by the network's chairman, Arthur Jensen.

Speaking on high in a cathedral-like boardroom, Jensen says, "You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no Third Worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels. It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today! ...

"You get up on your little 21-inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today ...

"We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime."

Over the top? Sure. But I've listened to author and columnist Tom Friedman talk about the power of nations being superseded by multinational corporations, and both being surpassed by "super-empowered individuals."

I've seen our financial system reeling in the face of struggling banks, insurance companies, auto manufacturers, mortgage lenders and others. Yet I've also seen lavish corporate parties, the flaunting of corporate jets, mismanagement, embezzlement, ponzi schemes and, of course, groveling for government bailouts.

Life imitates art. Fiction waxes factual. Back at Trinity, Steven is introducing his last number. He explains that the lyrics of one verse of a Beatles song seemed particularly appropriate in these troubled times. So he and his arranger decided to include and adapt it.

"It's a spiritual song," he told me afterward. So he decided to "sing it like a spiritual, not like a rock anthem."

And as Steven's remarkable tenor voice echoed 'round the intimate sanctuary, I knew that despite all the schemes and scandals, power shifts, power grabs and seeming powerlessness, we're going to be OK.

He sang:

And when the broken-hearted people
Living in the world agree,
There will be an answer,
Let it be.
For though they may be parted,
There is still a chance that they will see,
There will be an answer.
Let it be.
It was a religious experience after all.
___

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.
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