It sounded like brontide. The Martin Tower, the tallest in the Lehigh Valley and once corporate center for Bethlehem Steel came down yesterday morning. Completed only in 1972, the following decade saw the collapse of the steel industry, and the building has sat vacant a dozen years. Now it’s gone. The reasons the building could no longer stand are many and I won’t try to explain them as if I understood. The fall of the tower, however, put me in mind of human folly and the belief that corporate profits will only ever grow. Capitalism is built on a set of myths that the wealthy truly believe—I suspect many others do too, otherwise the system couldn’t possibly last. Adam Smith may have been right academically, but in reality humans are greedy, venal, and shortsighted. At least those who “rise to the top” are.
We didn’t move to the Valley for the steel. Having settled in New Jersey just about when the Martin Tower was abandoned, like many other displaced academics I was looking for a job. There were cities in the Midwest—we weren’t far from Milwaukee or Madison—but there was no work. If you’re “overeducated” your best bet is to settle near a huge metropolitan area, as closely as you can afford to. Then hang out your shingle. Capitalism, however, has made New Jersey affordable only for the excessively wealthy. Besides, I was born within the imaginary lines that we call the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In fact, when I got my license transferred last year the computer asked me if I still lived in Venango County, where I was born.
I didn’t see the tower come down. It’s not visible from my house, but it was always right there when I drove to Lowes to pick up some necessary hardware to survive in this area. (Weed-whacker and lawnmower—reel variety.) My mythology of towers always takes me back to Babel. In the biblical worldview towers were a sign of arrogance. God seemed to think they were trying to invade divine turf, and so he made it so we could no longer understand one another. There hasn’t been a moment’s peace since. We build towers tall to show what we can do. We don’t really need an angry deity to come down and confuse our language any more. We’ve got capitalists and their excess money to lead the way. The sound of thunder roared and I divined just where such leadership will guide us.