This peaceful world of ours is ready for destruction—
And still the sun shines, the sparrows come
Each morning to the bakery for crumbs.
–Charles Simic, “Preachers Warn“
For the third day in a row, I have opened the morning papers to learn that the smart people, the winners, the ones who are actually making money, the ones who have figured out this newfangled economic age of ours, are the ones who are betting on destruction, pain and suffering. The New York Times explained yesterday that Goldman Sachs is making bets that one of its customers, Greece, is headed for ruin, in large part because of exotic financial instruments that Goldman Sachs designed. This morning, The Wall Street Journal tells me that a group of hedge fund big shots are so certain of the Euro’s collapse that they have been holding dinner parties together to discuss their good fortune. (Apparently, they can bet $5 million, and if the Euro moves five percent down, they double their money. If only Vegas offered such odds.) On Wednesday, word came that an obscure Dallas Hedge Fund guy was raking it in big off of Greece’s misery.
I do not begrudge the captains of finance their lucre, but I wonder in the grand scheme what all of this means. America’s greatest successes for the past decade have come largely from destruction–the company that closes a plant to ship jobs overseas, the financial wizard who predicted a mortgage market collapse created by other financial wizards, the corporate executive who has figured out how to do more with less. We are all living through an age of contraction, in which smart destruction is more prized than creation. I don’t know where it is leading us, but I would be willing to wager on the skills that next year’s Harvard and Yale grads dream about acquiring. No doubt that America will soon be home to the most skilled and accomplished destroyers in history. As you tuck your children in tonight, let them know. If they dream big, they too can one day dismantle something wonderful.
These trends have sunk deep into the cultural subconscious. “Up In The Air,” a movie about miserable people who fire others for a living in exchange for corporate perks, is up for six Oscars next month. The other leading contenders are a sci-fi flick about bulldozing alien forests for mining, a revenge flick about killing the mastermind of the Holocaust and a study of soldiers in Iraq who blow up bombs–a study of destruction, squared.
We are simply in a new age, and most of us are on the wrong side of the deal. I make magazine stories for a living. I am almost certain I would be more successful if I could figure out a way to destroy them instead.