The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

by George Packer

Hardcover, 2013




Farrar, Straus and Giroux, (2013)


Through an examination of the lives of several Americans and leading public figures over the past three decades, Packer portrays a superpower in danger of coming apart at the seams, its elites no longer elite, its institutions no longer working, its ordinary people left to improvise their own schemes for success and salvation.

User reviews

LibraryThing member EBT1002
The Unwinding tells the story of the American economic and cultural shifts through the stories of a variety of individual Americans. He starts and ends with Dean Price, a smart white working class guy living in the piedmont of North Carolina, descendent of a tobacco-growing family in a tobacco-growing region which had, by the millennium, fallen into apparently permanent disintegration. Packer also follows Jeff Connaughton, a white upper-middle-class political strategist who spent much of his career shadowing Joe Biden, hoping for a crack at helping "his guy" earn a term in the White House. We meet Tammy Thomas, a relatively uneducated black assembly line worker from Youngstown, Ohio, who watched her community go into deep decline after the Steel jobs disappeared and who, later, found purpose and meaning in local politics as she poured herself into saving the town she loves. We also peek briefly into the lives of Newt Gingrich, Robert Ruben, Andrew Breitbart, Elizabeth Warren, and we follow the radically different trajectories of Tampa and Silicon Valley through the latter part of the 20th and the first decade of the 21st centuries.

Packer's story is that of a persistent unwinding of the American dream, and the role that big money (and I mean big money) has played in that decline. The influence held by the extremely wealthy few and the ineffectualness of even the most inspired leaders to nudge the direction of our plutocracy is, at best, discouraging. Packer calls out individuals who hold some bit of responsibility in creating our current economic and political mess, including Presidents Clinton and Obama, as well as (for example) banks that have lobbied effectively for deregulation even in the face of sound evidence that said regulations protect our economy from boom-bust cycles that tend to most adversely affect the middle and working classes. But this work is less about individuals than it is about a system. It is about a system that is vulnerable to manipulation and undermining, and it is about a system that has become so esoteric and complicated that it's difficult to see where actual individuals might alter its course.

Packer published this book well before the 2016 election but his work appears to have predicted the outcome. I was particularly struck by his description of Matt, Dean Price's lodger who found himself working for Wal-Mart, earning about $8 an hour:

'What really depressed Matt was how monetary everything had become in America, how it was just the biggest profit at the lowest cost. It was all about me, me, me, and no one wanted to help anyone else. The lobbyists, the politicians -- they were all corrupt, taking everything from those who had the least. His favorite thing to do when he was alone in Dean's basement relaxing with a beer was to watch old episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. It was a better America back then. If he could have grown up at any time it would have been in the fifties, which was the last great time in America. He hated to say it but it was true.'

And there is this, referring to Peter Thiel, who originally founded PayPal and has become a wacky but terrifyingly influential billionaire who is on the executive committee of Donald Trump's transition team:

'Thiel was an elite among elites, but he directed his intellectual fire at his own class, or the people a couple of rungs down -- professionals making two or three hundred thousand a year. Elites had become complacent. If they couldn't grasp the reality of a tech slowdown, it was because their own success skewed them in an optimistic direction, and wealth inequality kept them from seeing what was happening in places like Ohio. "If you were born in 1950 and were in the top ten percent, everything got better for twenty years automatically. Then, after the late sixties, you went to a good grad school, and you got a good job on Wall Street in the late seventies, and then you hit the boom. Your story has been one of incredible, unrelenting progress for sixty years. Most people who are sixty years old in the U.S. -- not their story at all." The establishment had been coasting for a long time and was out of answers. Its failure pointed to new directions, maybe Marxist, maybe libertarian, along a volatile trajectory that it could no longer control.'

I don't make that much money nor did I ever work on Wall Street, but I know he is speaking to and of me.

This book moved along at an easy clip: engaging, infuriating, terrifying, and fascinating. I learned a lot. I feel a deeper and more complex understanding of our political and economic system and how we have ended up where we currently are. I feel no more clarity about how we get out of this mess, but I'm also no less determined to join the chorus of voices demanding that the 1950s were not really the greater America and that a return to the cultural values of that time are not the answer to our apparently inexorable decline as a nation. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member ozzer
Using portraits of Americans, both famous and generally unknown, Packer explores the unwinding of the American dream, which he claims began in the 70’s and has continued unabated since. From the perspective of the bizarre and disappointing 2016 presidential campaign, one can only conclude that this book, published in 2013, was indeed prescient. Income inequality has widened; little substantive has been done to reduce global warming; our involvement in war has increased; our political system has morphed to more closely resemble an oligarchy favoring the wealthy and corporations than a representative democracy; and the social contract is unraveling leaving more and more people behind. Based on the rhetoric of the 2016 campaign, Americans have begun to awaken to the problems, but are divided about how to tackle them—more war and repression versus sweeping social programs. Unfortunately, there seems to be little interest in coming together to seek solutions. Instead, fear and bickering are the order of the day and the beat goes on.

This is not an easy book to read because it offers little in the way of solutions and sees few leaders willing or able to address the problems. We seem to be trapped in a complex world that is rapidly changing while we have few resources to respond. The take home lessons from Packer’s portraits seem to be that we are all on our own. Grifters and con men abound in these stories and most of us are pretty easy pickings because the resources that used to sustain us no longer work. The few continue to prosper while the majority languishes.
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LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
This National Book Award winner tells the story of the US over the last 30 years or so--and it's the way of telling it that makes the book unique. Packer uses the lives of several people as examples of what has happened. These include Tammy Thomas, factory worker/community organizer in Youngstown, Dean Price, son of a North Carolina tobacco farmer, now biofuel manufacturer/advocate, Jeff Connaughton, a D.C. insider, on again/off again lobbyist/Biden aide, and Peter Thiel, a Valley venture capitalist billionaire. Their stories over the last thirty years are told in episodic, roughly chronological chapters. Interspersed with their stories are the stories of a dozen or so public figures, including Oprah, Newt Gingrich, Elizabeth Warren, Jay-Z, Colin Powell, Sam Walton, Raymond Carver, Robert Rubin, and so on. There's also a long series of narratives devoted to the city of Tampa, which Packer uses to illustrate the real estate bubble and burst. There are also excerpts from newspaper headlines, advertisements and song lyrics, a la Dos Passos's USA Trilogy.

I loved this book. There are no authorial intrusions, and each of the individuals profiled. Each story is independent, and there are varying political biases, but all share a common theme: things are falling apart.

Highly recommended:

4 1/2 stars
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LibraryThing member streamsong
"As Van Sickler drove back to the office to write up his story, he thought about the way Bender had looked at him. The contempt. Just like the comments that came in after one of his stories went up on the Web—they had nothing to do with what he'd written, minds were already made up. Every local issue was drowned out by the shouting on national cable news. There were no longer any facts that everyone in America could agree on at the start. For example, his paper had gone to great effort and expense to dig up information about the benefits as well as the costs, of light rail in Tampa, and none of it had sunk in. What had sunk in was “No tax for tracks” … p 314

“Peter Thiel told an interviewer, 'In the history of the modern world, inequality has only been ended through communist revolution, war or deflationary economic collapse. It's a disturbing question which of these three is going to happen today or if there's a fourth way out.'
” p372.

How did we get this way?

George Packer follows both well known and unknown people in this episodic biography of the last few decades. Attitudes change: civility in public office fails, profit rules, there is less and less recognition of the humanity behind the people effected by companies closing, downsizing, pension plans disappearing, real estate bubbles bursting. At last it seems that doing all the right things – working to own a home and educate your kids aren't enough; in fact in many cases it isn't even a possibility.

This book was written in 2013 but, clearly illustrates what is going on in America in 2017. Many of the biographical political snippets are people in power today.

Highly recommended. Deeply saddening.

My only criticism is that I wish it had an index.… (more)
LibraryThing member ehines
An interesting idea. Rather than pontificate and moralize on the "inner history of the new America," Packer tries to tell that story through a number of capsule bios of folks who exemplify, in one way or another, the trends he feels are shaping that new America. This, to me, seems to be a far more honest, challenging, and, if successful, effective way of doing the "social trends and their consequences" book.… (more)
LibraryThing member Opinionated
George Packer attempts to tell the story of the unwinding of the American post war consensus, unapologetically using the techniques adopted by the great Dos Passos in "USA". He follows the stories of 4 people closely - Dean Price, born on a tobacco farm but with entrepreunerialism in his DNA, Tammy Thomas, a factory worker from Pennsylvania turned activist, trying her best to give her children a better life as American manufacturing and manufacturing towns fall apart, Jeff Conaughton, lawyer, lobbyist, Biden activist and Peter Thiel, Silicon valley innovator.

Interspersed with these are profiles of the great and the good - Oprah, Collin Powell, Elizabeth Warren, Newt Gingrich et al - and a significant exposure of the real estate bubble in Florida and its impact on ordinary people caught in the get rich quick illusion of house flipping

I enjoyed the book a lot. I found myself full of admiration for the resilience of people like Thomas and Price. They are constantly dealt a bad hand from factors outside their control - especially in the case of Thomas. As the song goes, they get knocked down and they get back up again. But I was also struck forcefully - as must be the authors intent - by the deepening inequality thats increasingly built into the system. The difference between the world of Connaughton and Thiel, who despite occasional setbacks, are cushioned and protected by their education and networks, and the lives of some of the Florida residents described in the book, living in their cars, is very very stark.

The pen portraits of famous Americans are good fun; Winfrey and Gingrich are ripped into, Powell gets a sympathetic review and the appraisal of Jay Z is acute. But its the main protaganists that carry the book. A greater number of these would have made the book even better; the immigrant experience for example is not covered and surely America is nothing without its immigrants. Some older citizens would also have been welcomed

But its still a very compelling read
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LibraryThing member stevesmits
I heard Packer give a talk about his book in Raleigh. In his talk he featured mostly North Carolinian Dean Price who is one of persons whose stories is told at length. The Unwinding uses stories of non-notable people, like Price, to describe the downward trajectory of our country over the past few decades. Dean Price is from the Piedmont who is attempting to overcome the economic downturn of the region through various business ventures. His initial efforts are traditional -- truck stops, fast food franchises -- and they mostly are stagnant or fail. He becomes intrigued with the idea that hydrocarbon fuels are at the brink of scarcity and he tries to promote the manufacture of biofuels through Canola processing and, later, waste cooking fats. He does not prosper (bankruptcies, liens, etc.) largely due to mega-economic countervailing forces and reactionary political precepts that stymie getting responses to his proposals.

Tammy Thomas is an African-American woman from Youngstown, Ohio and through her life we see the devastating decline of this once flourishing industrial city. Tammy and her fellow citizens are made poor by the exit of steel and auto manufacturers from the 1970's on. What little work left is at wages not even a third of what was formerly the norm. Youngstown shrinks drastically and is an urban wasteland at the new century. Tammy becomes a community organizer who is trying to motivate the citizens of the region into revitalizing the area. Will these efforts be successful? Hopefully, but questionable.

Jeff Connaughton is a political operative, but one with a sense of ethics and hope that politics can bring about societal good. He was associated with Joe Biden and, although clinging to the good he sees in Biden, paints overall a cynical picture of the political process. He is especially aware of the huge influence the special interest money has on the political discourse in our country. Jeff at one point was a lobbyist where he made big money, but he is drawn constantly to the hope that politics can address the overall good of society instead catering to the greed driven special interests that seem to dominate today.

Tampa is its own character in the narrative. Its utter economic dependence on the insane housing bubble results in catastrophe when the bubble bursts in 2007. Tampa becomes the foreclosure capital of the nation and the impact on ordinary people is heartbreaking. They were foolish in their expectation of non-ceasing growth in real estate values, but they were lured into this by the practices of the mortgage and financial industries who pursued speculative gains over sensible long-term values.

Interspersed with these longer stories are short vignettes of notable Americans like Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Jay-Z, Elizabeth Warren and more. I didn't find these as interesting or pertinent to the themes as the real person stories.

Packer's stories pose some deeply worrisome trends of our economy's structure in the 21st century. The rise of corporate control over economic life, the depressing impacts of globalization on economic opportunity for Americans, the huge and growing income inequality in force and the near complete lock that special interests have on political processes are part of the "unwinding" of institutions and social norms that formerly provided meaningful chances for the middle class to grow and make a good living. The callousness and utter lack of empathy of the "haves" for the "have-nots" is appalling and morally reprehensible. Have we returned to the exploitive features of capitalism that we thought were overcome by the early 20th century? How can the hegemony of the greedy class be overcome to enable everyone to have a fair chance reasonable rewards for their earnest, good faith participation in economic life? Packer's book is not prescriptive; he doesn't propose solutions to these deep problems. Are there solutions?
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LibraryThing member Baytide
I cherry-picked the contents. I found the narratives about Dean Price and Tammy Thomas to be most compelling.The politicians, Joe Biden and Newt Gingrich, however, were not as interesting. Overall, I would recommend to anyone who wants to enhance their understanding of how the system firmly favors those with the advantages of wealth, education, and power.… (more)
LibraryThing member rivkat
Through the last few decades, American institutions have fallen apart; jobs that were once secure have disappeared, and social ties have fragmented. Packer picks several people to follow through those decades, from Newt Gingrich to a community activist in Ohio, and tracks their fortunes. Packer doesn’t argue explicitly; he just juxtaposes significant events in America generally and in his subjects’ personal lives to make the case that in the new America, everyone is on their own (except for one person, a woman facing bankruptcy, who he explicitly labels as not like his other subjects, because as a first-generation immigrant she has a family that pitches in to help her out), and that this is not a good thing. It’s a disturbing read even with the moments of hope, which mainly come from the activist.… (more)
LibraryThing member etxgardener
George Packer's The Unwinding covers the last 35 years of life in America, much like John Dos Passos covered the 1930's un the USA trilogy. He starts his major chronological sections with headlines & quotes from a specific year and then follows up with profiles of people, both famous and ordinary to trace what has happened to the country and its institutions from approximately the Arab Oil Embargo of the 1970's to the re-election of Barack Obama. And it is not a pretty picture.

The story that emerges is one of an America that has been very kind to those who have a great education, and for one reason or another have found themselves in the lucrative sectors of finance, political lobbying or digital entrepreneurship. It hasn't, however, been so kind to blue-collar factory workers who only possess a high school education (or less). What those people have seen is the exodus of their once high-paying union jobs overseas, replaced by low-wage, no benefit service sector jobs that keep them on the edge of insolvency.

Packer illustrates this problem by following throughout the book four main characters who each represent one of these sectors. There is Dean Price from a poor family of tobacco farmers in North Carolina who tries several different entrepreneurial ventures only to have them go bust because he does not have the resources to grow his businesses where they can become reliably profitable. Tammy Thomas is a black woman from Youngstown, Ohio who battles poverty , but despite of having little education and living in a city that is literally crumbling around her, manages to to endure a grueling factory job, raise three children as a single mother and still maintain some optimism about life. Peter Thiel is a brilliant Stanford educated businessman with an Ayn Randian political philosophy who makes it big as a venture capitalist and despite some big reversals in the 2008 financial crisis still manages to stay comfortably in the 1%. And finally, there is Jeff Connughton who is drawn to politics when he meets Joe Biden in college and then finds himself making a career in government and lobbying.

Interspersed throughout this narrative are profiles of business, political and cultural figures: Newt GIngrich, Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton, and others - none of whom are shown to be worthy of the success they have achieved in life (He is especially scathing with Gingrich, Winfrey and Biden).

There are no solutions given in this book for the current state of things except, perhaps in the introduction when Packer says that each decline in America has brought forth a renewal. However, the picture that he paints is so bleak - of Americans all basically on their own without the support they once had from unions, government or community organizations, that it's really hard to read this book & be optimistic about the future.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
This book won the National Book Award prize for nonfiction in 2013. It is the 30th such winner I have read. It tells of a guy who often worked for Joe Biden, of a black worker in Youngstown, Ohio, of a guy who tried to build a business,,of Newt Gingrich, of Tampa, and Silicon Valley,and of others. Many of these accounts are of failure and bitterness and it does sort of reflect the mood of pessimism which pemeated John Dos Passos' fictional U.S.A (which I read Aug 17, 1949). I did not enjoy reading this book because of the gloomy things talked about. It is distressing to see good people beaten down by conditions. There is a discussion of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which always seemed so pointless to me and reading this book did nothing to change my view of that. Neither Newt Gingrich nor Joe Biden come out looking very good and while one could read with satisfaction of the elections of 2008 and 2012, one has to realize that those triumphs did not do as much good as one hoped--but at least they avoided the bad which would have followed if they had not turned out as they did.… (more)
LibraryThing member kvrfan
Once upon a time, there was an America that believed in the social contract--that it was important for the sake of the nation to make sure everyone got a fair shake, a shot at the "American dream." It wasn't a long period in our history. It ran roughly from the FDR administration through the Carter administration.

Things changed under Ronald Reagan. To enable things to be fairer for everybody, regulation was necessary so individuals and corporations didn't become fully exploitive and rapacious in self-pursuit. But under the new regime, regulation was considered bad and was deemed "morning in America."

The Unwinding chronicles the America we have been left with. It's a depressing tale. Power and wealth have become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, while avenues for others to have a chance at living the "American dream" themselves have been increasingly squeezed closed.

I have always enjoyed George Packer's writing in The New Yorker, and while he also provides a vivid picture in this book, I was left with little hope that there's much chance of every going back toward that time when Americans felt a responsibility for the weakest among them again.
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LibraryThing member dham340
This is not a happy book. But does weave a narrative that must be told about how America in 2013 came to be - not through the acts of the famous but through the lives of everyday people.

After reading this, I'm left with the thought that any hope of undoing the "great unwinding" of America will happen by the actions of everyday people.

Recommended with reservation: you will be depressed while reading this.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
The Unwinding is a book that everyone should read. It does not really raise any issues that have not already been spoken about as it relates to society changes since 1980. However, by introducing real people along with known celebrities such as Joe Biden, Jay-Z etc. it creates a contrast to the haves and have nots. This book did win the National Book Award for Non-fiction and Packer is part of the Packer writing family. I enjoyed the book but I was looking for some context and spin from the author and what he had presented. I guess he felt that we would draw the proper conclusion from the stories he presented. I did see the deck stacked against the poor in both background and education. However, I did see a lot of poor decisions made by people looking for the home run instead of a single or double. The topic of income inequality is out there and hopefully will be dealt with in the upcoming mid term election. A healthy working middle class would help all segments of society. I think this is Packer's message. If you already knew this, then this book will reinforce this position and you can choose to skip 430 pages, but if you think that it is all fair and that anyone can get to the top, then you better read this.… (more)
LibraryThing member muddyboy
This is a very creative and complex book. If one hundred people read it I believe you would get that many interpretations. My take is that over the last forty years our country has come under the complete control of the banks. the large corporations and the government who back each other at the expense of the "little man". The poster boy for this is a man named Dean Price who has a creative way to replace the glut of our foreign oil dependence with renewable biofuel produced at the local level to produce good jobs and keep wealth within the local community. Mr Price has been thwarted at every level by the powers mentioned above.There are many other examples. Very thought provoking..… (more)
LibraryThing member Kristelh
I really hadn't planned to do much reading in the genre of nonfiction this year but then got caught up in the group book read of these books that are suppose to inform on why things are as they are in 2017 with a new president. This book is compared to John Dos Passo's U.S.S. trilogy (part of 1001). I haven't read it yet, though I wished I had read it so I could comment on it and compare it to this book. The note on sources states that thought hsi is a work of nonfiction thoughtout, it owes its leterary debt to the novels ...." That trilogy was published in 1930s. I wish I was reading it now but it won't happen this year. I enjoyed the book, it was an interesting look at the years since 1960 and the many things that have made up that period of history. A good reminder of many things forgotten. Too me it read as actually reinforcing the American dream and the possibilities that it will all work out if you only try. There is a lot of interesting characters, some quite famous but others jsut your ordinary persons like Dean Price and Tammy Thomas. It also looks at liberal, conservative, and libertarianism.

The author used the trilogy U.S.A. as a design for his work of nonfiction and he used biography of both well known and celebrities and ordinary Americans to tell this story of the new American history from 1960 to 2012. It was readable. I had both the book and the audible and the reader did an okay job but I did hear his intake of breath after he would read a bunch of sentences or paragraphs so that could be distracting to some. The author did win the National Book Award for Nonfiction for this book. I am not sure that I am convinced that the modern times and changes are any different that the changes that Americans went through from the 1920 to 1960. The changes that I have experienced in my own life (started before 1960) are just as mindboggling as the current times and even more so when looking at the current times. So while it is a good book and interesting that he used Dos Passos as his template, I am not convinced that the author fully achieved what he set out to do.

Copyright 2013; National Book Award for Nonfiction 2013. History, social problems, politics, government, biography.
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LibraryThing member stephengoldenberg
Although not totally successful, this gives as good a picture of the economic and social climate of America over the last thirty years by detailing lots of individual lives from those struggling to survive in low paid jobs or on welfare to financiers and government advisers via Oprah Winfrey. Unfortunately not all those profiled are that interesting.… (more)
LibraryThing member annbury
A great book. Packer writes about four or five Americans who have been wrecked by changes in Society. There is no money anywhere in the US, except for the very rich. I have read a New Yorker piece about Jeff Connaughton and Joe Biden and what a prick Biden was.He examines a Youngstown Ohio black lady who worked in the many mills that used to be there, a Southern idiot who tries to set up a biodiesel business, Peter Thiel, a silicon valley billionaire and various leading lights including Colin Powell, Oprah Winfrey, Bob Rubin, Breitbart and Senator Elizabeth Warren. There is no getting around the fact that this is a much different country than it used to be. Undoubtedly the recent Presidential election which saw Trump elected was the last gasp of the people who have lost everything, Too bad.… (more)
LibraryThing member AdonisGuilfoyle
For a book that I bought under a misconception, and for a discount, The Unwinding actually proved to be both instructive and engrossing. True, there are around 130 pages too many for the subject - Packer makes his point in part one - but I love reading about life's successes and survivors, and this account of twenty-first century America has plenty of both.

Packer writes about Tammy Thomas, working to bring together a struggling Ohio community; Dean Price, an biofuel entrepreneur from North Carolina; Peter Thiel, who cofounded PayPal in Silicon Valley; Jeff Connaughton, getting nowhere fast in Washington; and covers the housing market in Tampa, Florida, from the perspective of a reporter and the polarized views of residents. Also covered are brief biographies on celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton (Wal-Mart), Colin Powell and Jay-Z. Some stories were more interesting than others - Tammy Thomas, the Occupy Wall Street sit-in of 2011 - but the contrast of the best and the worst of the American Dream in action really got me thinking. Basically, modern day America can be summed up in two phrases - 'I'm all right, Jack, pull up the ladder', and 'the rich are getting richer, while the poor are getting poorer'. No different to the UK, I suppose, except that money and materialism determine the 'class system' of the US, while the top layer driving this country into the dirt have either inherited or married power, rather than earning it. Fact is more depressing than fiction.
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LibraryThing member zimbawilson
A fascinating look at the past 35+ years of American culture, policies, politics and the effect on everyday Americans. Packard follows 3 very diverse individuals over this time period and through their stories and mini bios on big names like Gingrich and Jay-Z paints a portrait of how we got to where we are today. Basically a trail of corporate/political corruption not unlike the robber barons of the gilded age that has lead to the largest gap between rich and poor in a century. It should be taken as a warning of the second great depression that is coming because the people in power in Washington and on Wall St have no intention of changing policies that would prevent another collapse.… (more)
LibraryThing member OccassionalRead
Packer's Unwinding is a narrative journey over the past 30 years of economic and social history, starting at the point in the late 70's/early 80's when the economy began to slow, manufacturing jobs to disappear, and income disparities to widen. This "unwinding" has been examined analytically by many economists and sociologists, and quite a few explanations proffered. But Packer's book is not data and hypothesis driven, it's a story, or several - first person narratives, told from several points of view. Packer's style and approach echos the U.S.A. Trilogy, John Dos Passos's experimental novels from the 1930s that weaved together fictional characters, real famous people, and newspaper clippings. The book reads like a novel. You become immersed in the characters and angered at the state of affairs that has led to this unwinding.… (more)


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