In "The Unwinding", George Packer narrates the story of America over the past three decades, bringing to the task his empathy with people facing difficult challenges, his sharp eye for detail and a gift for weaving together engaging narratives. This title moves deftly back and forth through the lives of half a dozen characters.
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.
reader Robert Fass
format: audio CD 19:00
read: Jan 9-31
Packer writes a history through biographies of the changes in the United from 1973 to right about 2013. He mixes in mini biographies of Newt Gingrich, Sam Walton, Oprah Winfrey, Robert Rubin, Peter Thiel, Elizabeth Warren, etc with biographies of lesser known figures who are difficult to summarize. They are, shall we say, representatives of a changing country, experiencing and suffering from the industrial collapse of Youngstown, OH, or the housing market collapse of Tampa Bay, FL. One becomes a successful proprietor and then a failed prophet of bio-fuels. Another spends a long career of disappointments in politics.
The main theme eludes any certain statement. Packer really doesn't say. There is an brief introduction, but little explanation as to what he is doing or why chose the stories he did or avoided so many others. He has interesting insights into Clinton (garroting his administration for its chaos and careless financial deregulation) and Obama (who didn't understand finances that well, and never got what Elizabeth Warren was trying to preach). But, apparently at random, has nothing on the George W. Bush administration. The introduction implies a changing of the rules that were taken for granted in 1973 and that simply don't apply in 2013. But which rules? The focus tends towards financials. And one can track loss of jobs, Wall Street greed, screwing of investors, accumulations of wealth, inadequacy in the WH and at times I was tempted to say that is the real theme. But, ultimately, all I can say is that the messages are many, provided in different lenses from different perspectives, and the conclusions are inconclusive. A kaleidoscope of ideas, a partial history where there missing parts seems striking. And yet an important story lies in here.
My only really positive thing I took home from this is the story of Elizabeth Warren, who is now my hero in the world of politics. Packer captures where she comes from and the knowledge she brings into her position and I was really impressed. But mostly this is a disappointing story and it's so painful to listen to now, after Jan 20, 2017. Sometimes I would get out of the car, where I listened, utterly crushed inside. The most difficult stories where those of people who had comfortably locked themselves into a right-wing world, where they only listened to news organizations and leaders who were friendly to how they already felt. The popular outrage on the Tampa rail system, which was funded and then ultimately defeated (the federal funds were sent to another project) stands out. That lack of logic, the feeling of victory of those who were against it for reasons that did not make sense was so hard to take in. One leader against the rails had an out-of-work engineer husband in a city that desperately needed jobs, and she is furiously working against this rail system that will obviously create engineering jobs and she was even confronted with this logic. Where does one go with stuff like that, in the now darkened world?
I think in 2013 I would l have loved this. Now, in 2017, it's just hard to stand up again after having been hit hard over the head with this. I need to go find the next Warren speech, something inspiring.
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.
4 1/2 stars
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.
“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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.