Author: George Packer (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013)
Reviewed by Theresa Forsman
In the prologue to The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, author George Packer sets the scene: “No one can say when the unwinding began—when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way. Like any great
change, the unwinding began at countless times, in countless ways—and at some moment the country, always the same country, crossed a line of history and became irretrievably different.”
“If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding,” he says, refe
rring to the decades when farms gave way to subdivisions, when factories emptied out and big-box stores moved in. At the same time, a civic and social decorum was giving way to bad manners and bad morals as Washington caucus rooms and Wall Street trading desks were emptied out of taboos, the void filled by “the default force in American life, organized money.” The Roosevelt era, which had reigned for nearly half a century, gave way to something less solid, less cohesive.
Where does that leave the individual American? Packer is trying to help answer that question as he puts a magnifying glass to a handful of people whose stories shed light on the “new America” of the subtitle. They include Tammy Thomas, a single mother of three children in Youngstown; Dean Price, a North Carolina gas-station and fast-food entrepreneur who made a big, losing bet on biofuels; and Jeff Connaughton, who, after amassing millions as a Capitol Hill and K Street insider, retired in mid-life to write The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins, published in 2012. Their stories, covering the first decade of the 21st Century, take shape over several chapters. Other main characters are Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Tampa, arguably Ground Zero for the recent housing-mortgage crisis. Interspersed are profiles of icons in the new America, including Sam Walton, Colin Powell, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, hip-hop entrepreneur Jay-Z and the late conservative mouthpiece Andrew Breitbart. We hear from hedge fund billionaire Peter Thiel and “prairie populist” Elizabeth Warren, now a U.S. senator.
The first profile, however, is reserved for the late short-story writer Raymond Carver, who, Packer seems to be saying, embodies the America we have left behind: Through the bad, alcoholic years and the better, coffee-fueled years, Ray showed up every day and got the work done. That work was an unflinching portrayal of the lost and often-invisible people on the margins in our society. In his stories, Packer says, Carver “seemed to know…that the country’s future would be most unnerving in its very ordinariness, in the late-night trip to the supermarket, the yard sale at the end of the line. He senses that beneath the surface of life there was nothing to stand on.”
That we have nothing to stand on in today’s America—no solid ground rules for political, economic or social engagement—something that many of those profiled in The Unwinding agree with, even if they use different words to describe their despair. For example, Thiel, a venture capitalist and co-founder of PayPal, left New York and moved back to Silicon Valley because of the relentless quest for status—an “infinite skyscraper” in which, Packer says, “you spent years climbing the stairs, all the while wondering if you had moved up at all or if it was just an optical illusion.” His view was from the top of the infinite skyscraper.
Those further down the ladder share Thiel’s disillusionment. The Unwinding, which dispels any doubt that corporations run the country, spends some time with a few of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. One of them tells Packer she had been certain that once Barrack Obama became president, he would fix the out-of-control financial system. Then Obama entered the White House, very little changed on Wall Street, and the young voter planted her flag of disappointment in Zucotti Park until the authorities bulldozed that, too.
Dean Price, the North Carolina entrepreneur who lost nearly everything by betting that cheap energy was coming to an end, felt his own brand of disillusionment. In addition to gas stations with convenience stores, he owned several Bojangles restaurant franchises. These restaurants “had come to represent everything that was wrong with the way Americans lived: how they raised their food and transported it across the country, how they grew the crops to feed the animals they ate, the way they employed the people who worked in the restaurants, the way the money left the community—everything about it was wrong.”
It is in the profile of Robert Rubin, the Goldman Sachs alum who advised the White House on economic policy, that Packer lays out these figures. In the 30 years ending in 2007, the top 1 percent more than tripled its share of national income, owning 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, leaving the bottom four-fifths with just 7 percent. “The period when Rubin stood at the top of Wall Street and Washington was the age of inequality—hereditary inequality beyond anything the country had seen since the nineteenth century.”
The book is not a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, with cause and effect clearly spelled out. It is a compilation of individual stories and individual moments in time that come together—like artist David Hockney’s portraits assembled from hundreds of Polaroids—to form a jagged picture of contemporary America’s social, economic and political landscape. In the words of an anonymous trader, who was working in the South Tower on Sept. 11, 2001, and who left the building despite being told to stay put: “In a crisis, you realized that society operated without anyone knowing deep down what the hell was really going on.”
Unwindings are nothing new, Packer says, citing the Civil War and the Great Depression of the 1930s as two famous examples. These periods of decline, he says, happen once or twice a century, they don’t last forever, and when they are over, what follows has been renewed energy and cohesion.
“The Unwinding,” which won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction in 2013, in giving us a close-up look at lives all along the socio-economic spectrum, doesn’t offer a roadmap to solid ground but it does afford us a broader view of terra infirma beneath our feet today.
Theresa Forsman is a longtime member of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.