George Packer weaves a tapestry of American stories, from rich to poor, their rises and downfalls and lost opportunities, to paint a picture of an American social institution come adrift and unbound. The old social contract has dissolved and the series of laws and buffers that cemented the country throughout the twentieth century have been repealed and overridden. The worst part of the 2008 recession was not the recession itself but the missing high-profile arrests, new laws, and checks that failed to materialize afterwards. And not for lack of evidence or persuasiveness.
The Unwinding follows many people, but three “average” and unknown Americans get several chapters devoted to their stories. One is Tammy Thomas, an assembly line worker coming of age during the collapse of the steel industry in Youngstown, Ohio. Tammy watches as her community implodes, jobs disappear, gentrification and white flight run rampant only for her to lose her job herself. In the past, a combination of industry barons and the unions had protected their own; they were no saints and the jobs were often unsafe, unhealthy and did not include stellar pay, but they were stable. They paid enough to feed your family, had safeguards for injury, and took care of retirement. Packer is careful not to turn the early-mid century into a halcyon golden age — the terrible racism is reinforced. In fact, the industrial collapse was even worse for the rising black middle class since their time was so short and they were hit the hardest in many of the industry towns as they were coming in as the whites were coming out (at least for the most physically demanding and dangerous jobs).
Next comes Dean Price, an entrepreneur and green economy evangelist whose story spans the Piedmont Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. Shocked by the notion of peak oil and hyped up on self-help books, Dean starts a southern crusade to employ various combinations of crops or waste products to replace diesel fuel (a major dependency of the sprawling, decentralized, crop-run south). The plan is to make farming useful again and get the locals back to work. Shrink business and put the means of production back in the hands of the community. His businesses fail. Due to a combination of ignorance, petty infighting, political games, shifting economics (once gas prices stabilized, green fuel became too expensive), and poor financial sense (on Dean’s part). But he keeps on trying. A friendly politician tells him to stop using words like “sustainability” and “green energy” as they tend to scare the populace. Dean himself, despite his strict adherence to peak oil, rejects speaking of climate change as “too partisan”. The book paints a picture of an economically devastated south, entire industries wiped out with whole towns employed and shopping at Walmart. Plus a disdain leveled upon them by the richer cities (of which I reside!). But still, it’s hard to sympathize when massive global crisis is present but ignored or decried as partisan and when you hear what the most common word that Dean’s fellows have to describe Obama is (hint: it begins with an n).
Lastly is Jeff Conaughton, a “Biden-guy”* with joint careers in Washington and Wall Street. Jeff’s story is largely an affirmation that the former is still in the latter’s pocket. His eventual departure from both involves him being unable to get an important audience with a politician as a Washington insider while his friends in a financial firm command eighty minute meetings. Meanwhile, the Republican party is now run on spite**. The democrats are largely ineffectual or just as bad. There’s a chapter profiling Elizabeth Warren that points out she espouses the same sort of views as Barrack Obama but seems determined to actually fulfill them without some kind of buddy-buddy ho ho let’s make a deal, guys schtick (Packer: “She actually seemed to hate the banks”). As a result, she was despised by members of both parties while in Washington. While probably the compelling personal story, Jeff Conaughton’s is the one with the most obvious and dire consequences. The highest levels of this country are a mess.
Interspersed between these three paths are exposés on famous people and three tumultuous locales — Wall Street during Occupy, Silicon Valley and its elite, and the housing crisis as it builds and smashes Tampa Bay. The character portraits are fascinating, Packer adopts a voice and language that fits the person he is writing about. Military based Colin Powell’s chapter uses high falutin language (glory, comrade, etc) with short sentences and an epic bent. Oprah’s uses more spiritual and floaty language. With the conspicuous exception of Elizabeth Warren, they generally have something negative to say. Oprah’s magical thinking ties wealth to goodness. Alice Waters inability to compromise has greatly assisted in what Americans eat being defined along class lines. Jay-Z is selling a cheap and false notion of rebellion. Raymond Carver was a pathetic, drunk asshole (not sure how that one ties into the greater narrative to be honest).
The Wall Street and Silicon Valley segments were interesting, but the implosion of Tampa and its environs was perhaps the best told and most harrowing section of the book. The real estate doomtrain and its inevitable derailment. The scrabbling at the ruins and the honest attempts to keep a house. The foreclosure machine in action — obfuscation of what is actually owed and to whom; three minute court hearings without the bank present. The fear and anger that led the Tea Party to emerge***. The Republican National Conference literally blockading the citizens of Tampa out of their own city. It feels like the setup to a dystopian fiction.
Packer’s America is one that has lost faith in itself, its people afraid of the future. Each chapter is preceded by a year and series of quotes, song lyrics, movies lines evoking that year. The last one, 2012, quotes the premise of The Hunger Games. The children of the starving and oppressed poor forced to fight to the death for the novelty of the extreme wealth. If Sci-fi represents how we view the future and fantasy how we dream, then we have become incredible cynics. Our Sci-fi/fantasy worlds are ones of decay, lands ruined by social upheaval and environmental disaster. It’s no surprise that Game of Thrones is so successful, in novel and television form. It’s the story of a corrupt elite repeatedly abusing the trust of their representative peoples, while they ignore a supernatural threat that comes literally from the glacial poles and negatively affects the weather.
*Jeff got into politics following a rousing speech that Joe Biden gave to his high school; it made an immediate impact on young Jeff and moved him to pursue politics. Later, he comes to learn that Biden is actually kind of a prick.
**a sad-but-funny chapter details the Republican National Convention. Romney is purposely not named — he’s merely the Nominee — and whenever major conservative figures are asked “Why him?”, they inevitably say something negative about Obama as a response.
***Again, the fear and anger is sad and understandable. The paradoxical self destructive behavior might even be. But the singular aim with which they smashed legitimate attempts to heal the economy is not. Just because the people got utterly hosed does not give them license to hurt others.