George Packer has written a book about America coming unwound. He theorizes that America has come undone many times before, and we rewind ourselves in cycles over our long history. I’m not sure if America isn’t always unwinding and rewinding at the same time – like the famous yin-yang symbol. That if you’re young, the chaos that is America becomes new possibilities bursting forth, while if you’re old, the same chaos becomes cherished traditions breaking apart.
Packer tells his story not by philosophizing or political rhetoric, but by reporting on the lives of a diverse group of people surviving The Great Recession. This has far greater emotional impact than abstract commentary on demographics. We see Youngstown, Ohio through the eyes of Tammy Thomas, and Tampa, Florida through a family of four who becomes homeless. We see Washington politics through Jeff Connaughton, as he spends decades campaigning for Joe Biden. We see Silicon Valley via billionaire Peter Thiel, and North Carolina through Dean Price, and up and down businessman. Packer also profiles some famous people too, like Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Robert Rubin, Jay-Z, Newt Gingrich, Sam Walton, Raymond Carver, Elizabeth Warren and Alice Waters.
But it’s the less famous people that tell his story best, like the immigrant woman who owns a motel but hates to hire Americans because they are such poor workers. Packer talks about the fall of unions and good wages, and even how the mob held some towns together, because after they left all the towns had were street gangs fighting. Our lives depend on complex social and economic organizations, and when they unwind, it’s changes what we think of normal living, even if it’s corrupt to begin with.
Parker showing the rust belt neighborhoods eroding through Tammy Thomas lifetime is heart breaking. Ditto for the Hartzell family showing Tampa coming apart at the seams because of the housing crisis.
These stories are riveting. The sum of their impact is very emotional, and I’m afraid depressing. I read this book with my friend Linda, and we constantly emailed back and forth about how we felt The Unwinding made us yearn for solutions to start the rewinding of America. Through the biographical sketches Packer shows America breaking down in many key areas of life – work, democracy, health, food, energy, housing, schools, etc. – all the stuff you see on the news every night, but told through moving personal stories.
I have lived through the Great Recession without seeing all of this directly. My wife and I kept our jobs and house. Most people are like us. But for ten to twenty percent of the country, times were very bad. It’s like news reports of a tornado. Seen focused in on the damage, a whole city can appear destroyed, but if you back away some, you’ll see the devastation is limited. If your house is in the devastation your world is destroyed. If you live far enough away from where the twister hit, you might not even think anything is wrong. The Unwinding lets us experience a tiny bit of the misery of being at ground zero of The Great Recession.
The trouble is The Great Recession wasn’t an act of nature, but a man-made tragedy. And it didn’t have one cause but many. We all brought about the unwinding. Whether Packer’s book is an early report of the collapse of the American Empire, or just a narrative about catching an economic cold, is yet to be seen. I do believe things have permanently changed, a lot of things. The American middle class used to be the large bell in the bell curve of American economics. That bulk of that bell is collapsing. It’s not the 99% versus the 1%, but bulk of the bell has shifted backwards toward the lower class. Average incomes are declining. But then average wages around the world are rising. We’re all homogenizing around a much lower standard of living worldwide. This is just change, but does it have to be negative? Do we have to suffer man-made economic storms? Do we have to accept lower wages as everything becomes cheaper?
What’s unfair is a lot of people got very wealthy without creating very much, and in some cases by destroying a lot of what used to exist. That’s a very vague way of stating the problem. Read The Unwinding for a detailed view.
JWH – 8/13/13