Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Unwinding

George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, (NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2013), 430 pages, $27.00

Some believe Americans live in a new age of decline. In The Unwinding author George Packer invites readers to test their views on decline while reading 430 pages of journalistic narrative on a selection of Americans and their activities from the last twenty-five years.

The book does not have chapters, but conveys the passage of time with one page reprints of media headlines and quotations from selected years: 1978, 1984, 1987, 1994, 1999, 2003, 2008, 2010, 2012. In between there are sections with extensive interview material from the lives of three people, Dean, Jeff and Tammy, and background material and interviews of people connected to three places, Silicon Valley, Tampa, Florida and Wall Street. Interspersed among these sections are somewhat shorter reviews of ten people with varied claims to celebrity status: Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Raymond Carver, Sam Walton, Colin Powell, Alice Waters, Robert Rubin, Jay-Z, Andrew Breitbart, and Elizabeth Warren.

Almost half the book, 201 pages, narrates the interviews and biographical material of Dean, Jeff and Tammy. Dean grew up north of Greensboro, North Carolina on a family owned tobacco farm actually farmed by his grandfather. After finishing high school in 1981 he worked at RJ Reynolds Tobacco, but then returned to college. After college he spent eight years in Pennsylvania selling Johnson and Johnson products, but was too restless to continue. He returned to North Carolina to begin a career as an entrepreneur, opening a store he called Red Birch Country Market in 1997 and later a bio-diesel processing facility.

Jeff grew up in Huntsville Alabama the son of a chemical engineer. As a student at the University of Alabama he started the Alabama Political Union and invited Senator Joe Biden to debate SALT II with Senator Jake Garn. He finished college, got an MBA, worked for Smith Barney and E.F. Hutton, but he was so impressed with Biden he was always ready to work in a Biden for president campaign, which he did starting in 1986.

Tammy grew up on the east side of Youngstown, Ohio. She lived with her great grandmother, who supported her and her mother cleaning houses. She got pregnant at 15, was on welfare, worked as a cashier, had two more children, got an AA degree, and finally left welfare for a manufacturing job in 1988.

Their continuing tales of hard work and effort in the 1990’s and up to the present become the symbols for the unwinding of small entrepreneurial opportunities in the story of Dean, for a career in politics for Jeff, and for supporting yourself and a family in manufacturing for Tammy. No happy endings here.

I would call the material for Dean, Jeff and Tammy subtle compared to the material for Silicon Valley, Tampa, and Wall Street. These sections offer a blunter picture of ethical choices, or failures as you can decide. Silicon Valley material primarily follows the career and attitudes of Peter Thiel, best known for his part in developing PayPal and financing the expansion of Facebook.

In the narrative sections on Tampa we read about local homeowners victimized by the rogues and scoundrels who brought America the collateralized debt security and millions of home mortgage foreclosures. The section on Wall Street briefly develops the Wall Street contribution to the 2008 recession, but most of the material here covers the Occupy Wall Street movement, its organizers, their efforts, hopes and failures.

The ten celebrity profiles vary widely, but not as much from varied achievements as from varied degrees of arrogance and personal ambition run wild. Among the profiles I believe Packer picked the best symbol of an America unwinding: Newt Gingrich. In the early 1990’s Gingrich unified the angry and disaffected into a GOP voting block perfecting empty statements like “Corrupt liberal bosses cheat, lie, and steal to impose their sick pathetic cynicism and bizarre radical stagnation in order to destroy America.” Others among the celebrity ten let ambition cloud their personal and ethical judgment but none in the group quite so much as Gingrich.

The author avoids making personal judgments or drawing conclusions for the reader. He chose the people and places to make his argument, but leaves it up to the reader to agree or disagree. The book is long but the sections remain separate from each other and can be read as individual pieces. There is historical material mentioned in a few places like a discussion of the steel industry in Youngstown, but the narrative relies almost entirely on interviews and recently published secondary material. There is a short bibliography and notes on sources but not text citations.

I marked a couple of places that jumped out for me. In the commentary about Dean there was mention of white people living in small, obscure places and getting poorer and poorer who vote for the party that wants to deregulate Wall Street and zero out taxes on capital gains. I always want to believe voters are smart enough to vote for their best interests, but I can’t think of a thing the GOP is offering the working poor.

Toward the end of the book Packer quotes from commentary by Peter Thiel made after the lucrative sale of PayPal. He is quoted on page 388 as refusing to submit to “the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual.” With the current state of medical research he expects to live to 120, but 150 is becoming thinkable and research might extend to infinity and beyond.

Sometimes I hear comments from the rich and well placed that suggest they think of themselves as too important to die, but I do not recall any quite as blunt as Mr. Thiel. While I remain unsure that America’s current troubles mean decline, the Unwinding gives many reasons to distrust the rich, but that is a recurring American theme and not an Unwinding.

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