America’s Collapse: Farms, Factories, Public Schools Fall Apart While Walton’s Winners Take All

June 24, 2013

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‘The Unwinding,’ by George Packer

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Published: May 28, 2013

If you were to take apart George Packer’s ambitious new book, “The Unwinding,” as if it were a car’s engine, and spread the parts across your garage, you’d essentially be looking at 5 large pieces and 10 small ones — the nuts and bolts and cotter pins.

Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

THE UNWINDING

An Inner History of the New America

By George Packer

434 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.

Guillermo Riveros

George Packer

The large pieces are profiles: portraits of a Reagan Republican turned biodiesel entrepreneur; a thoughtful and disappointed longtime Joe Biden staffer; a female factory worker in Youngstown, Ohio, who becomes a community organizer; Peter Thiel, the libertarian Silicon Valley venture capitalist; and, finally, the City of Tampa in Florida, which had problems before the foreclosure crisisand seems like hell on earth now.

The small pieces are critical riffs, often acidic, on especially influential Americans of the past few decades. I’ll list them here in reverse order of Mr. Packer’s esteem for what each has brought to the commonweal: Sam Walton, Newt Gingrich, Robert E. Rubin, Andrew Breitbart, Colin L. Powell, Jay-Z, Oprah Winfrey, Alice Waters, Raymond Carver and Elizabeth Warren.

Some of the large pieces, which are chopped up and welded onto the rest in roughly 20-page blocks, began as articles in The New Yorker, where Mr. Packer is a staff writer. Other material is new.

It is Mr. Packer’s achievement in “The Unwinding” that these pieces, freshly shuffled and assembled, have speed and power to burn. This book hums — with sorrow, with outrage and with compassion for those who are caught in the gears of America’s increasingly complicated (and increasingly poorly calibrated) financial machinery.

“The Unwinding” begins like a horror novel, which in some regards it is. “No one can say when the unwinding began,” Mr. Packer writes, “when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way.”

If you were born after 1960, Mr. Packer suggests, you have spent much of your life watching structures long in place collapsing — things like farms, factories, subdivisions and public schools on the one hand, and “ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks” and “manners and morals everywhere” on the other.

What has replaced them, he says, is organized money, as well as a society in which “winners win bigger than ever, floating away like bloated dirigibles, and losers have a long way to fall before they hit bottom, and sometimes they never do.”

If a solitary fact can stand in for Mr. Packer’s arguments in “The Unwinding,” it is probably this one, about the heirs to Walton’s Walmart fortune: “Eventually six of the surviving Waltons,” the author writes, “would have as much money as the bottom 30 percent of Americans.”

It was only after Walton’s death, Mr. Packer says, “that the country began to understand what his company had done.” He writes: “Over the years, America had become more like Walmart. It had gotten cheap. Prices were lower, and wages were lower. There were fewer union factory jobs, and more part-time jobs as store greeters.” He adds: “The hollowing out of the heartland was good for the company’s bottom line.”

“The Unwinding” contains many sweeping, wide-angle views of American life. Its portraits of Youngstown, Ohio; Tampa; Silicon Valley; Washington; and Wall Street are rich, complex and interlocking. Mr. Packer’s gifts are Steinbeckian in the best sense of that term.

Amid this narrative push are many small, memorable moments. The assessment of Mr. Biden is complicated and sometimes positive, but it includes these sentences, from one Biden insider to another: “Jeff, don’t take this personally. Biden disappoints everyone. He’s an equal-opportunity disappointer.”

Mr. Packer, whose previous books include “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq” (2005), describes how Mr. Gingrich’s rhetoric, when he came to power in the late 1980s, forever changed the way elected leaders spoke to one another: “He gave them mustard gas, and they used it on every conceivable enemy, including him.”

He has a few complimentary things to say about Ms. Winfrey, but his section about her amounts to a comprehensive takedown. About her audience he maintains: “They had things that she didn’t — children, debts, spare time. They consumed the products that she advertised but would never buy — Maybelline, Jenny Craig, Little Caesars, Ikea. As their financial troubles grew, she would thrill them by selecting one of them and wiping out her debts on the air.”

He goes on: “Being instructed in Oprah’s magical thinking (vaccinations cause autism; positive thoughts lead to wealth, love, and success), and watching Oprah always doing more, owning more, not all her viewers began to live their best life.” It gets harsher from there.

Barack Obama’s presidency hovers at the margins of this book, largely as a somewhat disappointing work in progress. We do hear from a man who shakes the president’s hand and thinks: “It was the softest of any man he’d ever shaken hands with. It told him that Obama had never done a lick of physical work in his life.”

“The Unwinding” is a painful book to read. It made me feel ill, as if I’d contracted a three-day flu. Perhaps Mr. Packer put this thought in my mind. He frequently refers to what’s happening to America in medical terms — as an illness, a new virus, a plague, a bacterial infection.

Among this book’s few heroes is Ms. Warren, the former Harvard Law School professor and bankruptcy expert who is now the senior United States Senator from Massachusetts. “The Unwinding” is largely about how banks have become unchecked and unholy forces in American life, and part of what Mr. Packer likes about Ms. Warren, a Democrat, is that banks fear her.

His book specializes in plain talk, and in Ms. Warren he spies a rare politician with a gift for the same quality. Mr. Packer describes one of her appearances about banking this way:

“She seemed to have walked into the hearing room and taken her seat at the dais out of the past, from the era when the American prairie raised angry and eloquent champions of the common people, William Jennings Bryan and Robert La Follette, George Norris and Hubert Humphrey. Her very presence made insiders uneasy because it reminded them of the cozy corruption that had become the normal way of doing business around Capitol Hill. And that was unforgivable.”

At one point in “The Unwinding” we meet a talented reporter in Florida who is writing about the foreclosure mess. This reporter, we read, “believed that there were two kinds of journalists — the ones who told stories, and the ones who uncovered wrongdoing.”

Mr. Packer is both, and he’s written something close to a nonfiction masterpiece.

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