The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer

In the first sentence of The Unwinding, George Packer tells us what his title means:  “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.”

Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker, the author of an award winning book on American involvement in Iraq, two novels, and a play.  You could almost guess it would take someone with Packer’s chops to weave together the disparate threads of change that have irreversibly altered the country we thought we lived in.

It began in 1973, when the mid-east oil embargo coincided with models showing American had reached peak oil production.  And in 1977 when the steel mills in Youngstown, Ohio, that once stretched side-by-side for 25 miles, shut down.  When an idealistic young man named Jeff Connaughton, got an MBA and then decided to go to Wall Street, because by the early 80’s, getting a business degree and going to work for a company “that actually made things,” was viewed as failure.  When, according to Packer, concern over exported jobs prompted Wal-Mart to hang “Made in the U.S.A” signs over racks of clothing from Bangladesh.  When Connaughton became a Washington lobbyist and one of his colleagues told him, “Four-hundred thousand a year just doesn’t go as far as it used to.”

Poets see things before the rest of us, and Packer quotes Bruce Springsteen, who put it like this in 1984:  “Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train?”

Now, almost 30 years later, when we all know we’re on a downbound train, Packer turns a light on some of the hydra-headed influences that led us collectively down this road.  He also shows us where positive change is likely to come from.  And where it is not.  It won’t come from the power elites, though it may come from disaffected refugees from those elites.

Jeff Connaughton, who made it into the outer circles of the inner circle, as a legal council for the Clinton White House, left Washington after being “radicalized by a stunning realization that our government has been taken over by a financial elite that runs the government for the plutocracy.”  Connaughton is now writing a book called The Payoff:  Why Wall Street Always Wins.

Packer also profiles Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who co-founded Paypal and helped bankroll Facebook as a startup.  Thiel put it like this:  “…the deep secret is there’s nobody at the steering wheel at all…People pretend to be in control, but the deep secret is there is no one.”  Thiel now looks for unusual entrepreneurial projects to fund.  Claiming that education is “the latest U.S. economic bubble,” he compares university administrators to sub-prime mortgage lenders.  In response, he began awarding Thiel Fellowships, two year grants of $100,000 each, to 20 people a year under the age of 20, willing to leave school to work on projects that “could make the world a better place.”

Packer doesn’t just profile movers and shakers in the post-unwinding world.  He details the story of Dean Price, son of generations of tobacco farmers, who overcomes multiple obstacles, including personal bankruptcy, to establish a working and profitable biodiesel refinery after learning about peak oil and taking the message to heart.

George Packer

author George Packer

In writing the book, Packer spent a lot of time with Tammy Thomas, an African-American woman who was 11 when the mills closed in Youngstown.  A few years later, she found herself an unwed mother of three, with a fierce determination, which she attributed to her grandmother, to get off welfare, even as jobs evaporated and gangs took over the neighborhoods.  She succeeded in doing so, and is now a community organizer and advocate, but her story makes clear that the odds were stacked against her.  She survived for 19 years in a car parts factory but is scornful of politicians who attach the label of “good jobs” to such work.  “Mitt Romney would be dead in week,” she said.

Packer interweaves the individual stories in a way that keeps you turning pages, like a novel with a large cast of characters that you care about.  Not all the stories have happy endings, and the suffering of individuals, cities, and regions is palpable.  By giving so many seemingly separate events the name, Unwinding, Packer helps clarify connections I had been sensing but unable to articulate.

“Alone on a landscape without solid structures, Americans have to improvise their own destinies, plot their own stories of success and salvation.”

A problem has to be named and described before we can begin to imagine solutions, and for this reason The Unwinding is a profoundly important book.

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4 Responses to The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer

  1. Thanks for this, Morgan – I heard about this book on NPR or PBS or somewhere, and after this review now I know I must read it. It’s important to look at how we got here if we have any hope of repair.

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    • I agree that it’s really important to try to grasp unfolding events, because they are so amorphous. On passage in the book quotes Gorbachev talking to a US diplomat as the Berlin wall came down, asking “What will you do now without your best enemy?” A very prophetic question, as it turns out. As the section in the book on the Occupy movement makes clear, it’s easier to see the wrongs than the causes.

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  2. JT says:

    Really piqued my interest here, Morgan. I find it fascinating hot only in the unwinding of our culture which I believe began way before 1973, probably more like 43′, but also the rather sobering realization that most people are so wrapped up in “Me” that the big picture goes unnoticed. Thanks for the review, I am looking forward to reading this.

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    • I don’t recall Packer picking a specific year, I think I pointed to 1973, based in part on the comments of Andrew Bacevich in a book I reviewed earlier.

      In 1973, according to Bacevich, we switched from being a net exporting nation to a consumer nation. By most accounts, that’s when the US reached peak oil, i.e., the point where half of our oil reserves – the easily extractable half – was gone. And also, by most accounts, that is when inflation-adjusted wages peaked in the US. I came from a stereotypical two kid, two car garage family, where a single white collar wage earner could send both kids to college without assuming back-breaking debt.

      And in Packer’s interviews, Tammy remembers things being good in the blue collar black communities. Work in the steel mills was hard but lucrative, and Tammy remembered neighborhoods of nice homes, most with vegetable gardens and fruit trees. And, she said, because the old time mob ran many aspects of the city, the streets were safe – ordinary families could go for an evening walk almost anywhere without fear.

      And I’m not sure that it’s a simply a “me” culture for many of us, because there are few clear cut villains to push against. Last Sunday’s paper outlined the boom in fracking wells in cities to the south, despite the absence of comprehensive impact studies of the effects of injecting chemicals, some of which are so toxic they remain secret, into the grounds below California’s central valley. The oil companies assure us that it’s safe.

      I could go on and on just with local accounts I’ve come upon, but in the end, the one area of optimism for me lies with the authors and journalists who write these accounts. At a certain point, ideas do reach a tipping point. I guess without really considering it in depth, that is why I like writing this kind of book review, and why I’m so pleased to hear from people like you who say you want to read an account like The Unwinding.

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