I’m not saying anything new when I say that George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America is the most extraordinary and important book I’ve read this year. I haven’t read a single review that didn’t say something similar. Just for fun, I checked out the amazon review page; right, left and center, respondents agree that this is a stunning book, about politics and economics and people caught up in the maelstrom of both.
It’s a work of non-fiction, but the model is John Dos Passos, the USA trilogy. It’s a book about America, about what’s happened in this country over the past twenty years or so. It alternates short chapters about average Americans with short chapters about prominent ones, all in an attempt to capture, to understand how the American dream has come unwound.
The main people he describes include Dean Price, Tammy Thomas, Jeff Connaughton, Peter Thiel, and various citizens living in Tampa Florida and others involved with the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Dean Price is a North Carolina entrepreneur and a visionary, a biofuel innovator charged with evangelical zeal for a dream he thinks can transform America–diesel fuel from biological sources. Tammy Thomas is a former factory worker from Youngstown Pennsylvania, struggling to raise her family through the economic uncertainty of a town with massive unemployment. Eventually, she became a community organizer and an canny grassroots politician. Jeff Connaughton was a fundraiser and staffer for Senator, and then Vice-President Joe Biden. In and out of politics, he would become a lobbyist and make a fortune, then go back to a staff position in Washington, becoming increasingly disillusioned with politics throughout. Peter Thiel is a Silicon Valley innovator, one of the initial investors for Facebook, and a committed libertarian with a vision for re-making American industry and education. Packer writes with sympathy and eloquence about all these people. I mean, it’s hard to imagine Tammy Thomas and Peter Thiel agreeing about anything at all, if they were ever to meet, but Packer honors the arguments and points of view of both of them without editorializing or commenting.
Alternating chapters deal with other, more famous and more emblematic figures. Oprah Winfrey, and Jay-Z, Newt Gingrich and Sam Walton, Colin Powell and Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Breitbart and Robert Rubin.
Part of me doesn’t want to review this book. Instead I want to wait until you’ve finished it and then meet for lunch somewhere and talk about it. It’s a sad book, elegiac in tone, a book detailing loss and waste and tragedy. I found one of the Tampa chapters particularly heart-breaking, describing all the foreclosed homes in residential neighborhoods. In some neighborhoods, foreclosures exceed fifty percent of the homes. People huddle in their houses, neighbors gone, terrified. One former resident bought cows, trying for a government agricultural subsidy; the cows now feed on what’s left of the lawns of foreclosed properties, starving. Judges would work to clear foreclosure cases, taking no more than minutes for each. A citizen, Sylvia Landis, began showing up, writing down what she was seeing, taking notes. An attorney, Matt Weidner, began defending homeowners, incurring the ire of judges because he was delaying what was supposed to be a smooth and easy judicial process. And Weidner began to win, over and over. He would tell clients, truthfully, that he had never lost a case, because that’s how bad the system had become.
Weidner soon found that as soon as he offered any resistance, the bank’s case started to crumble. The original note was lost. A title search couldn’t establish continuous chain of custody. The Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems had replaced the good old physical document at the recorder’s office in the county courthouse with a digital facsimile, which, under Florida law, shouldn’t qualify. The paperwork bore a fraudulent signature, a phony date, a bogus seal. Nobody noticed any of this while the economy chugged along, but as soon as things went into the toilet and people stopped being able to pay, America’s mortgages turned out to be a hoax.
But here’s what the unwinding means. When I was in high school, some of my friends were university kids, children of professors. They knew they were going to college and grad school, and they’d get a tenure track position. Others of my friends had more blue-collar ambitions–they’d graduate, get a job in a factory, pay their union dues, put in their thirty or forty years, graduate with a pension administered by the company. You could count on a good life. We were Americans, and we believed in a dream of continued, shared prosperity. That’s what we believed, and we believed for good reasons. It made sense to think that way.
When I talk to my children today, they think everything in that last paragraph is a dangerous and foolish delusion. Talking about ‘good paying blue collar job, with benefits and a pension,’ is a fraud and a lie. College means debt, with no opportunity afterwards. Grad school does nothing but delay financial armageddon. That’s what they believe, and they believe for good reason; it makes sense.
I have two sons in grad school right now, and I hope (and they hope) they’re doing the right thing, that jobs will become available in their chosen fields. But they’re both realists about it. They know what we all know–that the fabric of society is unwinding, that the dream is becoming delusion, that the centre cannot hold. And the rough beast slouching its way toward Jerusalem has two heads. A Tea Party head–angry and irrational. And an Occupy head–just as angry, just as senseless.
Read the book. Let’s meet for lunch. Despair is not the only response, just as the Unwinding is not the only reality. But income inequality and foreclosed homes and destroyed pensions and endemic unemployment define too much for too many of us. Let’s have a conversation.