In the quest to understand what has happened to the U.S. economy since the 2008 meltdown and the recession that followed, the challenge has been figuring out how far back to pull the lens. Early books on the crisis zoomed in on airless rooms occupied by panicked CEOs and government officials during the pathetic last few months of the Bush administration and the beginning of this one. More expansively reported accounts looked at lower-level traders and fly-by-night firms, expanding the scope to recognize a decade of mortgage fraud and exploitation of would-be homeowners and investors, along with the Washington corruption that allowed the profiteers to thrive unpunished.
As time passed, it became clearer that this was not a story that began in 2008 or just a story of the Bush years. It was the inevitable last act of the period since the late 1970s, when the nation became dramatically wealthier but median wages stagnated, economic insecurity worsened, and debt became a means to paper over the consequences of inequality. That story is not only a political one. It involves global economic dislocation and a shifting of risk from corporations and government, which can handle it, onto individuals, who can’t. Sometimes as a result of economic challenges, sometimes independently, we’ve seen enormous changes in the nature of the family, in women’s lives at home and in the workplace, and in education, as a college credential has become almost indispensable while obtaining it has become harder. Technology has transformed the nature of community itself.
There’s probably only one example in all of American writing of how to encompass the full sweep of 30 years’ time—high and low; political, economic, and social—and that is the three novels that make up John Dos Passos’s U.S.A., which run from the Gilded Age before the turn of the 20th century, through the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927, ending with Dos Passos’s well-known capitulation, “all right we are two nations.” Writing in the early 1930s, Dos Passos interspersed a narrative of 12 characters with snippets of headlines, newsreels, and lyrics; crisp pen portraits of public figures of the two nations, such as Eugene V. Debs and J.P. Morgan; and short “Cameras Eye” segments that represented his own stream-of-consciousness reactions to the era’s chaotic interplay of big money, economic hardship, radicalism, and backlash.
George Packer declares his debt to Dos Passos in his notes on sources and in the structure of The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Packer is a New Yorker staff writer whose vocabulary has always been composed of juxtapositions. His 2000 book, Blood of the Liberals, appeared on the surface to be a family memoir. Yet in the intersection of his father’s academic, urban Jewish family and the Alabama agrarian progressives on his mother’s side, he found a deeper story about American liberalism, not just as a political outlook but also as an identity, mostly tragic. The promising threads of the 1960s—multiracial coalitions of the poor in the South or the technocratic vision of good government—were by the end of that decade torn apart. Liberalism, in Packer’s powerful metaphor, had suffered a stroke.
In his latest book, Packer narrates the period from 1978 to early 2013 through juxtapositions of three individuals you probably haven’t heard of, along with accounts of two regions—Silicon Valley, which evolved from a cluster of quiet middle-class towns 30 years ago, and Tampa, where the recent boom-and-bust cycle reached its extremes. These are interspersed with pen portraits of better-known figures (Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Robert Rubin, Alice Waters, Raymond Carver, Jay-Z) and periodic bursts of headlines, quotes, and lyrics. The principal characters are all, like Packer, “of the generation born around 1960”—which is to say, they are a bit younger than baby boomers. None spent his or her adult life in the golden economy that rose up after World War II and came to an end sometime in the mid- to late 1970s. Yet each grew up surrounded by the outdated expectations of that economy and its politics. Each also undergoes a particular form of radicalization: Packer describes it as “the radicalization of a conservative when the institutions he believed in have collapsed.”
Jeff Connaughton is an Alabaman who comes to Washington in the 1980s to devote himself to a hilariously unappreciative senator and then presidential candidate, Joe Biden. He does a stint in the Clinton White House, then becomes a lobbyist at Quinn Gillespie, a firm that pioneered the creation of apparent grassroots support for or opposition to legislation, before returning to the Hill as a crusader for financial reform, working for Biden’s appointed successor, Ted Kaufman. Connaughton’s story of disillusion with Washington feels like the moral heart of the book, and Packer’s portrait of him, much of which appeared in The New Yorker and is recounted in Connaughton’s own book, The Payoff, is the most accurate and current account I’ve read of the culture of congressional staff and lobbying. Subtler than recent books by Lawrence Lessig or Robert Kaiser, it captures the way in which lobbyists broker not just money and access but political intelligence. Once Connaughton is back on the Hill working for Kaufman, he finds that senators tell his former colleagues at Quinn Gillespie far more at weekly fundraising breakfasts about what they’re planning than they tell those on the inside.
Tammy Thomas, an African American from Youngstown, Ohio, exemplifies the familiar Rustbelt decline, stumbling through the consequences of the financial manipulations that led to the meltdown of first a steel company and later an auto-parts manufacturer. A mother of three, she somehow manages to put her kids through college, then discovers her calling in community organizing in her forties. Thomas is a resilient and compelling figure, but the tropes of African American urban poverty are familiar, and Youngstown has been a cliché of industrial decline since before the 1970s.
The third main character is Dean Price, owner of a truck stop and fast-food restaurants in North Carolina, and a devotee of Napoleon Hill’s 1930s self-help bible Think and Grow Rich. Price becomes a sudden convert to clean energy and biofuels. He attracts some attention from politicians, including the wholly admirable one-term Representative Tom Perriello of Virginia. But he cycles between modest business successes and big failures. He’s a bit too much of a serial screwup to fully earn the reader’s sympathy or interest.
Each of Packer’s characters is isolated, unattached: All we know about Connaughton’s personal life is that “he came close to marrying a couple of times” and that his primary loyalty, to Biden, is unreciprocated, while Thomas’s and Price’s relationships have sadder endings. Of an Indian-born minor character in the Tampa chapters, who gets some support from her family, Packer says, “Usha Patel was not a native-born American, which is to say, she wasn’t alone.”
The jacket copy insists that there are four main characters, the fourth being Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, later a hedge-fund investor, and the first outside investor in Facebook. Thiel is an idiosyncratic libertarian, alternating between pessimism that all the possibilities for innovation and growth have been exhausted and enthusiasm about blue-sky inventions. But he is younger, semi-famous, and doesn’t appear until one-third of the way into the book in the “Silicon Valley” chapters. His arguments—which resemble those of the free-market economist Tyler Cowen, who has written that the “low-hanging fruit” of economic growth have all been taken—are primarily focused on elites. His solution, supporting innovation, seems tangential to most of the stories in the book. To this reader, Thiel felt more like an oblique commenter on other aspects of the narrative, kind of like a Greek chorus. He’s the only one who has a theory of the 30-year unwinding, albeit a confusing and unconvincing one.
Two major political eruptions have occurred in response to the economic transitions of the last three decades, both of them recent: the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. The first appears in the chapters on Tampa, where unzoned, careless development made it a hot spot for overblown and fraudulent real-estate transactions, followed by epidemic foreclosure. Yet by 2010, a consensus had begun to emerge around smarter development and investment in light rail, with support from conservative, establishment Republicans. Then the Tea Party came to town, warning that light rail and urban planning were the work of “Agenda 21,” a banal United Nations resolution from 1992 that Tea Partiers see as the first sign of world government. The initiative to fund light rail went down in the same election that brought Rick Scott to the Florida governor’s mansion; Scott rejected federal funding for high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando. The characters in Tampa—more interesting than Packer’s central trio—include a reporter who broke the real-estate scams that drove up prices and led to disaster; the Republican officeholder who made the mistake of supporting light rail and responsible development; and a lawyer, formerly an active conservative, who became outraged about foreclosure fraud.
Sometimes our recent focus on “the 99 percent,” who have fallen behind the richest few in relative terms, blinds us to absolute poverty. In Tampa, the Hartzell family offers the book’s most compelling profile of people with a “nearly complete lack of education or money or family or support of any kind, plus more than their share of health problems.” The moment Danny and Ronale Hartzell, thanks to Medicaid, finally get their neglected teeth replaced with dentures—but Ronale’s don’t fit, and Danny, “out of sympathy or inertia,” stops wearing his own new teeth though they fit perfectly—is as powerful as anything from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is a reminder to technocratic liberals that every solution can run up against a reality in the lives of individuals and families that defies our smart designs.
Told through individual stories, Occupy Wall Street is portrayed as mostly an intense experience for those involved—in this case, a passionate young organizer and a slightly off--balance loner from Seattle. That may well be all there was to the movement. One shortcoming of the leaderless, agenda-less experiential nature of the Occupy movement is that the attractive young, white college graduates in Zuccotti Park drew attention, including Packer’s, away from more focused organizing efforts involving those more directly affected by foreclosures and hardship. The protest campaign of a community-organizing network called National People’s Action, for example, resulted in meetings with governors of the Federal Reserve around specific policy demands. Packer mentions, but only in passing, that one of the groups that came to Washington in 2010 as part of a large-scale NPA protest was the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, including Tammy Thomas. In another chapter, Connaughton, working for Kaufman on a doomed reform amendment, calls up the public--interest organization Americans for Financial Reform and asks, “Where are you guys?” Connaughton is demanding a presence to match the industry lobbyists at roughly the same moment that Thomas’s group has descended on Washington in dozens of old school buses. This moment in which two of The Unwinding’s characters almost intersect might have been more intriguing to explore than Occupy.
The Unwinding differs from U.S.A. in at least two ways. First, none of the characters, so far as I know, is fictional. Second, with the exception of Thiel and a few minor characters, they don’t get a lot of space to speak in their own voice. The author’s voice, the “Cameras Eye,” is also missing, outside of the prologue and a few jarring interruptions. Most of the book, with the exception of some Dos Passos–inspired experiments with syntax in the short biographies, is composed in the most economical, detached New Yorker prose.
That leaves the reader to plumb the structure of the book to understand its direction or whether there even is one. Are the potted biographies trying to make a point? Packer identifies their subjects in the prologue as “household gods” from a generation older than the main characters, distracting us post-1960-ers with false promises. Almost all of them are boomers or older, and the first few profiles, of Newt and Oprah (household gods need only one name), fit his description. They are hucksters, tricking the post-“unwinding” rubes into believing that they are responsible for their own failures. (It seems to me snobbery to regard Winfrey in this light, but Packer makes clear that he does.) Colin Powell and Robert Rubin are profiled as “institution men,” for Rubin’s role in financial deregulation and Powell’s gullible backing of the Iraq War (a gullibility Packer shared, which he doesn’t mention). But what’s Raymond Carver doing in there? Jay-Z?
The biggest question is, what did we “unwind” from? The book is steeped in nostalgia, but for what, exactly? Thiel comes closest to explaining it, describing 1973 as “the last year of the fifties” and the period since then as—counterintuitively, to most readers—a “tech slowdown.” Thiel argues that the opportunities for wonder and rapid upward mobility have been lost to most people under the age of 60.
Nostalgia is now the dominant tone in much of modern liberalism. Recalling the 1950s’ more secure, defined-benefit pensions, the narrower gap between average incomes and those at the top, and a political system that seemed to work better provides a reassurance that things could be different today. In its most familiar form, often found in this magazine and the recent work of, say, Paul Krugman, liberal nostalgia looks back to the levels of union density and labor negotiating power that built the middle class, but it explicitly tries to disaggregate the good 1950s from the bad, taking the economic data and leaving behind the era’s conformity and social, racial, and gender stratification. That’s not Packer’s thing. Labor unions have a minimal presence in this book, just as in Blood of the Liberals; Tammy Thomas was briefly involved in the union at her plant, but all she remembers is “watching a couple of white guys argue” and deciding the union wasn’t going to do much.
The nostalgia reflected in The Unwinding seems more complete. It doesn’t renounce the social stratification of the 1950s but treats it almost as a reassuring, lost norm. Consider where all his lonely characters end: Thomas revisits a house in which she’d lived for a short time as a child. The once grand home of one of the richest white women in Youngstown, for whom Thomas’s great-grandmother had been a live-in maid, it’s now occupied by the lonely widow of an executive of the auto-parts company, its floors scratched dull by dogs, the neighborhood as run-down as the rest of the city. Despite the subservient relationship, the house represents a moment in Thomas’s life of freedom and ease. Connaughton moves back to the South, to Savannah, Georgia, where behind the dark magnolias and white mansions lies a life free of the manipulations and scams of Washington. Price makes plans to be buried in his family’s plot on a North Carolina tobacco farm.
Two recurrent themes in the book complicate the nostalgia: food and energy. Thiel declares food and energy the only two areas in which his hedge fund will not invest, because they’re “too regulated, too political” to produce gains. But many of the other characters are obsessed. Dean Price not only champions biofuels and in his last act tries to build a business based on converting discarded restaurant grease to fuel for school buses; he also builds a fresh-food market into one of his truck stops, after being disgusted by the fare served by the Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ’n Biscuits restaurants he owns. Before her move to community organizing, Thomas was involved in a program to develop small farms on vacant lots in Youngstown that would provide healthy local food to schoolchildren. (The campaign to better feed children is also where chef Alice Waters fits in.)
These, too, are nostalgic notes. The implication seems to be that if individuals and communities can get control of their own development and food, they can reconstruct the reassuring, stable communities of the 1950s, if not the prosperity that followed. Inverting Packer’s account of the radicalization of the conservative when institutions fail, this feels like a journey back, by way of radicalism, to a kind of old-fashioned conservatism. It’s a forgotten kind of conservatism, though, as skeptical of the disruptive force of the market and its cold and impersonal relationships as it is of government (much different from the Tea Party, which fears only government). One is reminded that Glass-Steagall, the 1933 banking law that Rubin and his allies reversed, and that Connaughton and Kaufman struggled to restore, was the work of two conservative Southerners, Carter Glass of Virginia and Henry Steagall of Alabama. That Jeffersonian impulse, which saw big banks and big market forces as encroachments on communities and families, now belongs to the left. It represents the sharpest challenge to the compromised liberalism of the Obama administration, with its wariness of challenging the financial sector. But is this enough of a foundation on which to build a forward-looking vision that can produce the kind of growth and security that was possible, for a brief time, in America? That’s a question beyond the scope of this narrative.
Of Dos Passos’s three books, the critic Malcolm Cowley wrote, “They give us an extraordinarily diversified picture of contemporary life, but they fail to include at least one side of it—the will to struggle ahead, the comradeship in struggle, the consciousness of new men and new forces continually rising.” The same point can be made about Packer’s solitary characters and their final sad returns to home. The only “new man” or woman at the end of the book, struggling forward, is Thiel. But his interests—radical life-extension technology and “seasteading” experiments to create small libertarian communities on artificial islands—are no less about isolation. “The future is so-so,” Thiel says, “but you can sort of navigate through it if you have a house with a gun and an electric fence and a college degree.” That’s not necessarily Packer’s message, but it’s the only message left, and as hard as it is to discern the ideal past that his characters are looking back toward, it’s even more difficult to see where they go from here.