The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Release Date: 
March 3, 2014
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by: 

“. . . troubling enough to crowd mourners’ benches all across the nation.”

George Packer’s sprawling kaleidoscope, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, relentlessly probes a once-proud American civilization where society’s vital organs are shutting down one by one.

His well-written story is told through portraits of diverse people from underclass to ruling class, down-at-heels Southern entrepreneurs as well as sell-your-mother Washington insiders.

One of those continuing (and most sympathetic) characters is Tammy Thomas, a black factory worker and community activist from Youngstown, Ohio—back when Youngstown still had factories and good-paying jobs. A friend recalls, “Once you had that Sheet and Tube pay stub, you could go downtown, get you a refrigerator, get you anything—your credit was good.”

The end came when absentee owners abruptly shut down Youngstown Sheet and Tube, ushering in the era of deindustrialization that morphed the upper Midwest into the Rust Belt. Among its causes: An especially myopic strain of capitalist greed that cannibalized Word War I technology and failed to build “a single new blast furnace in Youngstown since 1921.”

Another narrative staple is Dean Price, progeny of tobacco farmers and son of the Piedmont, where international competition had devastated the region’s once-prosperous textile and furniture factories. A devotee of Napoleon Hill’s motivational writings, Dean first seeks his fortune in fast-food franchises. But after Hurricane Katrina, he discovers the perils of “peak oil” as well the surprisingly elusive promise of Canola-based biodiesel fuel.

While bankruptcy relentlessly stalks Dean Price, The Unwinding exposes other forms of snake oil. Displaced Rust Belt populations turned the genteel retirement destination of Tampa into a boomtown, new suburbs springing up everywhere.

But one local entrepreneur, an Indian immigrant, was unimpressed by the new arrivals. “She found Americans to be hopeless employees. They lived day to day, collecting their paycheck on Friday, clubbing and partying even if they had kids, skipping work Monday, showing up late Tuesday . . . They might give her a week of hard work and then demand a vacation . . . They were spoiled . . . by all the foreigners doing cheap labor.”

By 2008, with the housing bubble stretching and prices sliding, strange phenomena cropped up. One reporter “saw emaciated cows standing in the fields between the rows of single family homes. The cows had been brought in so that some homeowner could claim agricultural land use for a tax break and now they were starving because no one was feeding them . . . The owners stranded here (had bought) a starter home on their way to someplace else. When prices dropped by 50 percent, they were trapped . . .”

What trapped unwary homebuyers and hapless cows was cheap money and reckless banking. The author includes ten thumbnail sketches of prominent Americans: e.g. Newt Gingrich, Colin Powell, Jay-Z, Sam Walton, and Oprah. But one of his most arresting individual portraits is of Robert Rubin, former Wall Street whiz kid and apostle of Rubinomics, the polite term for “collateralized debt obligations.” While smart enough to know better, Rubin earned “$126 million for his decade of advice” as the “resident wise man” at Citigroup, which “practically became a ward of the state” after two bailouts. Apparently Mr. Rubin and Citigroup were both too big to fail.

But the disaster’s epicenter looms not on Wall Street but in Washington, DC, seen through the rise and fall of Jeff Connaughton, classic inside-the-Beltway factotum, lobbyist, and strap-hangar to the powerful. Having walked many of those hallways as a disinterested observer, I found the author’s descriptions of the resident sycophants appalling—and devastatingly accurate. A self-described “Biden man” since his college days, Connaughton endures a succession of tiny offices and menial duties as admission tickets for the career door opener. After helping Bill Clinton to avoid impeachment, Connaughton cashes in as a lobbyist. “Soon he was making more than half a million dollars a year . . . In Washington there were plenty of other people no one had ever heard of who were making more than a million dollars a year.”

While much stronger in describing effects rather than analyzing causes, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America arrives just in time for a long-overdue assessment of just how well Washington advances or frustrates the dreams of Tammy Thomas, Dean Price, or any of the rest of us.

Or does that political establishment more often raise our hopes only to turn on a whim, laughing all the way to the bank? It is enough to make you wonder if maybe the Psalmist had it right all along: “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.”

While Mr. Packer apparently shares the journalist’s defining conviction that faith, rather than politics, is simply a disguised form of fraud, his new book is troubling enough to crowd mourners’ benches all across the nation.