Bottom line: American society is experiencing economic disintegration, driven by selfishness and a disregard for the fundamental rule of law.
Rating: Must (if depressing) Read
The book jacket off George Packer’s The Unwinding says that the book is a profile of “a superpower in danger of coming apart at the seams.” After finishing this sweeping and affecting book, any reader would be forgiven for thinking that process was already fully underway.
Influenced by the novels of John Dos Passos from the 1930’s, The Unwinding is the story of the economic decline of the US, as told through a series of portraits. The portraits are varied: Silicon Valley billionaires share Packer’s pages with factory workers, truck-stop owners, celebrities, real estate flippers, and Beltway insiders. What all these people have in common is that each has played a role, either as animator or victim, in what Packer believes is the collapse of American society over the past fifty years.
What struck me most about the book, and was surely no accident, was the theme of a society in which little by little, everyone at every level, began to think more and more about themselves and less and less about the country they share. If at one point, journalists lived on the goals of righting a wrong, today that ancient goal is not even discussed: the role of the reporter is now to become a media celebrity and thus to make a living telling others how right/wrong they are. If once upon a time banks had a role in moving capital from savers into the hands of local entrepreneurs, that point is gone as Wall Street became the world’s highest-stakes casino, where big guys rig the tables and little guys are warned to stay away. If way back when, a high school graduate could find a job making something and with that job raise a family, today those jobs have been sent to China in return for shaving a few percentage points off the cost of a pair of jeans or a toaster.
If Packer is right, and there is nothing to suggest he is not, then the society the US took a century and a half to build — imperfect, racist, and yet dignified and hard-working — is slowly coming to an end. The only question now is what replaces it? Will the unwinding he describes continue unabated until there is nothing left? Or will the next generation of Americans (the ones in power today are clearly not the answer), start rewinding America society back into something new and good? Indeed, that question is best encapsulated in the story Usha Patel, an Indian immigrant who spent years and hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting against the banks that wanted to foreclose on the motel she had bought with a down payment made from her life savings:
Fighting a global financial services company to en exhausting draw caused Usha to revise her view of her adopted country. Justice, she concluded, was for rich people, not her. The bankers and lawyers benefited while she went broke. The banks made their money by bullying little people, first trying to intimidate her into surrender, and then, when she fought back, burying her in paperwork, hiring appraisers and inspectors who filed false reports about the condition of her motel, smearing her name. When she talked about HSBC, her nose scrunched up and her mouth turned down and her eyes narrowed in the same look of disgust with which she described the work habits of native-born Americans.
All the same, Usha hand’t reached the same conclusion as Weidner. She didn’t believe that America was going down. She still saw a bright future, for her children if not for herself. “Right now,” she said when her case was over, “God bless America. I believe that.”
As an optimist, I hope and believe she’s right, but an American rebirth does not have to happen. Packer has chronicled either the death or the pre-renaissance nadir of American civilization. Let’s hope it’s the second and not the first.