Sunday, June 16, 2013

Book Review - The Unwinding

George Packer's outstanding new book, The Unwinding may be the definitive account of the Great Recession. As opposed to other books that have examined this dark chapter in our nation's history from Washington's perspective [1], Packer's kaleidoscopic view toggles between the hollowed out Rust Belt in Youngstown, the sun-baked asphalt jungle of Tampa Bay, the two-lane highways and backroads of the North Carolina/Virginia border and loops back to the power centers of Wall Street and our nation's capital, to tell individual stories, mostly of heartache and hardscrabble, in a way that is both humanizing and haunting. 

Within the book's 430 pages, Packer introduces us to ordinary Americans who could easily be our family, friends or neighbors. There's Dean Price, a hard charging small businessman with a big vision but iffy business skills and Tammy Thomas, who grew up as northern Ohio's industry was collapsing, finding her way through untold personal challenges and heartache. On the flip side, Packer offers brief snippets on more familiar names, people who also came from modest means to become hugely famous (Jay-Z), successful (Colin Powell), and rich (Sam Walton). 

The one thing many of these stories have in common is their quintessential American-ness. The middle and lower class people Packer profiles all have an abiding desire for what we call the American Dream - stability, employment, a home to call their own and a glimpse of a hopeful future. But to people like Price and Thomas, and the others Packer weaves into their narrative, it seems as though the American Dream is always just out of their grasp, and when the economy cratered in 2008, their stories became darker, filled with what we now know is familiar - homelessness, dislocation, bankruptcy and death. 

Packer's storytelling gifts are on full display throughout the book, but are particularly strong in the chapters about Tampa Bay. Tampa, as Packer notes, was identified in 1982 as America's "next great city" but instead, seems to have contracted every aspect of the rot in our economy. Through his profiles of a scrappy defense lawyer who represents homeowners being threatened with foreclosure, a lower class family toggling between roach-infested motel rooms and homelessness, a Tea Party-infused mom who leads a campaign to kill a light rail project and the agitation of a local reporter for the St. Petersburg Times who uncovers a bit player in the international Ponzi scheme that was our home mortgage market only to watch as the federal government does nothing to track down the bigger fish in the scheme, Packer deftly ties together the threads of this "unwinding" - the toxic blend of poor education, government indifference to things like financial regulation and land use, and a disconnect between the everyday suffering of people who have no voice in the corridors of power that combined like a perfect storm to land us in the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression.

It is left to Packer's profile of Jeff Connaughton, a longtime "Biden guy" and poster boy for the revolving door of lobbying and government service that is endemic in Washington, D.C. to drive home the cleaving that has formed between the governing class and those they represent. Connaughton is a plucky Democratic aide who, through hard work and some contacts, finds himself in the White House by his mid-30s and, thanks to the incestuous relationship between government and lobbying, with a seven-figure net worth (not to mention a beach home in Costa Rica) by his 40s. But when the economy collapses and his former boss is elected Vice President, it is his brief tenure as Chief of Staff to Biden's appointed successor in the Senate, Ted Kaufmann, for Connaughton to truly appreciate how deeply the game is rigged. 

Connaughton thinks little of the economic team Obama assembles, many of whom had their fingerprints on the collapse. He is non-plussed as Chris Dodd, the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, negotiates "Wall Street regulation" behind closed doors with the very banking and investment houses he is supposed to regulate and keeps his colleagues in the dark about the contents of his bill. Meanwhile, Dodd's fellow Senators vote down an amendment to Dodd's bill that would have required breakups of "too big to fail" banks. Connaughton commits a bit of political self-immolation on his way out the door, but it is difficult to feel sorry for someone who fed at the trough for so long and semi-retired to a comfortable home in South Carolina after his disillusionment with D.C. became complete. 

It is between the gap that now puts New York City and Washington, D.C. on one side and the rest of the country on the other that the book is drawn into its sharpest relief. Packer's villains are familiar. The corporate executives rewarded for ceasing to treat their employees like people and instead like commodities from whom efficiencies are to be squeezed (or mercilessly let go). The  bankers that are able to tap dance around any attempts at oversight and, after their actions implode the economy, think nothing of taking government handouts. And of course, the government that blithely turned its eye away from the human toll that the Great Recession took in communities around our country while bending over backwards to aid those who caused the problem in the first place. 

But Packer's brush stroke is defter than a populist's screed or a Tea Party polemic. The Unwinding allows its characters and Packer's rich narrative to bring the key parts of this story together. For people like Dean Price and Tammy Thomas, their roller coaster ride has far more to do with broader forces that took decades to take root and affect their lives. Industrial plants closing in the Midwest, an agricultural industry that centralized, small businesses struggling against larger competitors who are able to undercut their prices, driving them out of business, and life's run of the mill kicks in the balls - divorces, unplanned pregnancies, deaths in the family and all the rest. 

But within this otherwise sobering book is a glimmer of hope. Although Packer himself does not offer policy prescriptions, his chapters on Silicon Valley, although focused at least in part on a libertarian named Peter Thiel, whose enmity toward government is clear, suggests that innovation and know how still have value (although the number of jobs the Valley produces is not massive, its impact on our culture is enormous). And even in the stories of Dean and Tammy we see the American work ethic, as each overcomes long odds (Dean, itinerant employment and failed small businesses; Tammy, single motherhood at a young age, an early, and forced retirement from the assembly line leads her to a second career as a community organizer) to find their place in the world. Succeeding financially? Not so much. But each keeps trying. 

While that very American attitude that if you get knocked down, you dust yourself off and try again still exists, the true fear that The Unwinding exposes is not just the thread bare cushion tens of millions of Americans rest upon, but also, that the erosion of the basic social contract that has forged our country for at least the last 80 years is disappearing forever. Indeed, the Great Depression and Great Recession may turn out to be odd bookends to this period in our nation's history. The former resulted in sweeping regulation and oversight that staunched the boom-and-bust cycle that had afflicted our nation since its founding, but the steady erosion of those protections that led to the latter has not resulted in laws or regulation to cauterize the wound. Rather, our political leaders have been cowed by the titans of Wall Street, rescuing them from their own fiscal armageddon without requiring much in return. 

Meanwhile, little has been done to aid the middle class. And in the same way that tectonic changes in industry have impacted our economy, the same forces are impacting those areas that used to help build the middle class - our failure to ensure the next generation can access affordable and quality education, the lack of investment in infrastructure and research and development, and the unwillingness of our country to do big things that were once common place, like landing a man on the moon, building an interstate highway system, and developing modern technology and transportation. Packer is not a declinist. Indeed, the optimism and American can-do spirit is strong throughout The Unwinding even if the narrative is often unsettling; however, it is difficult to see a brighter tomorrow when the picture painted is so bleak.  


1.  See, e.g., Confidence Men (Ron Suskind), The Escape Artists (Noam Scheiber), Do Not Ask What Good We Do (Robert Draper).

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