The Unwinding

By GEORGE PACKER

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by noted New Yorker writer George Packer, is a big-picture portrait of America as it has been developing — or as Packer puts it, unwinding — over the course of the last two decades.  “Unwinding” he defines as the process during which “the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip” has given way.  “If you were born around 1960 or afterward,” he states, “you spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding.  You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape….When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone.  The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.”

Packer himself, it should be said, was born in 1960, and he has spent his career observing various aspect of the unwinding as it has occurred.  Many readers will recognize him as the author of The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq (2006) and Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade (2009), but his newest book returns in spirit to his 2001 Blood of the Liberals, a study of three generations of progressives in his own family; here we find the same attempt to understand the shifting tides of history and the redefining of ideals and hopes.  In a style that owes something to the expansive fictional techniques of Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo, Packer weaves The Unwinding with threads of many colors.  He tells much of his story through the lives of several Americans of his own generation, each of whom in some way embodies the unraveling: Dean Price, son of a family of tobacco farmers in the North Carolina Piedmont, who is jolted from political complacency by the impact of corporate greed on his community and makes valiant, doomed efforts to take on the big oil companies as a small entrepreneur in biodiesel fuel; Jeff Connaughton, who is inspired by an early meeting with Joe Biden and eventually becomes part of his political team — an experience that is disillusioning, to say the least; Tammy Thomas, who watches her home city of Youngstown, Ohio collapse in the wake of deindustrialization and becomes an active force for its revival; and Peter Thiel, a German immigrant from a conservative, evangelical family who goes to Silicon Valley and becomes a libertarian and a tech billionaire. 

During these people’s childhoods in the 1960s life was not always easy, but there was still social cohesion and a sense of shared responsibility.  In Dean Price’s Rockingham County, North Carolina, the textile mills offered jobs to any young man with a high school degree, and “the brick storefronts on Main Street — pharmacies and haberdasheries and furniture stores and luncheonettes — were full of shoppers.”  Likewise, in Tammy Thomas’s Youngstown, “the mill was hot, filthy, body- and soul-crushing, but its wages and pensions came to represent the golden age of American economic life.”  What happened?

In Rockingham County it was the simultaneous collapse of the area’s traditional products, tobacco, textiles and furniture, bringing unemployment and a crack-and- meth scourge in its wake.  The Wal-Mart phenomenon all but finished off local businesses.  “Three Wal-Marts for a poor rural county of just ninety thousand people: that would wipe out just about every remaining grocery store, clothing store, and pharmacy in the area, and because Wal-Mart also sold discount fuel, eventually it would kill the truck stop owners.  Two thousand five hundred people applied for the 307 ‘associates’ positions at the Mayodan store, which paid an average of $9.85 an hour, or $16,108 a year.”  And as Dean Price discovers, eighty-six cents of every dollar spent in a big box retailer leaves the community.  With gas stations the number is even higher.  Capitalism run amok — what would Adam Smith say?  The result, after decades of such depredations, is the real landscape of the new South, brilliantly depicted by Packer:

A two-lane asphalt road ran past the woods — white oak, shagbark hickory, Carolina ash — and in the shadows of the trees a tobacco barn was year by year collapsing on itself, the metal roof sloping inward, pieces of bare siding hanging loose from nails.  Nearby, a white clapboard house with empty windows squatted at the roadside half smothered in tree branches and vines, while a fire-scorched handwritten sign on the outside wall still advertised CRUSH.  Farther along, the road took a turn and a tidy brick ranch house with a big satellite dish mounted on top stood in the golden sunlight of a red-brown field.  Another bend, a gentle hill, deep woods again, then an abandoned metal warehouse alone in a clearing.  The road straightened and flattened and came to a stoplight where a pair of strip malls faced each other, parking lots full, a Walgreen’s across from a McDonald’s, Shell opposing BP.  Another light, a shuttered car dealership, a vast scrap yard with a mountain of twisted metal and stacked timbers next door to a spinning mill that was being methodically gutted like a great whale and sold off one part at a time.  Then downtown, the lonely little main street, a tae kwon do studio, a government benefits office, a closed restaurant, a nameless corner store for rent, two pedestrians in four blocks, a Dollar General that marked the far end of town.  On the other side the country opened up at once, the road passing fields, corn planted on one, nothing on the next — weeds and clods of dirt — then a residential development with two-story look-alike houses in neat rows laid out across someone’s former tobacco farm.  And beyond the subdivision, isolated on acres of grass behind a split-rail fence and a man-made lake, the supersized faux chateau of a celebrity NASCAR driver.

It’s one of several millennial American landscapes Packer presents with painterly flair.  Another is postindustrial Youngstown as observed by its native daughter, Tammy Thomas.  “[T]he east side had just disappeared.  Where had it all gone?  The things that had made it a community — stores, schools, churches, playgrounds, fruit trees — were gone, along with half the houses and two thirds of the people.”  Most grotesque of all, perhaps, is Packer’s depiction of the dying exurb: just as he has presented Youngstown as a symbol of all the suffering cities of the Rust Belt, he has chosen Tampa as the archetypal Sun Belt growth machine, spawning countless interchangeable exurbs (or “boomburgs”) with names like Saddle Ridge Estates or Carriage Pointe, in which, at the moment the housing bubble burst, at least half of new homes were owned by mere investors, “flippers” who sought only to turn over the properties as quickly as possible and had no plans to actually set foot there.  “The whole concept of home ownership had been warped beyond recognition,” Packer writes.  “These houses were disposable commodities.” The owners stranded in Carriage Pointe

were mostly families that had viewed Carriage Pointe as a starter home on their way to someplace else.  When prices dropped by 50 percent, they were trapped, and furious with Lennar, the developer, who had promised them a pool, a community center, and a limit on investment homes of 20 percent.  As it turned out, a lot of the owners of record lived in places like Fort Mill, South Carolina, and Ozone Park, New York, and they didn’t care what life was like for people stuck in Carriage Pointe.  Some of the foreclosed houses were being used by drug dealers or traffickers in stolen goods, littered with contraband.  There had even been a shooting….Carriage Pointe was supposed to be a little slice of the American dream, but it felt like the end of days.

There were so many foreclosures in Tampa that a judge’s daily docket often amounted to 120 cases at three minutes each.  The banks were usually represented by a lawyer from firms known as foreclosure mills, the largest of which was “run like a legal sweatshop with a hundred thousand cases a year, most of them from Fannie and Freddie, earning profits that its boss spent on four mansions, ten luxury cars, two private jets, and a 130-foot yacht, before being shut down by a state fraud investigation.”  Few of the devastated borrowers challenged the banks, but when any of them persisted the bank’s case could often be seen to crumble.  Wall Street “had sliced and packaged the mortgages so many times through securitization, and then the banks had cut so many corners trying to recover the bad loans, that no institution could establish a clear right to someone’s house.” In the meantime, Tampa had become an urban and suburban hell; in 2010 it was officially determined the single most stressful city in the U.S.  A light rail line might have done much to improve its way of life, but the local Tea Party shouted it down, for by 2010 rail transport, once the engine of American growth and expansion, “symbolized everything that the American right feared and hated — big government, taxes and spending, European-style socialism, a society in which people were forced to share public services with strangers and pay for them.” 

We have all, in recent years, had to acknowledge the inadequacy of our political class to deal with this kind of systemic breakdown.  Packer paints depressing pictures of our leaders in action.  On the Senate floor, speakers deliver their speeches to an all-but-empty hall, the presiding officer flipping through his New York Times or checking his Blackberry; it has become extremely rare for two senators to actually listen to each other’s arguments and debate them.  At the state level, legislators are even more blatantly in thrall to the highest bidder.  On Capitol Hill, three thousand lobbyists swarm about, urging lawmakers not to take any action that might displease their biggest client, the big banks.  The Occupy movement, so promising at first, fizzles out when its leaders prove unable to maneuver the levers of power.  Paul Volker put it nicely: “You know, just about whatever anyone proposes, no matter what it is, the banks will come out and claim that it will restrict credit and harm the economy.” “On Wall Street,” Packer comments, “the financial crisis felt like a speed bump.”

It seems as though Packer was at a bit of a loss as to how to end his book; he is writing about history as it happens, after all.  Yet at the kernel of his story is the continuing collapse of the New Deal dispensation, symbolized by its three key financial regulations, the FDIC, the SEC, and Glass-Steagall.  The social consensus that produced this safety net has dissolved, and we must try to comprehend not only the results of this collapse but the underlying reasons for it.  “[T]he bond bubble, the tech bubble, the stock bubble, the emerging markets bubble, the housing bubble….One by one they had all burst, and their bursting showed that they had been temporary solutions to long-time problems, maybe evasions of those problems, distractions.”  As tech mogul Peter Thiel reminds the author, apparent progress is not always real progress, and the dizzying speed of technological change in recent years, the futurist fantasy of new toys and gadgets, does not indicate social advancement.  Perhaps wishfully, Packer ends on a note of cautious optimism, with the endearingly unsinkable Dean Price, now over fifty, once again willing to start from scratch.  But the message of the book is not an optimistic one.  The unwinding is still going on; where it will take us is anyone’s guess.