Thursday, December 8, 2016

George Packer's The Unwinding

from the political process
George Packer's The Unwinding:  An Inner History of the New America was at the top of the New York Times list "6 Books to Help Understand Trump's Win."  I promptly went to the library to check it out.  (Will I spend the next four years attempting to understand what has happened to the world?  Probably.)

The Unwinding is an excellent book.  It is the sort of book that makes you angry and frustrated and believe that, yes, maybe the system is rigged, but not the way that Trump says it's rigged.  If you saw the movie (or read the book) The Big Short, then The Unwinding is the longer, less glamorous version of that story.  It shows just how many people lose when business and government work together and support each other, and that the people who lose usually have the least to lose.

The Unwinding mainly follows a few key people over a few decades.  There is a community organizer in Youngstown, OH, a Joe Biden staffer in Washington, DC, the whole city of Tampa in the midst of the mortgage crisis, a man attempting to create a small biodiesel company in North Carolina, and Peter Thiel.  There are also vignettes in which he profiles other people who have had either a positive or negative impact on the country - from Sam Walton to Alice Waters, from Newt Gingrich to Elizabeth Warren.

Packer's compassion for his subjects and his fury at the government come through loud and clear in this book.  Similar to those profiled in Strangers in Their Own Land, many of the people Packer interviewed have been neglected and they feel left behind.  Some of them don't trust the government because the government does not seem to care very much about them.  Some of them don't trust the government because they have seen just how little politicians will do when they depend on large businesses for money.  And some of them exploit people's feelings and fears to get further themselves.  (Ahem, Newt Gingrich.)

There were many staggering facts and figures and stories in this book.  One of the stories that stood out the most to me was about the Walton family.  At one point, six members of the Walton family held as much wealth as the bottom 30% of Americans.  Six people.
And it was only after his death...that the country began to understand what his company had done.  Over the years, America had gotten more like Wal-Mart.  It had gotten cheap.  Prices were lower, and wages were lower.  There were fewer union factory jobs, and more part-time jobs as store greeters.  The small towns where Mr. Sam had seen his opportunity were getting poorer, which meant that consumers there depended more and more on everyday low prices, and made every last purchase at Wal-Mart, and maybe had to work there, too.  The hollowing out of the heartland was good for the company's bottom line.
 It is hard to read this book without feeling completely helpless at the end of it.  People talk a lot these days about how disengaged Americans are from the political process, how disenchanted they are with politicians.  This book explains very well why this is the case.

The establishment could fail and fail and still survive, even thrive.  It was rigged to win, like a casino, and once you were on the inside you had to do something dramatic to lose your standing...All at the top of their field, all brilliant and educated to within an inch of their lives, all Democrats, all implicated in an epic failure - now hired to sort out the ruins.  How could they not see things the way of the bankers with whom they'd studied and worked and ate and drunk and gotten rich?  Social promotion and conflicts of interest were built into the soul of the meritocracy.

In a way, reading this book makes you realize why Donald Trump doesn't understand all this hullabaloo about his many concerning conflicts of interest all over the world.    No one at any level of government seems to be free of lobbyists or special interest groups.  Even after a massive, world-crippling economic recession from which we have still not recovered (and which probably led, in many ways, to the current political situation), still we see very few government or business leaders who were punished for their actions.  In fact, many were rewarded with huge paychecks.  Robert Rubin, for example, moved between Wall Street and Washington, DC, influencing policy that netted companies huge amounts of money, and getting bonuses from those companies before all the risk they took on came back to bite them.  Even then, Rubin left with a very tidy sum of money.  He left multiple times with tidy sums of money.  It's no wonder that small business owners and everyday citizens get upset when the government comes after them for some seemingly small violation while letting the big guys get away with everything.  One man in this book admits that "he had always feared the power of government, almost as much as he had feared poverty."

So many things about this book felt prescient.  There was a section on Newt Gingrich and what a terrible person he is.  One on Andrew Breitbart and how he used the internet to reach people (and apparently started out working for Arianna Huffington, which I did not know).  Peter Thiel, who just took down the entire Gawker website for outing him as homosexual some years ago.  Elizabeth Warren, the only person profiled who seems to have earned Packer's respect.  Bill and Hillary Clinton.  Barack Obama.  But mostly, this book is about America and how difficult it can be now for regular citizens' voices to be heard. 
There were three thousand lobbyists swarming Capitol Hill, urging Congress not to do anything fundamental about the wreckage the banks had made.  Who stood on the other side?  An angry but distracted public that didn't know how to use the levers of power....Back in the eighties, a coalition of labor unions and trial lawyers and consumer advocates could put up a fight, but by 2010 they were largely spent.
In the weeks since the election, I have been trying to determine what I should focus my energies on.  I am still not sure what to do because it feels like everything is equally at risk and it's hard to know just how far people will go on some things.  But I am so sad about the loss of campaign finance reform as a viable platform going forward because I see now just how crippled ordinary people are from making their voices and demands heard, from presenting a compelling alternative argument for how to structure a system vs whatever other ideas come from the other side, with more money and people and support and think tanks.  I feel like we have become lax in requiring anything from our politicians because we no longer believe they work for us.  This is depressing on so many levels, but it is also very frightening because we are the ones who have to deal with the consequences.  From local to state to federal, we must hold our elected officials accountable.  This is extremely difficult at the local and state level because people seem not to care enough about the local and state politics that have so much more influence over their lives than national politics do.  Actually, that's not fair.  Many people do not even have access to information about what is going on at the local and state levels of government because we no longer have strong news outlets that can report at that level.

As a direct consequence of reading this book and following this past election cycle, I plan to be much better informed on local and state level news going forward.  I took the simple step of following my senators and congressional representatives on social media, though I would also like to keep track of important bills and debates.  I am not sure how to do that yet.

George Packer has written an excellent book that shows compassion to his subjects and justified rage at all the weak points in our current system.  Personally, I found this book much more rewarding to read than Strangers in Their Own Land.  Highly recommended.

Are you interested in learning more about this topic?  

I put up some links at the end of my review for Strangers in Their Own Land.

I would also recommend the On the Media podcast mini-series "Busted:  America's Poverty Myths."  The first episode is here.

PBS and NPR paired up and the result is this informative site about poverty in America, Chasing the Dream.

There are so many other topics and issues mentioned in this book that I cannot hope to cover with my related links.  So... just go read this book!  And then do some delving into the topics that interest and concern you most.


  1. I agree that it's overwhelming knowing where to start. I have decided to focus on two issues that mean a lot to me and plug into groups doing that work. Otherwise, it's just all too much. This election is teaching me how much I didn't know about the things I thought I knew about. So there is that, I guess.

    Thanks, as always, for the thoughtful review.

  2. I don't know that I will ever understand Trump or his supporters who spew such hatred (and fear). I really am nervous about the next four years and, perhaps, beyond. This book sounds interesting, but I am not sure I am ready to read it yet.


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