The Unwinding

Learning from the crumbling of America

January 10, 2017 - 3 minute read -
essays

The Unwinding by George Packer paints gentle pictures of Americans. Americans who try, Americans who have given up. Americans who succeed, those who fail, try again, and succeed, and those who fail and continue to fail. Mr. Packer does not shy away from their dreams, their successes or their failures. He does not try to explain the system behind the failure. He merely explains, mostly in their words, what they thought, felt, and did. The results are clear for anyone to see.

The Unwinding tells the same story, like the Hillbilly Elegy, like the Fractured Republic, like Between Two Worlds, of people who have lost their way. The tale is a tale for any age–the 50s had their own poets for the lost. What’s different is that optimism for the future seems to have left the collective spirit.

For baby boomers in retirement, they have enough now to live relatively comfortably. They also have no advice for how to build the new America. Younger Americans have shattered expectations, as even the most educated among them struggle with student debt and limited opportunities.

The question isn’t ‘who is to blame’ but rather what is to be done?

It’s hard to overstate how strong a picture this book paints of different kinds of lives in modern society. It should be required reading not just for Americans but anyone in the ‘modern economy.’

Many of the assumptions that underlie our current system–people who work hard get ahead, jobs are available to anyone who wants them, people can be relied upon to make good judgments and help others, etc–are quietly, gently dismantled in front of your eyes.

Painting in broad strokes across the US, Packer tells the life stories of different people: a factory worker turned activist, a college student turned Joe Biden aide, a real estate foreclosure attorney, a green entrepreneur, a trailer park family on Welfare. It intermingles them with American successes like Jay-Z, Oprah, and Peter Thiel.

The brilliance of the narrative is that Packer makes no effort to conceal the person’s perspective, but neither does he shy away from the results and effects of their efforts. The enterpreneurial vigor Dean Price shows does not hide the fact that he shirks from his bills and has gone bankrupt to the point where he loses the family farm. Because of this, each character’s humanity comes through clearly.

The end result shows an America where the promises we grew up thinking we had: you could start afresh, you could get a great job with an education, that the system ‘worked’, has come crashing down with our communities. More poignantly, it explains Trump. People expected Obama to change things - he ended up giving banks a pass and not creating jobs, and ultimately bowing to what the book (and people in general) label the ‘elites’ or the ‘establishment.’

Reading the book it’s clear that the people inside the system, who have profited and benefited from it, aren’t bad people. Instead, they just don’t see or care what’s happened to the steel / manufacturing / real estate cities that have gone bust throughout the country. The people in this story, who hoped for change with Obama and have gotten next to nothing, are the same people I expect who voted for Trump. Even Peter Thiel mentions that Romney didn’t understand Peter’s advice that directly addressing the problems was the way to win in 2012. It seems prescient now.

The data show across the world, people can’t ‘get by’ anymore the same way they did in the 60s, 70s and 80s. The talking heads at the top are so far removed that they can’t understand why people would burn down the system. The data–on income inequality, poverty, lack of jobs, wage stagnation, increasing difficulty to make ends meet–have been clear.

The Unwinding just puts a human face on it.