Books for Our Times: The Unwinding, by George Packer

06/27/2013 03:49 pm ET | Updated Aug 27, 2013

First in an ongoing series, Books for Our Times.

Ever since the financial crash of 2008 and the ensuing Great Recession, which only now these five years later is starting to recede, like many Americans I have been in search of insight into the workings of this great capitalism and democracy machine in which we live.

Reading the business pages as attentively as the political, even more so because economics and I never grafted in college, I want to understand how this machine works -- and how it doesn't -- and if it can be made to work better, without the periodic booms that enrich the 1 percent even more and the busts that always but always hurt the 99 percent, often grievously. Can the machine be better balanced, so that our Western way of life can live, or must capitalism always lay the demos low?

The first book coming to hand to enlighten on this question is by George Packer -- The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. I should note up-front that, as the title signals, the news is not good for the demos.

In the prologue to this powerful collection of set-pieces, Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, states his thesis: Since the 1960s, America's economic, political, and social institutions all began to unwind. He adds:

"And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition -- ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere. 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."

An "inner history," Packer's tale is most vividly related by the cogs in the machine, those whom a Frank Capra movie would portray as "the little people."

Dean Price, of North Carolina, is the inveterate entrepreneur who picks himself up and carries on (most recently manufacturing biodiesel), despite previous business failures, bankruptcy, and his father's suicide. Tammy Thomas, an African-American woman devoted to her grandmother's stake in Youngstown, Ohio, suffers with the town's decline, losing a job when the steel industry collapses, then another job at an auto-parts factory when it closes. Jeff Connaughton, after hearing Sen. Joe Biden speak at his college, goes to Washington to become "a Biden guy," only to toil unrecognized by Biden for years, then serves in the Clinton White House, before, tired of a public servant's pay, he "sells out" (soon called "cashing in") to become a lobbyist and make colossal money -- half of which he loses in a real-estate deal. (So vivid do these characters become, and so well does Packer describe the straining real-estate bubble, that when one of them thinks of taking their meager savings and flipping a house, I wrote in the margins, "Don't do it, Jeff!" "Tam: NO!")

To illustrate the real-estate bubble, the trigger of the '08 crash, Packer profiles a city -- Tampa, Florida---pursuing its misguided dream to become "America's Next Great City" by going headlong on a housing-construction jag, with most units purchased via subprime mortgages. Our eyes in this slow-motion disaster are a real estate attorney; a woman foreclosed who attends court proceedings where thirty foreclosures an hour are approved; and a reporter who picks up on the toxicity of subprime mortgages and their bundling by banks into "mortgage-backed securities" -- toxicity squared -- which banks themselves don't understand or know how to unwind. (The attorney comes to see that if a client fights foreclosure, often he prevails because the banks know their paperwork is not in order.)

As for the banks, Packer devotes one chapter, tracking a man who'd gone into banking because banking "wasn't that hard" and who, while peddling ever riskier bank products yet feeling finance is a "confidence game," gives little thought to clients or country, only to his increasingly larger apartments -- confirming for many, no doubt, capitalism's disdain for the demos. Packer also treats the Occupy Wall Street movement but focuses on a participant who joined up because it was "cool," a focus possibly justified by Occupy's ultimate political disarray but a disservice to the seismic public response to its calling out of income inequality and Wall Street greed.

And where are the politicians, the regulators -- the check on the system? They're not much in evidence. Packer portrays politicians as captive, conscious or not, of moneyed interests, always begging for campaign funding, always fading under the lobbyists' onslaught. It says everything that, after the '08 crash, when Connaughton left lobbying and returned to Capitol Hill to help repair the financial damage, rejoining Sen. Ted Kaufman who was serving out Biden's term when Biden became vice-president, in going flat-out to introduce legislation to rein in the "too big to fail" banks -- the fundamental check to reset the balance -- both men understood they were burning their bridges in Washington forever. In this quixotic fight Kaufman was royally chewed out by Sen. Chris Dodd, he of Dodd-Frank, the major financial package ultimately passed to fix the disaster -- "Stop saying bad things about my bill"!

Political weakness aside, what's hard to bear -- and here Packer is particularly insightful -- are figures who feed on the unwinding, even accelerate it. There's Newt Gingrich, out for power and ego, declaring "total war" on "the corrupt liberal welfare state" and inflaming political discourse ever since, aided by "journos" like right-wing flame-thrower Andrew Breitbart. Sam Walton, who while building the Walmart discount empire, hollowed out the heartland by killing local businesses and driving American manufacturing overseas, upon his death bequeathing monies equaling the bottom 30 percent of the entire American population to his six (6) survivors. Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley billionaire and PayPal founder, whose favorite word, and economic condition, is "disruption." Even Oprah Winfrey, whose wildly popular program fed on "the hidden wound inside every member of her vast and isolated audience."

As to the social unwinding, Packer's inspired choice is to spotlight writer Raymond Carver, as the chronicler of that "vast and isolated" America. Carver wrote of lives "gone bust" because that was his own life -- crushing family responsibilities, never enough money. And, as Packer writes of Carver's characters, "Nothing like religion or politics or community surrounded them, except the Safeway and the bingo hall."

The only voice Packer hears as anywhere near equal to the task of rewinding the system is that of Elizabeth Warren, creator of the idea behind the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and now Democratic senator from Massachusetts. Growing up Republican and poor in Oklahoma, she subscribed to her mother's belief that people who declared bankruptcy were "cheaters," but later in her academic research found the opposite to be true: personal bankruptcy is seldom the result of weak character, but of weak regulation. Packer notes approvingly that bankers fear her. Tough as she is, Warren needs allies, battalions of them, who argue Main Street's cause as fervently as she does, if there is to be a rewinding.

Will we forge a rewinding? Packer claims to be no declinist, yet he is not hopeful. He notes earlier instances of unwinding in our history, notably the Civil War and the Great Depression, adding that "out of each unwinding came a new cohesion." But he doesn't see the forces of a new cohesion at work. (Seeing what I call "the conscientious public" making its points, I am a bit more optimistic.)

Some critics fault Packer for not offering a theoretical framework or worldview, claiming narrative and anecdote are not enough. (For theoretical framework, I'd propose greed unregulated.) But a policy-centered book would not likely give us the colorful individuals who live and breathe under Packer's pen. Like John Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy, from which The Unwinding takes its structure, down to the "newsreel" collages of headlines and song lyrics that situate the reader in time, perhaps Packer will give us a trilogy, or a tetralogy, each volume dedicated to the foundational elements he cites we've lost in the present unwinding -- "ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere."

What Packer has gifted us with is a vital X-ray of the body politic, the nervous system of the demos. Dean Price keeps going out of "sacred hope," not buying his suicide father's "poverty thinking." In his daily struggle, I felt the anxiety of the small businessman in a way I never did before. Tammy Thomas, after losing her second job and trying to retool yet again, is recruited as a community organizer to restore Youngstown -- and finds her true voice, as a leader, while also pointing the way for the rest of us: toward organized political action. As Jeff Connaughton discovered when he returned to Capitol Hill to work at reining in the big banks, lobbyists for the banks were all over him, but where was Main Street?

These good souls press on not out of blind faith; they know the score, the "rot" that's occurred in their lifetime. But if they nurse wounds, they still get out of bed to fight another day. Would that Wall Street and Washington were equal to their bravery.

For Packer's critique of writers today focusing on Wall Street to the detriment of Main Street, see here. For Packer's article on John Dos Passos, see here. For Packer's interview with Charlie Rose, see here. For other reviews of "The Unwinding," see here, here, and here.

Carla Seaquist is author of a book of commentary, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she is author of the recently-published volume, "Two Plays of Life and Death," which include "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."