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Abigail Sindzinski: A Nation Called to Action

July 24, 2013

George Packer’s The Unwinding details the bitter realities of a stagnant economy, but leaves no room for malaise.

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Image from Flickr via marcus_jb1973

By Abigail Sindzinski

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, George Packer’s lamentation on the recent recession and its antecedents, begins with the kind of sweeping truisms espoused by a cable news host or an op-ed board: “No one can say when the unwinding began—when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way,” Packer muses. Later he informs us: “The unwinding is nothing new. There have been unwindings every generation or two.” But if such grand statements at first make you squirm, it takes only a brief foray into Packer’s deeply reported profiles to give them substance.

The unwinding itself is precisely what you expect: the deterioration of American industries; dwindling social mobility; lack of security for families and businesses. The book begins its story in the 1970s and moves forward into the present day, forcing us to consider the current turmoil as something more than “troubled times.” Packer’s primary subjects are fashioned as modern versions of James Agee’s sharecroppers or Studs Terkel’s slew of American laborers from his 1974 book, Working. The appropriately sympathetic ones possess a frontiersman’s will, as though vetted for gumption. Tammy Thomas, a factory worker turned organizer, seems to carry the entire weight of Youngstown, Ohio, as she moves into a role as a community organizer.

But the impressive qualities of Packer’s subjects aren’t enough to curtail the systematic deterioration of their fields. Instead, Packer gauges what success can look like in a landscape where a booming tech industry hasn’t stemmed the dissolution of America’s postwar classes. By treating the collapse of banking, housing, and our work force alongside the massive technological developments of the past decades, Packer skillfully exhibits the point we regularly sidestep: that the niftiness of a mobile check deposit does little to alleviate the effects of an ailing economy.

“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

From the lack of ongoing unemployment benefits for the long-term out-of-work, to the increase in poverty rates, to a former presidential candidate who shrugs his shoulders at student tuition burdens, today we face a repeated inability to effect the kind of change that would provide a future for those individuals outside the highest tax brackets. The Unwinding is a book for such a time, when many people, in the face of seemingly unending disappointment, feel there’s little to do but watch as corporate bonuses continue unabated. It’s a book for a time when the disparity between what we had, have, and want for the future seems starker than ever.

***

Standing between the old and new worlds that The Unwinding explores is Peter Thiel, PayPal founder, Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and exemplar of mid-90s tech sector success. When Thiel assesses Silicon Valley today, he sets the latest American innovation against the decline of the manufacturing industry and his aspirations at Stanford in the late 1980s: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

Thiel’s deeper concern, though, comes out during an exchange with Google’s Eric Schmidt, who Packer describes as “just the kind of sanguine liberal who brought out Thiel’s cerebral malice.” Packer recounts how, speaking to the audience at the 2012 Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference, Schmidt argued that “transistors, fiber optics, and data analytics were making the world a better and better place, and that Moore’s Law, which held that computing power would double every two years, still had at least another decade left.”

Thiel responded: “Moore’s law is good if you’re a computer. But the question is, how good is it for human beings, and how does this translate into economic progress for humans?”

This current disunion between new industry, its money, and social progress is a central thread that winds its way through Packer’s narrative, and can lead to some harsh reality checks. After pages of Packer describing the lived experience of the housing collapse, reading an article in the paper that advises buyers in New York’s booming real estate market to offer 35% down for a shot at a home in the city felt like mixing a bite of bread pudding with pickled herring.

***

The most significant judgments offered by Packer’s book rest on his subjects. Their stories offer a persuasive finger pointing, aimed toward not only the banking industry, but also lobbyists, PACs, political vitriol and, vaguely, our president’s ambivalent progress. For instance, as Dean Price collapses himself into the work of producing fuel post-Hurricane Katrina without a reliance on foreign oil, he also presses against Obama’s history of hesitation with cap and trade. Working first with canola oil and later with restaurant waste oil, Price nearly ruins himself trying to circumvent the oil industry’s dominance.

In 2009, Tammy Thomas lost the last $48,000 dollars of a work buyout in a failed real estate venture, but with a job still in hand could nevertheless be considered one of the “lucky ones.

Tammy Thomas provides a similar tale of hardship. A dedicated employee and parent, she works much of her life in factory labor, moving between roles in Youngstown, Ohio’s automotive factories—producing wiring harnesses and operating solder pots to provide for her children. In the mid-2000s, at forty years old, she takes a buyout from Delphi Automotive (né Packard Electric) as the company undergoes enormous outsourcing. She enters a degree program in sociology and starts a job as an organizer in 2008, finding a life on the periphery of the recession’s detriment.

Her description of Youngstown reads as a written accompaniment to accounts of Detroit’s dwindling population from the documentary Detropia. It also echoes the unhappy state of Florida’s real estate market, which Packer details through the eyes of Michael Van Sickler, a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times:

By the 2000s [Tampa] didn’t look to him like much of a city at all: a nine-to-five downtown with about fifty residents, until a pair of huge condo towers that had no relation to the streets but would suck up demand for years to come went up, while all the shopping and Class A office space were miles away in Westshore, near the airport. Tampa had tried to take a shortcut to greatness, but that never worked; its downtown had no coherence, nothing to attract people beyond an office job, a hockey game, or a court case.

As a community organizer in Youngstown, Thomas works in a similar terrain, navigating the ethical decisions that come with it. While cataloging and then assessing the future of the vacant lots that make up 40 percent of the city—25 percent owned by house flippers—she eschews the popular 2010 Plan, designed to shrink the city. Instead, the unsavory reality of displacing individuals from their homes leads Thomas to shift her focus toward making a local slumlord accountable for his ways, and prompts a colleague to convert some lots into community gardens. The determination Thomas brings to her work of pushing for better jobs and advocating for political candidates who align with Youngstown’s needs encapsulates the positive change that community activism can help create. 

Packer, though, doesn’t lose sight of the bigger picture. In between detailing the lives and struggles of Thomas and others like her, Packer also profiles a handful of well-known celebrities with success stories from the past quarter-century. The brief chapters on Oprah, Jay-Z, Colin Powell, and Alice Waters demonstrate the power and influence that wealth can provide beyond the realms of banking and law. But mostly, they contrast poignantly with someone like Thomas, who, in 2009, lost the last $48,000 dollars of her Delphi buyout in a failed real estate venture, but with a job still in hand could nevertheless be considered one of the “lucky ones.”

***

The week of The Unwinding’s release, Packer published an article in The New Yorker, where he is a staff writer, questioning the role of political activism within Silicon Valley. In 1978, Packer recalls, “the average house in Palo Alto cost about a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars.” Today, “the average house in Palo Alto sells for more than two million dollars.” This kind of unwieldy change is, of course, hardly specific to that Valley, but it sets the stage for the conflict between wealth and democracy that Packer also spends The Unwinding exploring.

Although Packer avoids providing a how-to manual for the future, his stories offer an implicit call to action, demanding that we work for both the betterment of our communities and ourselves.

In The New Yorker article, Packer details the founding of FWD.us, a lobbying group geared toward immigration reform that also represents Mark Zuckerberg and other Valley entrepreneurs’ entrance into the political sphere. Packer goes on to paraphrase Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, recounting a meeting the Apple CEO had with Obama in 2011:

When it was Jobs’s turn, he asked for more H-1B visas for foreign students who earn engineering degrees in the U.S.—a longtime Silicon Valley desire. Obama told him that the issue could be addressed only in the context of broader immigration reforms, such as allowing children who had arrived here illegally with their parents to gain legal status.

Like Thiel’s disappointing assertion that Moore’s Law, for all its possibility, doesn’t equate to social progress, the narrowness of Jobs’s interest is striking. Packer rightly posits that, as the representatives of a thriving new industry, the Valley’s members must be careful to acknowledge technological progress’s complicated relationship to social policy. They are not equivalent. With the tech sector holding firm to its status as the ever-expanding wave of the future, Packer insists that it operate within our own political and economic systems for society’s betterment and not simply its own.

Although Packer avoids providing a how-to manual for the future, his stories offer an implicit call to action, demanding that we work, like Tammy Thomas, for both the betterment of our communities and ourselves. It is a venerable thing, this kind of storytelling. For all the prowess of books like The Price of Inequality, The Unwinding’s influence ought to reverberate past the echo chamber to remind our innovators, academic leaders, and politicians how pressing our need is for effective responses to our deep-set economic problems. Even with an eye toward the litany of current troubles—city budget crises, heightened political factionalism, et al. ad infinitum—the stories of The Unwinding leave no room for malaise. The country, the book makes clear, desperately needs just the opposite.

Abigail Sindzinski, a former associate editor at HBO and current master’s candidate in English, lives and works in New York.

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