The Big Money
‘The Unwinding,’ by George Packer
By DAVID BROOKSJUNE 6, 2013
Danny Hartzell grew up near Pittsburgh, the son of an alcoholic father who left him largely unsupervised. His wife, Ronale, was also raised by parents who were alcoholics, and her mother drank rubbing alcohol when the other kind wasn’t available. Often they lived out of their car, and Ronale went to bed hungry when her mother was too drunk or unable to feed her.
Danny and Ronale met and fell in love in Tampa. Both dropped out of high school. When the recession hit in 2008, Danny was laid off from his $10-an-hour job at a factory that made plastic bags. He was in his late 30s, short, overweight, deaf in one ear and missing several teeth. His voice was loud and hoarse. Ronale was also obese and missing teeth. She suffered from diabetes.
They were fiercely attached to each other and to their children, but had few connections beyond that. As George Packer writes in “The Unwinding,” a gripping narrative survey of contemporary America, the Hartzells were “estranged from their surviving relatives, most of whom were heavy drinkers. They had few friends, and no church (though they were Christian) or union (though they were working class) or block association (though they wished the area was safe enough for the kids to go trick-or-treating). They hardly gave a thought to politics.”
In the spring of 2009, their daughter was found to be suffering from bone cancer in her left leg. The next 18 months were consumed by her treatment. Cockroaches infested their apartment. Ronale stopped cooking, and they lived off pizza, Velveeta Cheesy Skillets and Salisbury steaks, which were $2.28 for a package of six. Danny got a part-time job at Target, but one morning he was told to come in when his daughter had a doctor’s appointment. He didn’t bother to call to get the day off. He just didn’t show up and ended up losing his job.
Finally, Danny and Ronale decided to get false teeth. They went to the dentist and had their gums taken care of and some residual teeth pulled, which left them completely toothless. Each was fitted with a gleaming set of new teeth. But Ronale left the dentist’s office in pain. She took the teeth out and never put them back in. Danny stopped using his too.
Danny got a job at Walmart, but he hated it. Packer summarizes his views: “He hated the superior attitude of the managers, . . . the customers who interrupted him while he was shelving stock to ask where the frigging bananas were, the fact that he was an ‘associate’ instead of an old-school ‘employee.’ ” He complained loudly to his colleagues, and one day a manager warned Danny about his bad attitude. His pride injured, Danny stopped showing up and lost that job too.
The Hartzells are just one of the families scraping their way through the modern economy in Packer’s deeply affecting book. He’s giving us the story of the nation’s economic transformation from the ground up.
Packer has clearly modeled this book on the novels of John Dos Passos’ “U.S.A.” trilogy (1930-1936), which came out in the pit of the Great Depression. Dos Passos followed the scattered lives of a dozen or more fictional characters, interspersing their stories with short biographies of real historic figures, stream-of-consciousness passages and “newsreels” — collages of modern headlines and song lyrics to evoke the spirit of the times. He enveloped it all in his fervent left-wing politics; the trilogy was, for all its avant-garde style, meant to arouse working-class consciousness and protest.
The characters in Packer’s book are real, not fictional. Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker who produced some of the finest journalism about the Iraq war (including an outstanding book called “The Assassin’s Gate”). But like Dos Passos, he too includes newsreels and short biographies of major figures. His book is also infused with a strong left-wing economic populism. He paints an admiring portrait of the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, whose political views seem to coincide with his own.
He seems to be disappointed in or critical of Democrats whom he regards as too close to the financial establishment, like Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and Robert Rubin. He seems to sympathize with anti-establishment outsiders, whether they are Occupy Wall Street organizers, the writer Raymond Carver or even the libertarian renegade Peter Thiel. He seems to regard members of the American establishment like Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Jay-Z, Alice Waters and Sam Walton as soulless, hypocritical, pathetic or opportunistic. He seems to dislike Republicans and especially Tea Party types, who are portrayed spitting out their words, practicing mustard gas politics and motivated by blind hatreds.
I use the word “seems” a lot because Packer rarely comes out and says what he thinks. This is a book of nearly pure narrative, and his meanings are embedded in the way he portrays people, those he likes (outsiders) and those he doesn’t (bankers, the political class). There are some passages of outright analysis in this book to show that America is “unwinding,” that the structures of everyday life are crumbling, that the nation’s leaders have “abandoned their posts,” that the void has been filled with “the default force in American life, organized money.” But I doubt the analytic passages together would fill more than a few pages of this 434-page book.
The stories that do fill its pages are beautifully reported. There are a few dominating figures who pop in and out, like Jeff Connaughton, the perfect political No. 2, who in the early 1980s hitched his wagon to Joe Biden and became an aide, a fund-raiser, a lobbyist and a Washington insider. But during the financial crisis Connaughton grew disillusioned with politics, and he gives Packer an absolutely brutal portrait of Biden as a coldblooded operator, a staff-abuser and a people-user, who cares about nothing but his own presidential ambitions. (This portrait is cartoonishly overdrawn.)
There is Dean Price, a young go-getter who opened a chain of truck stops and then fell for some crackpot suggestions that the world was about to run out of oil and moved off into biodiesel. After being the political flavor of the month for a while with his speeches on energy, he was charged with not paying his taxes, his company tanked and things ended badly.
There is Tammy Thomas, a woman from Youngstown, Ohio, who worked hard in the city’s auto parts plants and took an early retirement buyout as the local economy crumbled around her. She lost a large chunk of her savings in a Ponzi scheme. Outraged at the changes around her, she has become an activist and community organizer.
To repeat, Packer does an outstanding job with these stories. “The Unwinding” offers vivid snapshots of people who have experienced a loss of faith. As a way of understanding contemporary America, these examples are tantalizing. But they are also frustrating. The book is supposed to have social, economic and political implications, but there is no actual sociology, economics or political analysis in it.
By “the unwinding,” Packer is really referring to three large transformations, which have each been the subject of an enormous amount of research and analysis. The first is the stagnation of middle-class wages and widening inequality. Depending on which analyst you read, this has to do with the changing nature of the information-age labor market, changing family structures, rising health care costs, the decline of unions or the failure of education levels to keep up with technology.
The second is the crushing recession that began in 2008. Depending on which analyst you read, this was caused by global capital imbalances, bad Federal Reserve policy, greed on Wall Street, faulty risk-assessment models or the insane belief that housing prices would go on rising forever.
The third transformation is the unraveling of the national fabric. Depending on which analyst you read, this is either a gigantic problem (marriage rates are collapsing; some measures of social connection are on the decline) or not a gigantic problem (crime rates are plummeting, some measures of social connection are improving).
Packer wants us to understand these transformations, but ultimately, narrative and anecdotes are not enough. They need to be complemented with evidence from these long-running debates and embedded in a theoretical framework and worldview.
To the extent that Packer offers a framework, it is that the nation’s elites have failed. The organized money class has captured Barack Obama and rigged the game for itself: “The statesmen and generals had become consultants and pundits. The Army was composed of professionals, not citizens. The public schools were leaving the children of the whole people semiliterate.”
Anybody who covers Washington and Wall Street knows there is an awesome amount of self-dealing in America’s power centers, most of it perfectly legal. But in what sense has this elite — which comes from the finest universities and is the most diverse and equal-opportunity elite in history — failed? This is the sort of question “The Unwinding” doesn’t help answer.
Moreover, this rot-at-the-top theory doesn’t really explain wage stagnation, inequality, the Great Recession or changes in social capital. It doesn’t fully cohere with many of Packer’s complex, rich stories. For example, it doesn’t really help us understand how much the Hartzells should be held responsible for their own decisions — dropping out of school, not using their new teeth, quitting jobs because a customer occasionally asked where to find the bananas.
I wish Packer had married his remarkable narrative skills to more evidence and research, instead of just relying on narrative alone. Combine data to lives as they are actually lived.
When John Dos Passos wrote the “U.S.A.” trilogy, the left had Marxism. It had a rigorous intellectual structure that provided an undergirding theory of society — how social change happens, which forces matter and which don’t, how society works and who causes it not to work. Dos Passos’ literary approach could rely on that structure, fleshing it out with story and prose.
The left no longer has Marxism or any other coherent intellectual structure. Packer’s work has no rigorous foundation to rely on, no ideology to give it organization and shape. But the lack of a foundational theory of history undermines the explanatory power of “The Unwinding,” just as it undermines the power and effectiveness of modern politics more generally.
An Inner History of the New America
By George Packer
434 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.
David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The Times.