George Packer talks about the 'unwinding' of America
George Packer discusses his new book, 'The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America' – a country no longer assumed to be a global leader, even as its internal economic gulf widens.
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That was my aim here with this book. I don’t know whether [the question of empire] is true or not. It’s a huge question Americans are asking all the time these days. It’s very hard to answer honestly because you will get beat up by two different sets of people, depending on your answer. If you say that Obama is our Clement Attlee, then you are called a pessimist, and are accused of giving up on what is great about America. If you say, no, America can come back, you seem out of touch.Skip to next paragraph
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You make a good analogy between America and Wal-Mart. You say America got cheap like Wal-Mart. Could you talk about this?
Wal-Mart has had a real effect. It’s not just a symbol of our economy: it’s a big part of our economy. Wal-Mart reached 100 billion dollars in sales by 1997. And another statistic that I cite in the book is that the six heirs to Wal-Mart fortune have the same value as the bottom 30 percent of the United States, which is the equivalent to 90 million people, it is staggering.
Although I do think that Sam Walton’s story is an interesting one because he is a truly small town guy who built an Empire. But he built it ruthlessly, at the expense of small town life. The strategy of Wal-Mart was to move like an army across the heartland of America, and lay waste to one little downtown after another, and bring in the stores that were going to just deplete all the little shopkeepers.
And they did exactly that. They were lowering the cost of living, where nobody could compete with their prices. But by doing that they were driving American manufacturers overseas, because American manufactures could not give the price that Wal-Mart was demanding. They were also driving down the standard of living, and they became the only job in town.
Are we presently at a point in American capitalism that hasn’t been seen since the Gilded Age? And are egalitarian values regressing, not progressing?
There is still a deep belief in egalitarianism among Americans. It doesn’t mean we should all have the same, or live the same. It means there should be roughly equal opportunity, and that it should be real, not just theoretical. And what has happened over the last generation is that it has become more theoretical and less real. More Americans can make it to the top, get great education and great jobs: blacks, immigrants, women, gay Americans, there is this great inclusiveness, and that is not going to stop. But it is coinciding with this stratification and division.
And Black Americans have done very badly, right before and after the financial crisis, and that offends people. It’s rigged. Where you are born determines a lot where you are going to end up, that doesn’t sit well with a lot of Americans: We don’t see ourselves as being a class society. And Europe now has more social mobility than America, which is unprecedented. That is a huge loss for us, because that was our claim to being a democracy, where anyone can do well. We don’t have some of the security and social protections of Europe and that is hardening.
What kind of role do you think Silicon Valley and technology is playing in widening the gap between rich and poor in America? And why did you decide to use Peter Thiel as one of your characters in this book, to start a conversation about the super-wealthy?
Thiel interested me because he is a Libertarian. I think Libertarianism is a really strong impulse among Americans today, especially among people in technology who think that technology, rather than government, will solve our problems. But he also has a more realistic view of where the country is than a lot of people in Silicon Valley do.
There is a certain amount of dreaming that goes on out there. But Thiel distinguishes with the Internet and technology, between change and progress. Technology may change how much information we can get, and how we can get it, but it has not produced progress in the way that the earlier industrial age did by raising living standards and creating the middle class. If anything, technology has been part of a great divide, where some, who know how to use it, do very well. And people who can't use it, but whose talents are more suited to working on an assembly line are falling behind. Technology is hurting them. It’s taking their jobs away. The picture is mixed, and Thiel sees that. He goes in a direction I don’t particularly like, but I was interested in him because I thought that he was unusually thoughtful about these things.