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.

Guillermo Riveros
George Packer, author of 'The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,' says he sees the "thrust of how Americans live ... shifting back towards an urban life."

George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of the award-winning 2005 book "The Assassins Gate: America in Iraq." Packer’s other non-fiction books include, "The Village of Waiting" and "Blood of the Liberals," the latter winning the 2001 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. He is also the author of two novels, "The Half Man" and "Central Square."

Packer’s latest book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, is a work of non-fiction that attempts to document the massive political and economic changes that have taken place in the last three decades in the United States.

The narrative follows the successes and failures of various Americans, including: Dean Price, the son of a tobacco farmer and an evangelist for a green economy in the rural South; Tammy Thomas, a Rust Belt factory worker trying to survive the financial collapse of Youngstown, Ohio; and Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire, who questions the true worth of the technology economy.

Packer gives us these tales without opinion or commentary. Instead, he simply lets readers make their own judgments from the stories he provides. If this literary style of journalism is subtly trying to push a polemic at the reader, in brief, it might be summarized this way: the Roosevelt Republic which reigned for over half a century – building institutions; creating a prosperous middle class; devising a strong sense of camaraderie among the population, and an honest work ethic, where physical things were made and sold – has been replaced by a fictitious economy that exists on bogus credit ratings and mind-numbing consumption, a system that isolates individuals from what one might define as a decent society.

In this process, the gap between rich and poor has become ever wider, and millions of US citizens who were once members of the middle class have now slid into a permanent state of poverty.

I spoke to Packer about this "unwinding" process – an age in which the vision of America as an unquestionable superpower and leader in global market forces has gradually come to a standstill.

You speak in the book about the move away from manufacturing, and into the fictional world of finance. How important was that drastic change for the American economy in the last 30 years?

It’s been a huge historical event that goes almost ignored because it’s so pervasive, and has been with us for a whole generation now. If you go to the Rust Belt, to the former steel-making cities, or to small towns in places like North Carolina, where there used to be textiles and furniture, the departure of manufacturing has devastated these places, leaving behind these ghostly downtowns, dismal empty main streets, and closed shops. This has opened the way for Wal-Mart up on the highway to be the center of all activity. And it pushes everything downward. We have become a consumer society where most of the wealth is spun out of thin air by Wall Street, with the exception of Silicon Valley.

On the coasts, and in the big cities, this is not considered a terrible thing, because these places have done well. I live in one of them, Brooklyn. But once you leave these so called creative cities, and go into these old industrial cities, or even the small towns, that weren’t particularly industrial, it’s a real landscape of depression, where Wall Street is not loved. You can point to all the blind forces that have led to this, to globalization and automation. But that is not much good to people who had a middle class life, and don’t anymore. What I heard over and over again: in Ohio, North Carolina, and in Florida, is that there is not a middle class, there is just rich and poor.     

You also speak about the shift in American popular culture, where celebrity worship became primarily about money. You use Jay Z and Oprah as two examples. When did it become almost acceptable to flaunt your wealth as your sole motivation as an artist or a celebrity in America?   

 I think celebrity comes to the fore of people’s consciousness in times of inequality, when they stand in for the old institutions that used to guide more ordinary aspirations. Modern celebrities were invented in America in the 1920s. Celebrity itself requires a machine-made diffusion. So celebrities grow in power and in influence. Today when I hear Jay Z at concerts, I get the feeling that he is telling his fans: Just give it to me. I will live it for you. And you can fantasize about it through me. But you are not going to get here, even if you wear my clothes, and flash my corporate logo.

Even Newt Gingrich did something to politics, where he turned it into an entertainment industry. He was willing to say anything, the more outrageous the better. He was willing to break down old taboos about what you could call your colleagues in Congress, and how much you could boast to a reporter, and how viciously you could try and tear down the president or [Congressional colleagues].

I guess what I am getting at is a collapse of taboos at that level of society that says: This is actually a rigged game. The old rules don’t work. If you are continuing to play by them, you are a sucker. Jay Z’s story tells you: Don’t hold down an honest job and stay in school, and hope that you move up. No, go for all of it, by any means, and then success will be its own justification. So that is why Jay Z interests me. I think he is a talented individual, but I also think that his story is one of success at all costs.       

You also observe how social interaction is on the decline in American suburbs. Could you speak about this increasing isolation in American life, a disinterest in community. Where do you suspect this comes from? 

Well I’m not the first to point this out. There was a famous book by a Harvard sociologist, Robert Putnam, who wrote a book called "Bowling Alone," which said that Americans don’t join groups much anymore. There are a number of reasons for this. Most of them are not political. It’s just the way people live in the suburbs.

You speak about Tampa Florida as one example of this?

Yes, Tampa is a great example of a vast ex-urban place, where people want to get away from the city, and people end up in these sub-divisions where they have no roots. Then as soon as the housing market goes down, everyone leaves and it’s a ghost town. But that is changing, in that more and more people are moving back into cities.

Today in America the suburbs are becoming poorer, with the housing collapse all around Florida, and other states that had a big boom. The suburbs look like impoverished areas. It’s the cities that are attracting people with money, education, and talent. So I think the whole thrust of how Americans live is shifting back towards an urban life. Because there you are around people you don’t know, and exchange ideas with them, and that sparks growth.

This book looks at the unwinding of America from inside the country. Did you think about this unwinding in terms of external forces? For example, the idea that America might be presently at the last stages of a fallen empire?

I didn’t think about it writing the book, and if I had, I don’t think the book would have been very good, because I would have been worried about it being true to a grand vision. Grand visions are not very good for storytelling. It’s better to focus on a small subject, and illuminate a large one through it, rather than take it on directly.

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.

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.

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