George Packer: The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.”
Anyone born around 1960 entered the world in the midst of America’s longest-running period of prosperity. This economic boom began after World War II, extending out for another 25 to 30 years and ended in 1973.
American economic cycles have always been characterized by boom and bust periods. Even during what some call “The Golden Age of Capitalism,” the time frame between 1945 and 1973, there were recessions during 1945, 1948, 1953, 1957, and 1960. There are a variety of explanations and theories about why these fluctuations occur.
Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian economist coined the term, “creative destruction.” He believed this would eventually cause capitalism’s demise. Marxists believe that boom/busts are inevitable; each boom phase of capitalist development (expansion of businesses, more factories, more workers, more shops and more credit, etc.) leads to the next bust phase as the over-accumulation of capital in the boom creates the conditions for the downturn in the economic cycle because profit is harder to realize. Marx called this “The Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall.”
Since 1973, however, something much broader and insidious has been occurring. Structures and institutions that have been in place since before Baby Boomers were born are crumbling and collapsing. Vast swaths of farmland across the American fruited plain have disappeared. Factories that once lined miles and miles of the Lake Michigan shoreline are like ghosts; empty hulks, in various stages of collapse, never to produce steel and other goods ever again. The rivers and waterways of New England and in our state are dotted with mill complexes that at one time were places that turned out superior products and shipped them across the world. Now most are either empty, or serving another purpose other than manufacturing. Some are now being used for housing. Others are being demolished, or will be at some point.
America’s system of government seems broken, some say beyond repair. Others look at the culture and see decadence and social mores that portend darker days ahead for us.
If history teaches us anything as Americans, it’s that our country has undergone other dark periods and we’ve managed to come through them better, stronger, and more united. One only has to consider the period in America between 1861 and 1865 as an example. World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II are other examples. Each decline and crisis seemed to bring with it, the release of new energy and hope for a better future.
There are those who talk about our current period of economic downturn, a recession in the classic economic sense, and place it in a political context. For instance, Republicans blame the downturn on government, government regulation and that our taxes are too high. This seems overly simplistic, especially when it comes to taxes, because we’ve been seeing taxes on the wealthiest Americans steadily dropping since the days of Reagan and yet, the economy continues scuffling along, from bubble to bubble.
If we consider our nation’s wealth inequality and our ever widening chasm between rich and poor, our crumbling infrastructure, with roads, bridges, the power grid, and dams in need of significant upgrades, then our crisis in America is far-reaching and beyond solving by any one party, or presidential candidate. It would not be unreasonable in my opinion to call it “collapse.”
In taking up America’s demise, George Packer prefers to call it “the unwinding” in his new book. Packer’s “unwinding” characterizes what’s been happening in America for most of my life and for the lives of many of us born around 1960. It’s what I see every day when I drive through Lisbon Falls, the down-on-its-luck former mill town I grew up in. It’s what’s afflicted places like Gary, Indiana and Youngstown, Ohio since the early 1980s. I was firsthand witness to this during my time in Northwest Indiana when I was at Hyles-Anderson College. Things were no better upon returning 20 years later, when I visited in 2007.
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer, begins in 1978 and takes us up to the present. Looking at people, places, and particular issues—like the subprime mortgage crisis—that Packer centers in Tampa, Florida, Packer focuses his writing talent and creates an epic story that helps clear up a great deal of mythology and misinformation about where we’re at during the second decade of the 21st century, and how America got here.
It’s not an overstatement to say that Packer’s book is the most important book I’ve read in the last five years. I’ll spend some time today explaining why.
Writing a book about the demise of America is not an easy task. The subject about America’s downward spiral is one that most Americans are content to remain ignorant about. Whether watching junk television and series like Breaking Bad, surfing websites that tell them what they want to hear, praying to imaginary deities, or believing aberrant ideologies being spewed by talk radio hucksters, or finally, immersing themselves in the bread and circuses that are professional sports and entertainment, it’s just easier for many not to face up to the facts. That doesn’t mean that things will magically get better, either.
I think that Packer’s skill in telling this story is in part due to the way he looks to others and their stories, in order to tell his. Whether the subject is a serial entrepreneur, like Dean Price, Youngstown, Ohio resident, Tammy Thomas, or disenchanted lobbyist, Jeff Connaughton; primary characters like these sit next to better known ones, like Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, or Robert Rubin; Packer builds an airtight case over his nearly 500 pages of narrative. By the end, you’ll know what’s wrong, and perhaps, you’ll even have some inkling about how to fix it, if we haven’t unwound past the point where we can alter our downward trajectory.
Like he did with his prior book, The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq, Packer looks at a subject that others have written about, like the war, and with the lone exception or two, shows himself to be far and away, the best chronicler of it. A longtime writer for The New Yorker, a publication that sadly, too few Americans read, Packer brings an admirably fair and lucid account of the neoconservatives that drove the push to war and ultimately the complexities that lead to our military involvement in the country now for more than a decade.
He brings a similar approach to the theme of “the unwinding.” In fact, in an NPR interview, he mentions that it was his coverage of the Iraq War—first the failure of “individual leadership,” and then, he realized that entire institutions were “failing”; the military, intelligence, the inability of the media to get it right; and then once the banks began imploding, Packer said it seemed like something “epochal was going on.”
Packer’s telling of this story is complex and intelligent; that’s not a bad thing. These qualities provide a narrative space that is highly pressurized. I liked that the chapters are fairly short, which allows the stories to jump out at you, as he knits together the overriding arc throughout. The perspective jumps from one protagonist to the next rapidly, with you the reader, being the one that has to begin connecting the dots and the characters.
Youngstown and other places like Gary, Indiana, in the 1980s, were the first places to begin experiencing an economic demise that would bring them to their knees. This would ripple outward across the rest of the United States, to the Piedmont, in North Carolina, where Dean Price lived.
This unwinding, or hollowing out, isn’t totally unique. Again, we’ve had the boom and bust cycles before. What’s different is how devastating it’s been for large urban environments like Youngstown, and some of the other communities.
Maybe Packer’s book wouldn’t have resonated quite as powerfully if I hadn’t spent time each March in the Tampa Bay area during 2004 and 2005, while Mark was in college, playing college baseball. It was those spring break baseball trips that Mary and I embarked on to watch the Wheaton Lyons baseball team criss-cross Florida that gave me a sense about what Packer was laying out when he wrote about Hillsborough County, the epicenter of the sub-prime mortgage mess. Those two springs visiting the Tampa/St. Pete area occurred just prior to the mortgage mess, which hit the area, beginning in 2007.
Tampa, Florida, is the biggest city in Hillsborough County. It’s one of those American cities located in the South (like Atlanta) that began being written about in every major magazine and book touting America’s never-ending progress and economic growth. One of those books, Megatrends, said that Tampa would be one of ten “new cities of great opportunity,” all of them, by-the-way, in the southern Sunbelt. The local Chamber decided that the slogan from the 1970s, “Tampa: Where the good life gets better every day,” wasn’t good enough; that went out the window and was replaced with the tagline, “America’s Next Great City.” This tagline was everywhere; on billboards, bumper stickers, and t-shirts. The 1984 Super Bowl was in Tampa. Tampa had sunshine, beaches, and growth was the unifying factor.
The Hillsborough County Commission was run by pro-growth conservatives, with pro-growth progressives in charge of the planning board. Hockey came to town in the 1990s, with the Tampa Bay Lightning. It wasn’t a bad thing that new governor, Jeb Bush, was a former developer.
The kind of growth that Tampa and Hillsborough County in particular experienced was the farthest thing from creating communities that were livable and sustainable. No, the growth of Tampa and most of the Sunbelt was geared to the automobile, air-conditioned ones at that.
Subdivisions sprung up all around Tampa Bay, a 45-60 minute drive out from the city center. “Big homes, all of them a comfortable distance from the higher prices, taxes and congestion of city living.” That was “the ethos of the Sunbelt,” writes Packer.
As long as more people came each successive year, there would always be houses to build, jobs in construction and real estate, as well as hospitality. Round and round the merry-go-round went, with the belief that it would never end. Fantasies all hit the wall at some point, even in a Disney tale. And it did in Hillsborough County.
Packer writes about a subdivision of typical Florida homes called Carriage Point. Carriage Point was built in a town called Gibsonton, which years before was populated with fish farms. This was the “old” Florida; the places on the eastern side of Tampa Bay where “carnival freaks used to spend winters—old rural Florida, with bait shops and shotgun shacks, and Spanish moss hanging from live oaks.
Packer writes about a builder from Miami, Lennar Homes that wanted to bury a tropical fish farm in Gibsonton under dirt and concrete and throw up a new subdivision of 382 houses.
The county commission ignored the warnings of their own planning board, giving the builder every possible tax break, even though there were no schools near the proposed subdivision, no shopping, except a Wal-Mart a few miles away, and no jobs to speak of within 45-minute drive.
Because this qualified as “growth,” Lennar got every possible tax break and a waiving of any impact fees. Carriage Pointe opened in 2005.
Packer describes it as a “a vast unincorporated boomburg” of a hundred thousand souls, and he describes the surrounding sprawl development.
When I read this section of the book, I knew exactly what he was talking about because we had driven around the area and looked at some of these places; not Carriage Pointe, specifically, but many other subdivisions just like it. I remember saying to Mary (having read James Kunstler’s The Long Emergency the summer before) that this was not going to end well if we ever ran out of oil—or if the banks began foreclosing—which is what happened in 2007.
Another one of Packer’s lesser-known characters is a Tampa attorney named Matt Weidner. Weidner began practicing law because he thought he could do some good; he ended up in a struggling one-man practice in St. Petersburg, trying to get by on divorce cases, when the foreclosures started rolling in, right around 2007.
When all the mortgage shit hit the fan, he figured somehow that the government and the banks would find a way to split the defaulted loans—maybe the Treasury would pay the banks half value, with the banks writing off the other half as bad debt. This would have allowed everyone to start over, or so thought Weidner. People would have been able to stay in their homes, and in Weidner’s eyes, it was an equitable solution.
Of course, we all know what happened. The banks got bailed out, but there was nothing for the homeowners.
Weidner began seeing clients who had spent, not days or weeks, but months pointlessly trying to connect with a human at the bank that held their piece of paper. No options were made available for a short sale, or a loan modification.
Weidner got indignant, and he began to take it to the next level. He started a blog. He became a crusader.
Packer’s book shows just how absolutely fucked beyond repair parts of our system are. Pick a branch of the tree, with the tree serving as a metaphor for the United States; one branch is the Congress, another, the Executive, another Wall Street; each one is rotten, diseased; with a tree, we cut it down and burn the tarnished section so it doesn’t affect the healthy parts.
I wrapped up reading Packer’s book a couple of weeks ago. It left me kind of feeling like I got run over by a Mack truck; not because I didn’t believe any of what he wrote, or the stories and the people he found and told their stories; but because it drives home the magnitude of the problems facing our country. Of course, I’m sitting here typing this out and posting it, knowing that the federal government has shut down because Republicans and Democrats can’t govern.
I mentioned Dean Price earlier in this post. His story and his character is the most fascinating one in the book, at least it was for me.
Dean Price is the protagonist that Packer uses to tell the story about cheap oil, and how our love affair with cheap goods and the subsequent big-box development that has allowed us to put off paying the piper, while countless former vibrant downtowns across America continue to be hollowed out and die a thousand deaths.
Because Price is an entrepreneur, he believed he could find a way forward with local solutions to much larger systemic issues. He first comes up with the idea for a truck stop on Route 220 near Stokesdale, North Carolina, just north of Greensboro. Later, Price expanded his opening two more truck stops near Martinsville and Bassett. His truck stops sold local produce grown nearby. His customers weren’t interested in buying healthy food, instead opting for the usual junk food of convenience store diets.
It was in Virginia where Price made his first made big news. In 2008, after Hurricane Katrina had sent the price of diesel fuel soaring, Price and a partner started a biodiesel refinery to make fuel from canola seeds. And they opened what they proudly called “Red Birch Energy: America’s First Biodiesel Truck Stop.” The “Birch” in the name came from Price’s maternal grandfather, Birch Neal of Rockingham County.
In January 2010, then-Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia and U.S. Representative Tom Perriello of Virginia’s Fifth District announced that Red Birch would receive $750,000 in Obama administration stimulus money to convert glycerin, a byproduct of the biodiesel operation, into electricity. Price thought he had hit the mother lode. Unfortunately, the months when Red Birch was starting up in 2008 was also when the bottom fell out of the housing market all over the country. It was especially bad in the Piedmont Region, where Price was located. Ten years of recession was forcing residents to choose between paying mortgages or putting gas in their cars—this was when gas prices hit an all-time high—just to get to work.
This caused a ripple effect and Dean, like so many entrepreneurs, was leveraged to the hilt. Like dominoes, his multiple businesses all began to topple. The one domino standing at the end of the line was his biodiesel truck stop in Martinsville.
Price’s story gets a thorough telling by Packer. I’ll leave it up to readers to dive into the details.
Price speaks to so much of what I see as the hope, if there is any hope at all, for the future. His belief in his ideas, his dogged determination to counter the big-box mindset with local solutions, sets him up to be the hero of the narrative, or perhaps a sort of anti-hero, if being a hero means voting Republican and conservative, parroting all the same tired black/white, binary ways of seeing life in America.
Like Price, I had at one time voted Republican, thinking conservative ideals were the hope for America; I’ve also reached a political nadir where I see the emptiness of political solutions, along with the emptiness of much of what most people hold out when talking about the future. That being said, there is a role for government and I don’t buy all the anti-government rhetoric because this has been a contributing factor to our current state we find ourselves during this unwinding.
Packer’s book is an epic treatment of life in America in the year 2013. The narrative is clear, crafted by a writer with a strong sense of pacing, with a nod to American writers like John Dos Passos. Less a dissection of America’s fall from grace and more an attempt to feel the emotional and personal truths that the latest economic free fall has painted on history’s palette.
Packer actually writes more like a novelist than a journalist, as he shows that there isn’t one way, or ideology for moving forward during these conflicted times. His story is one worth investing time trying to understand.