American journalist, novelist, and playwright George Packer wrote one of the most insightful works about America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq in his 2005 book The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq. So when I heard that Packer had a new work out on the demise of the American social contract, I quickly picked it up and added it to my summer reading pile.
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America is a very important work by a gifted observer and interpreter of American life. It is not light summer reading. Packer’s work can be hard to read – not because it is dense (it is anything but). The Unwinding is difficult because almost any reader of this work is likely to find someone captured on its pages who represents his or her way of thinking and his or her life, and realizes the sad place we all find ourselves in today.
Packer’s work follows about ten individuals – most not well-known – over the course of the last 30 years, during the time when,
…the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way. Like any great change, the unwinding began at countless times, in countless ways – and at some moment the country, always the same country, crossed a line of history and became irretrievably different.
Those profiled include a factory worker in the rust belt, a Washington insider, a journalist in Tampa, and a Silicon Valley billionaire. They come from all sides of the political spectrum, and it is interesting to see how their perspectives change chapter by chapter as time passes on and the institutions around them crumble. Interspersed with these profiles are short vignettes of some 20 famous people from the past three decades, ranging from Jay-Z to Colin Powell, Alice Waters to Andrew Breitbart, Newt Gingrich to Elizabeth Warren.
The bottom line of Packer’s compelling work: we’ve left the social compact – the caring for others that once defined America and helped build the world’s most productive middle class – in order to chase individual greed and power. The monied interests and their helpers in government have forgotten about “We the People” and instead have focused on “I, Me, Mine.” And no where is his aim more devastating – and to my mind more accurate – than in his portrait of Mr. Sam Walton.
Sam Walton grew up a child of the Great Depression and – like many of his generation – developed a penny-pinching habit that he took to extremes. In five devastating pages that are worth the price of the book, Parker takes us through Walton’s career from the Walton 5&10 in Bentonville to the point – after his death – where six of the surviving Waltons would have as much money as the bottom 30 percent of Americans.
Think about that. Six people have more money than 94 million Americans combined.
Parker’s final paragraph in the Walton profile says it all:
And it was only after his death, after Wal-Mart’s downhome founder was no longer its public face, that the country began to understand what his company had done. Over the years, America had become more like Wal-Mart. It had gotten cheap. Prices were lower, and wages were lower. There were fewer union factory jobs, and more part-time jobs as store greeters. The small towns where Mr. Sam had seen his opportunity were getting poorer, which meant that consumers there depended more and more on everyday low prices, and made every last purchase at Wal-Mart, and maybe had to work there, too. The hollowing out of the heartland was good for the company’s bottom line. And in parts of the country that were getting richer, on the coasts and in some of the big cities, many consumers regarded Wal-Mart and its vast aisles full of crappy, if not dangerous, Chinese-made goods with horror, and instead purchased their shoes and meat in expensive boutiques as if overpaying might inoculate them against the spread of cheapness, while stores like Macy’s, the bastions of a former middle-class economy, faded out, and America began to look once more like the country Mr. Sam had grown up in.
As I read this well-conceived and well-written literary triumph, I couldn’t help but wonder about my role in the dissolution of the social compact in this country. Isn’t that what works of great moral force should do? This difficult book needs to be read by everyone – and especially those who have found a way to thrive as our nation frays at the seams.
More to come…