A Sad Look At The New Normal

One of my 11 regular readers – call him Les, because … well, because his name is Les – complains mightily whenever I write about a book. “Another book review,” he writes, the derision practically dripping off his e-mail.

Prepare yourself, Les, for yet another book review. I apologize to those who share Les’s distaste for my bibliophilia.

George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) deals with the collapse of American “structures … the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of (Ohio’s) Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools.

“And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition – ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on the New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere.” With the unwinding, according to Packer, “leaders abandoned their posts” and “the void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.”

Few heroes inhabit Packer’s interpretation of America’s last half century. Rogues and villains, victims and a few disillusioned survivors are the best he has to offer.

Rogues like a Georgia congressman named Newt Gingrich, who introduced his Republican colleagues to verbal terrorism as the weapon that would lead them to a majority in the United States House of Representatives. Or disillusioned survivors like Jeff Connaughton, a professional Washington staffer and “friend of Joe Biden,” who discovers that outsized presidential egos know no friends, only nameless servants.

The closest anyone comes to heroic in Packer’s telling is Tammy Thomas, a factory worker in Youngstown, Ohio. Twenty-five miles of steel mills strung along Ohio’s Mahoning River operated three shifts a day for a half-century. They drew Eastern European immigrants to their blast furnaces, along with African-Americans from the South and country boys from Midwestern farms. Thomas, whose grandmother had worked as a domestic help, was among them.

In 1977, ownership of Youngstown’s steel mills passed to a New Orleans ship-building company. The absentee owners failed to modernize Youngstown Sheet and Tube, profits declined, plants closed and Thomas lost her union job. She found another that paid less in a parts factory.

She was among the lucky few. Youngstown faltered, saw its population decline and its tax base disappear. But Thomas persevered.

She raised three children and held onto her home. She even witnessed an African-American ascend to the White House, although she was too busy surviving to take much notice.

Outsized figures also inhabit The Unwinding, almost all of whom, in Packer’s telling, come with a down side. Arkansas’ Sam Walton transformed retail business in the United States, bringing lower prices to cities large and small and making Mr. Sam and his descendants among the country’s wealthiest. But those goliath stores and lower prices also played their part in emptying Main Streets of small businesses from coast to coast.

Then there are The Unwinding‘s cautionary tales. Packer’s chapters on Tampa, Fla., for example, should make any Sun Belt resident wince. Once touted in the early 1980s as “America’s Next Great City,” Tampa’s last quarter century has been one of suburban sprawl, mortgage-lending run amok and a housing bubble fated to burst.

Packer includes much more in the The Unwinding: Wall Street, Silicon Valley, a green entrepreneur named Dean Price – the list grows long. The book runs 430 pages, many of them depressing. But neither Packer’s storytelling nor his prose ever fail.