It’s hard to say just when it began, the unravelling of the American Dream. Did it start in the ’70s, with the slow dismantling of industrial jobs in the Midwest? Can it be traced to the era of Reaganomics, that time period in the ’80s of reduced government spending on social programs, slashed income taxes (for the rich, anyway) and increased deregulation of the financial industry? Maybe the ’90s rise of Silicon Valley played a role or the Walmart-ification of the U.S.? Or was it the new millennium fervor for flipping homes?
If you read George Packer’s “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America” (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $16), you’ll get a sense that all these factors and more contributed to the unravelling. The moment when some of our county’s core tenets — that anyone can make it if she works hard enough, that each future generation will fare better than the one that preceded it — began to crumble isn’t easy to pinpoint. Yet crumble they did. And since then, our country has been altered, and continues to be in ways that are stark and profound.
Assembling all this into one narrative, making a fabric from threads that stretch back decades, seems an impossible task. Yet Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, does it with grace. Part of this comes from the way he explains the unwinding: Instead of focusing on statistics about the loss of factory jobs, he uses the power of human stories. He relates the experience of a black woman named Tammy Thomas who watched her Ohio hometown collapse after steel mills closed. He introduces us to Usha Patel, an Indian immigrant fighting to keep her motel in the face of the foreclosure crisis. Interspersed with tales of these and other ordinary, working-class people are stories of today’s icons of power and wealth: Oprah Winfrey, hip-hop mogul Jay-Z, high-end restaurateur Alice Waters and good ol’ Midwestern boy Sam Walton. Their stories, interwoven, depict how our country is coming part. For his effort, Packer won last year’s National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Packer came to town in late September to give an evening talk at Town Hall, but that morning, while he battled a cold, we sat in his hotel lobby and spoke of the country outside the window: A land of foreclosures, shuttered steel mills, myopic techies, biodiesel dreamers, disgruntled public servants, diminished institutions and a woman so wealthy she owns the 15th letter of the alphabet.
The unwinding: Where does that term come from?
It was used by one of the people in the book who was describing his vision that Big Oil was going to decline, and instead, we would have all these alternative energy sources like biodiesel, which was his thing. There would be a return to something more localized and decentralized, where everyone made their own fuel and their own food. That was his picture of rural North Carolina. And he called it an unwinding. So that phrase, I’d never really heard anyone use it before. It stuck in my head. I thought it would be a good title because it doesn’t tell you exactly what to think.
In this book, things are unwinding over several decades. But was there a moment when you realized there were connections between so many disparate events?
There was no moment. But once I began to find out who I was writing about — Dean Price in North Carolina, Tammy Thomas in Youngstown, Ohio, this guy Jeff Connaughton in Washington — something recurring started to come up: [The] institutional glue was dissolving. The things that held together important institutions — blue-collar work or newspapers or small-town life — everywhere I went, I just saw things coming undone. In many cases, they seemed to go back to the same period of time — the ’70s — that at the time, might not have been so obvious. But now we can see them, like the end of the industrial era. The steel industry began to die in the ’70s. A lot of the rust belt started to lose its jobs, and at the same time, the information age started taking off. So you can sort of pinpoint [that] one kind of society was changing. To say this is when it happened, we always have to find some time frame to start and end with. So I thought I would start in ’78.
A while ago in The New Yorker, you wrote a piece about people in Silicon Valley becoming more involved in political causes, sort of supporting issues that were important to people outside of Silicon Valley.
There was a little movement in that direction. [Co-founder of Facebook] Mark Zuckerberg founded a nonprofit set up to support immigration reform, so that was the main example. But what I really found was a phenomenal level of isolation and obliviousness to how most of America was doing. I mean, a question I asked all these tech people out there was: Why has the period of growing inequality over the last 30 years coincided with the tech revolution? Why hasn’t the tech revolution made life more equal rather than less so? I got different answers, but the main impression I got was that no one had thought about this because they — Silicon Valley — has become this splendid kingdom where miracles happen, and it just doesn’t have a connection to the rest of the country. It also is changing life in the Bay Area phenomenally. I think probably the same thing is happening here [in Seattle]: Housing prices are out of control, families that have lived there for generations can no longer afford it. San Francisco no longer has a middle or a working class. Old working-class neighborhoods are now tech neighborhoods, so people are moving south and east, and it’s changed the character of the city profoundly. Some people were wringing their hands about it, but most people were unaware. The Google bus was the symbol of this, where you get in your bus, you have Wi-Fi, you don’t have to look at anything, the bus takes you straight from your apartment in San Francisco to the Google campus in Mountain View and back. You can hardly blame them for wanting the convenience, but it kind of shows how cut off they are from the community they’re in.
It seems beguiling that people wouldn’t be able to see it. I mean, there was Occupy, talking about the 99 percent versus the 1 percent, so it seems like income inequality is something we know about.
Oh, yeah. It’s discussed all the time. So the question is: Why doesn’t anything change? It’s a big, big subject, and politicians have sort of caught on to it. Obama talked about it at different times, Elizabeth Warren talks about it. It’s just very hard to address — and it also is not a subject that the people who fund
politicians really want to hear about. So it may be something to talk about, but not too boldly. I don’t know. There’s a lot to say about why nothing changes on that front, but the fact is nothing changes. In fact, it got worse with the financial crisis and the recession.
One of the people you profile in this book is Tammy Thomas, and she’s from Youngstown, Ohio. Could you talk about Youngstown and the changes there?
Here, 1978 really is a crucial year. That was the year the first big steel mill, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, closed down, and it happened like that [he snaps fingers]. The board of directors — it had out-of-town ownership — met at the Pittsburgh Airport. They were flying in from Chicago and from Tampa and San Francisco. And they voted to close [the steel mill]: It was too big a money loser, and it would have taken too big an investment to turn it around. So it was kind of a canary in the coal mine. In the next five years, every major steel plant in Youngstown closed. It was like a house of cards; it just all collapsed. Fifty thousand jobs in a very small area disappeared.
Tammy Thomas was a teenager at that point, so she basically came of age in a city that had lost its whole foundation. And, you know, the odds were already against her: Her mother was a heroin addict; she was raised by her great-grandmother; she didn’t know her father very well when she was a girl, and jobs were very few and far between. The ’80s and ’90s were a disaster for Youngstown: epidemics of arson, gangs. So Tammy had three children, and the odds of being able to raise those kids in Youngstown and keep them in tact, body and soul, were so slim — and she did it. She got a job on an assembly line in one of the last factories still open, wiring harnesses for GM engines. And she did that for 20 years. Her kids all graduated from high school, and they all left Youngstown and didn’t come back. She would say to me over and over, “I just did what I was supposed to do.” Which seems so simple, but who does that? So she’s remarkable. Not just a survivor but I’d say a great success.
Then the inevitable happened, and Delphi Auto Parts, her employer, decided to get out of its American businesses. At 40, 41, Tammy suddenly had nothing, her pension was cut in half. And instead of folding the tent, she became a community organizer, and that is what she was doing when I met her.
There’s also someone else that had determination and that’s Usha Patel.
Yeah. A big part of the book takes place in Tampa, Fla., because Tampa is ground zero of the housing boom and housing bust, this economy of housing as a disposable commodity. People own five or six of them, constantly flipping them, making a living investing in property, which, like most gambling, ends up going badly.
Usha Patel was an immigrant from India who scraped together savings from working two or three jobs around Tampa to buy her piece of the American Dream, which was a Comfort Inn, so she became a motel owner. That was going great, and she had a big loan, one from the Small Business Administration, one from a bank. That loan, as with all of these loans, started changing hands and getting sliced up and sold off to different investors, until no one really knows who the owner of the note is. When the housing bust came, her motel was a victim of it: She started having 80 percent vacancy, and suddenly in comes a whole new bank, HSBC, demanding the motel back. She had no idea that HSBC had the note.
She fought them and unlike all the other people in the book, Usha Patel had an extended family from India, across three continents, and they supported her while she fought this case to a draw. So essentially, she survived, kept the motel but lost all her money to the lawyers and is still running it, as far as I know — but always struggling to stay above water. It was interesting to me that, as the one immigrant, she was the one who had people to support her. All the native-born American characters, they were kind of doing it on their own, which I think is true of a lot of people in the country today.
Interspersed with people like Usha Patel and Tammy Thomas are short profiles of people like Oprah Winfrey and Jay-Z. Why did you decide to do that?
Because I felt that to understand American life in this generation, which was my absurdly ambitious project, you had to see life at the top, too, because we live in a celebrity culture. Celebrities are our household gods. They shape the language, the way we think, and they offer this mirage of “I can make it, so can you.” That’s certainly Oprah’s sort of not-so-subtle message.
I wanted to choose celebrities from different walks of life, so from politics, I chose Newt Gingrich because I think, maybe more than anyone else, he’s poisoned the atmosphere. He’s created the toxic politics that we live with. From entertainment, Oprah Winfrey: the rags-to-riches story, which is a powerful American story, but also the faith that she offers to other people, that if your mind is in tune with the hidden powers of the universe, you might end up with nine houses as well. From business, Sam Walton, because I think Walmart is the representative corporation of this era of inequality, cheap goods, low wages.
Oprah’s so fascinating: She’s this black woman; she’s a billionaire.
I think she’s the richest woman on earth. She’s huge. The first sentence of that chapter is “She was so big that she owned the letter O.” [laughs] You know, she wrote an autobiography that she then suppressed before it was published, which is too bad, because I depended a lot on what they’ve written about themselves for these chapters. I wouldn’t have been able to get interviews with most of them, and it would have not borne much fruit. But I use their own language, to kind of get inside the sentences they use. So Oprah’s is that cascading excitement of things are getting better and better. Sam Walton, it’s kind of a fake, folksy, home-spun language.
We associate or identify with and kind of almost put our hopes into the hands of celebrities and millionaires and billionaires, at times when the normal, ordinary path to success doesn’t seem to work. So to put on a McDonald’s uniform? Jay-Z has a line in his autobiography about how when he was young, he thought, How could you do that? I’m gonna do something else that’s gonna work a lot faster and a lot better. And in a way, the message is: It’s better to cut corners, cut the line, break the law, do it your own way and get to the top than to follow the rules, which is for suckers, ‘cause the game seems rigged. If the game seems rigged, why not deal crack? I mean, why not do what Jay-Z did? [Editor’s note: As a teen, Jay-Z sold crack on Brooklyn streets while memorizing his own rap lyrics.] So there’s kind of a moral temptation when you see people becoming so successful and flaunting it and almost gloating over it. I think Jay-Z, unlike Oprah, he isn’t really saying you can do it, too. Jay-Z’s message, to me, from his music, is more: I’ll do it so you don’t have to. It’s a little more cruel.
Jay-Z comes from the projects, but Robert Rubin, who’s a financier and was Clinton’s treasury secretary, is another of the well-known figures in the book. He thinks of himself as a good man and cares about social issues and justice and all that, but really, he’s part of Wall Street. And during those years, Wall Street became a form of organized crime. It wasn’t helping the country: It was helping itself. He became part of that and didn’t really want to see it because he had a higher idea of himself.
So there’s different ways in which these successful characters project the message to the 99 percent.
So here we have these decades of unraveling. How do you get it back on the spool?
I don’t think there’s a set of instructions. I think it just takes a tremendous amount of hard work, organizing, repeating things over and over again. I mean, it took a long time for the right wing to convince large parts of the country that they didn’t need the government, that government was negative and that if you just turn everyone loose, then we would all do well. I think reversing that and reminding people that we actually do need institutions that work, starting with government, that takes a long time as well.
Seattle’s a good example. Campaign finance reform is a big issue here in Washington, and so is the minimum wage. To me, right there, those two issues are at the heart of a lot of what we’re talking about. And if those two issues can take hold in other communities around the country and begin to be enacted… It’ll never go back to the way it was when I was a kid or when you were a kid. And there were a lot of things wrong with the country when we were both kids, as you well know. Some things are better.
I’d say we’re more free. We’re more tolerant but we’re less fair. I don’t want to see us become less tolerant, but I want us to become more fair. Issues like the ones I just named are good ways into that.
Do you think that becoming more fair is a ground-up movement?
I do. I mean, nothing happens in Washington anymore. It’s broken, it’s paralyzed. I used to think it would come from good people elected to high office. I don’t want to give up on that ‘cause I don’t want to give up on democracy, but I’m pretty realistic about the chances of reforms coming from there. I also don’t think Silicon Valley is a place to look to. A lot of people think that’s where exciting ideas for a new economy are going to come from. I think Silicon Valley has shown its color, and it’s essentially —
Green [as in money].
So I think people like the characters in my book are where I find hope. And I don’t want to exaggerate it, ‘cause they’re all up against huge odds and none of them are thriving. But the fact that they haven’t given up is inspiring.
We know there are many more of them so, yes, I think it will come from obscure people in out-of-the-way places, and it will be very slow and long. But that’s what it takes. It takes a stick-with-it-ness, which is something Americans have.