By Chet Yarbrough
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America
By George Packer
Narrated by Robert Fass
George Parker drives a stake into America’s heart in “The Unwinding”. One listening to “The Unwinding” comes away in anger, fear, and frustration—whether a Republican, Democrat, Tea Partyer, or Libertarian.
Whether an accolade of private enterprise or government, Packer offers stories of Americans that show American’ belief makes no difference because America is no longer a land of opportunity but a land of greed; not of the free but of the shackled—a risk noted by Thomas Hobbes in the “Leviathan”.
The shackles come from society’s failure to protect individuals from the tyranny of special interests. One side argues that it is because of an ineffective government and the other side argues it is because of too much government.
Stories of people with great wealth, like Sam Walton, or poverty, like Tammy Thomas, or escape from poverty, like Jay-Z and Oprah Winfrey, or invention, like Peter Thiel, Max Levchin, and Elon Musk (founders of PayPal), or political success, like Colin Powell and Barack Obama, or entrepreneurial ambition, like Dean Price, or political ambition like Jeff Connaguhton–all seem failures, either in morals or self-fulfillment.
Sam Walton becomes one of the wealthiest people in the world by creating a marketing behemoth that offers low consumer prices but drives small business entrepreneurs out of business. Walton offers great prices by buying in bulk and selling in volume with lower margins, partly produced by low wage workers. On the one hand it is a bargain for the consumer; on the other hand it destroys competition and reduces family incomes.
Tammy Thomas, born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, worked in one industry for the majority of her life. She lost her job when the company she worked for was purchased by a conglomerate that dismantled the business, out-sourced product development, and reduced employment by offering buyouts to higher paid long-term employees–all to provide profits to conglomerate’ investors.
Jay-Z and Oprah Winfrey overcame poverty and the degradation of living in squalid slums by capitalizing on their unique abilities and life stories, stories that reflect on the huge disparity between rich and poor. Born into poverty; they unquestionably achieved success for themselves, but left behind a population with poorer and poorer prospects of escape.
Peter Thiel and Max Levchin capitalize on the tech boom. Peter Thiel becomes a billionaire through entrepreneurial skill. However, the consequence of market collapse from financial derivatives affects even Thiel’s wealth; i.e. still in the privileged 1% but a consequence that re-focuses his attention on the direction of American government and free enterprise.
To a large extent, the same thing happens to Jeff Connaughton. Connaughton began as a political operative, left government to become a millionaire lobbyist, and returned to government when the derivative crises reduced his net worth.
Connaughton’s reaction to the financial crisis differs from Theil’s, in part because of the monumental wealth difference, but also because of their different journeys to wealth. They equally revile the influence of money in government but Connaughton believes government regulation can be effective while Theil, a Libertarian, believes government regulation is the bane rather than boon of democratic society.
Dean Price, a young Republican turned Libertarian (though he voted for Obama) believes America is the land of opportunity. He struggles, works hard, achieves success, fails, starts over, seems on the road to recovery, and fails again. Price buys into the American Dream by reading Napoleon Hill’s book “Think and Grow Rich”. He believes–if he can dream it, it can happen.
Price experiences rising gasoline prices and buys into the bio fuel movement of the 21st century. He starts a company called Red Birch Energy after selling a small fast food chain that he began from nothing. As a part of his original start-up, Price built a fuel discount truck stop on his family farm with one of his restaurants as an anchor. He takes on partners for engineering and additional financing for bio fuel equipment and farmed canola grain for the production of bio fuel. With rising oil prices, turmoil in the Middle East, and Obama’s election, it appears Price is on the road to great success.
However, life choices get into Price’s way. He takes advantage of his partners by not fully explaining his conflicts of interest in using bio fuels in his own truck stop to stave off collapse of his personal business. His financial problems mount to the point of losing his ownership interest in Red Birch Energy. Price files for bankruptcy and is faced with starting over.
Colin Powell became the poster child of black Republicans, only to have his reputation destroyed by endorsement of false reports about WMD that compelled the United States to invade Iraq. In a similar vein, Barack Obama becomes President with a mandate for change while choosing to fill his administration with technocrats from the financial sector that were participants in the collapse of the world financial economy.
Obama’s reputation for change appears more of a lie than a truth. Government decisions to let bank’ decision-makers escape prosecution galls every American damaged by the financial crises of 2007. The unwinding of the financial crises is appalling.
Price brings these stories together in the “tea party and “occupy wall street” movements. The growing distrust of government and burgeoning anti-government beliefs raise the hackles and stoke the fires of two political extremes in America. On the one hand, Americans want less government and, on the other, Americans want more effective government. The extremes are Libertarian on one side and Marxist on the other.
“Tea party” followers want less government while “occupy wall street” factions what more effective and protective government. Libertarians like Theil want to minimize government intervention in the private sector, including government control of education. “Occupy wall street” followers want government intervention, subsidization of education, and universal health coverage to equalize opportunity for lower and middle class Americans.
The unwinding of the financial crises reflected in the dot-com bubble of 2000-2001 and the 2007-08 subprime mortgage crises unfolds in the many stories told by Packer in this disturbing narrative. America has become a nation of extremes with each extreme using whatever means necessary to deny success of any action. The consequence is a “do-nothing” congress and an ineffectual President. One is left with fear, anger, and frustration after completing Packer’s diatribe. The only consolation is in history.
America has been in crises before–in 1776, 1789, 1865, 1929, 1941, 1951, 1967-68, 2001. We survived before; we will survive again.