Packer, a Gunn High graduate and veteran writer for The New Yorker, has a sharp eye for crumbling institutions. In "The Assassin's Gate," his nuanced 2005 collection of dispatches from Iraq, he illustrates America's misadventure in Mesopotamia by chronicling the stories of soldiers, bureaucrats and regular Iraqis. Other Packer stories took us to Sierra Leone, Egypt and the Ivory Coast.
In his new book, Packer demonstrates that you don't need a passport to chronicle misery, poverty, destruction and resilience. The book's title refers to the whittling away of long-standing American institutions, a phenomenon that in Packer's account begins at around 1980, when union jobs began to fade away. If you were born after 1960, he writes, "you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape."
"When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone," Packer writes in the prologue. "The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money."
The phenomenon isn't all bad. The unwinding shakes things up but it also brings freedom, "more than the world has ever granted, and to more kinds of people than ever before." It also raises the stakes. Winners "win bigger than ever, floating away like bloated dirigibles, and losers have a long way to fall before they hit bottom, and sometimes they never do."
No one illustrates the dark side of "unwinding" better than Tammy Thomas, a factory worker from Youngstown. In the early 1980s, as one steel mill after another shuts its doors, her hometown becomes one of the first to go through now familiar phases of post-industrial decay: white flight, gang takeover, drugs, violence and poverty.
Nothing comes easy for Thomas. As a child, she is embarrassed to invite friends to her Grandma's house, where she is staying, because thieves have stolen the front door. At 15, she has her first baby (two more quickly follow). After high school, she gets her first job as a factory worker at Packard, making electrical components for General Electric on an assembly line. The wages are meager but they suffice, even if the work "beat you down." Her friends and relatives get gunned down. Her mother is a crack addict. She moves to safer neighborhoods just before they cease to be safer neighborhoods. We follow Thomas as she develops asthma from dipping copper wires into melted lead and ends up with "Packard hands" (what we now call carpal tunnel syndrome) that were so painful they woke her up at night years after she stopped working.
After her company gets sold and rebranded in 2009, Thomas accepts a buyout, turns to political activism and has her "I'm not going to take this anymore" moment. Writes Packer:
"She thought about being forced to retire from Packard, and the CEO, and upper-level staff getting their bonuses while leaving all these people without jobs, decimating a community, and some of the banks getting bailed out with her tax dollars, and she still couldn't get a loan from them while she had to pay her mortgage every month. 'That makes me want to say, 'What the F? It's the injustice of it.'"
Thomas is one of many characters in Packer's book to channel populist rage against the American machine, a sentiment that hits its highest note in Packer's brilliantly reported chapter on Occupy Wall Street, which was adapted from his New Yorker story and which is one of the book's highlights.
But things get dicier when we get to some of other main characters in Packer's book. Jeff Connaughton's story, if anything, runs counter to the book's central message.
As a youngster, this political idealist with the "lifelong inferiority complex that's bred into boys of Alabama" becomes infatuated by a charismatic politician named Joseph Biden. He spends a few years in investment banking before joining Biden's campaign, where he takes on the thankless role of a fundraiser. He becomes, in D.C. parlance, a "Biden guy" and learns all about D.C.'s incestuous revolving-door culture, where who you know is the key to power, respect and recognition. Years later, Connaughton joins the lobbying giant Quinn Gillespie and officially becomes a card-carrying member of "the class of Washingtonians lobbyists, lawyers, advisers, consultants, pundits, consiglieres, fixers who shuttled between the shower of corporate cash ever falling on the capital and a series of increasingly prominent positions in Democratic Party politics."
Packer's writing is never dull, even if the substance sometimes feels familiar. You don't need to watch "House of Cards" or read Mark Leibovich's much-hyped Beltway expose, "This Town," to know about D.C.'s dirty mix of money and power. This isn't news. Packer starts his book in 1978, but the time frame for this "unwinding" feels almost arbitrary. His point about "organized money" filling the void doubtlessly would've been just as valid half a century ago, if not earlier. "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," after all came out in 1939, nearly two decades after the Teapot Dome scandal rocked the Harding administration. In fact, if there is one thing apparent to anyone who watches CNN or reads the paper it's just how resilient the nation's political structures are, for better or worse.
For this reason, the entire idea that America is undergoing an "unwinding" feels less like a real argument and more like a device meant to staple the disparate stories together. Packer's assertion that Americans are now "alone on a landscape without solid structures" is rarely supported by the book's own evidence. When her union life collapses, Tammy Thomas becomes a community organizer, effectively exchanging one structure for another. Dean Price, a biofuel pioneer who gets intoxicated by Napoleon Hill's "Think and Grow Rich" dictums, is a lone wolf, but mostly by choice. Even when Price hits rock bottom when his business partners reject him, the legislature he is banking on fizzles and his debts mount there remains the hope that through the bankruptcy process (another stable American institution) he will find a fresh start. As for Connaughton, if he is is "alone," then so is everyone else in his "class of Washingtonians."
Packer is at the top of his game when writing about the exuberance of Bay Area's start-up culture. He revisits Silicon Valley and gives us an expanded version of Packer's New Yorker profile of Peter Thiel, the quirky, libertarian "disruptor" for whom the unwinding is a chance to shine. Writes Packer,
"He believed in striking out into the void alone, inventing oneself out of ambitious, talent, and abstractions so the unwinding allowed him to thrive. But he also stood at the center of a tight-knit group of friends, almost all men, most of them young, like-minded Silicon Valley successes who had gotten rich around the same time."
So what does this libertarian champion of individuality and nonconformity do once he makes his billions off Facebook, PayPal and Palantir? Naturally, like every other champion of individuality and nonconformity, he begins to "live the life of a Silicon Valley billionaire." He hires "two blond, black-clad female assistants, a white-coated butler, and a cook, who prepared a daily health drink of celery, beets, kale and ginger." He buys a Ferrari, flies in private jets and throws parties in his lavish mansion. Needless to say, Thiel came to work in a T-Shirt the official uniform of champions of individuality and nonconformity. His venture firm, Clarium, develops a reputation "of a Thiel cult, staffed by young libertarian brains who were in awe of their boss, emulating his work habits, chess playing, and aversion to sports."
A "cult" of "libertarians" may sound like the ultimate contradiction to a reader who hasn't encountered an Ayn Rand fan lately. In Thiel's case, it's just one of many. Take, for example, the Thiel Fellowship, which pays bright students $100,000 to forgo college for two years in favor of pursuing their own ideas. According to the book, Peter Thiel started the fund because he "disliked the whole idea of using college to find an intellectual focus."
"Majoring in the humanities struck him as particularly unwise, since it so often led to the default choice of law school. The academic sciences were nearly as dubious timid and narrow, driven by turf battles rather than the quest for breakthroughs. Above all, a college education taught nothing about entrepreneurship," Packer writes.
This idea is a dubious one, even if we set aside the fact that Thiel himself had spent seven years at Stanford and had graduated from Stanford Law School. Thiel's assertion that college education teaches nothing about entrepreneurship may come as a surprise to the Larry Pages and Sergei Brins of the world, whose entrepreneurship skills remained intact even despite(!) Stanford. Nor is it clear that a humanities major is as worthless as Thiel claims. A student who spends her days reading Aristotle and Kant may never build the perfect drone, but she might be better equipped than Thiel when it comes to knowing when to use it. And while a humanities major may not lead a student to the Promised Land of white-coated butlers and kale-and-ginger shakes, it just might protect her from the type of demagoguery espoused by Thiel and his past and present heroes, Ayn Rand and Ron Paul.
It would have been nice to see someone like Packer engage perhaps even challenge Thiel's ideas rather than simply lay them out. But that is not the function of "Unwinding." This book is about narratives, not arguments. It's about showing us scenes from today's America and letting us jump to our own conclusions. Despite a populist undertone, Packer shies away from directly articulating any Thomas Friedman-like theory or seriously engaging the argument he makes in his prologue and title. Rather, Packer is an observer and a reporter and Thiel is just another colorful fragment in his vivid kaleidoscope of America.