Great Perturbations: On George Packer

Great Perturbations: On George Packer

The Unwinding is a fine-grained account of economic collapse that runs aground on causeless abstractions.


In his 2000 memoir, Blood of the Liberals, George Packer mentions a post-collegiate encounter with one of his Yale classmates, a young right-wing pundit who had hired Packer—then dividing his time in Boston between carpentry jobs at construction sites and volunteer stints at a downtown homeless shelter—to build him a bookshelf. This was the mid-1980s, and the conservative was a young man in a hurry, tacking confidently into the post-liberal zeitgeist. He was “an apologist for radical laissez-faire economics and a kind of high-Tory moralism on social issues,” Packer writes, “with an attitude toward the poor of contempt mixed with noblesse oblige: get rid of the welfare state and they would have to clean up their lives, emulating the behavior of their industrious and charitable betters.”

As if to drive the point home, the pundit initially paid Packer for the bookshelf with a bounced check, and tersely commanded the carpenter to gather up some materials left behind at the worksite or they’d be tossed. For Packer, the lesson of the episode couldn’t be plainer: “We were no longer equals as we’d been in college and he now felt obliged on principle to treat me in a different way, which is to say, badly.” Some years later, the ungracious right-winger made a desultory swipe in one of his newspaper columns at a piece that Packer had published in Harper’s Magazine, noting that time had essentially passed him by; Packer, the scribe observed, had been ”a keenly intelligent, earnest boy” destined for “great things,” but who instead had “vanished off the face of the Earth after graduation.”

This year, that same pundit—chastened by a tour of duty as a speechwriter in the George W. Bush White House and an infamous cashiering at the hands of the American Enterprise Institute for urging Republicans to compromise on the 2010 healthcare overhaul—has quite graciously offered a blurb on the back cover of The Unwinding, a chronicle that Packer, now a staff writer for The New Yorker, has published to great acclaim. “The hearts and lives broken in this second great depression have now found their eloquent voice and fierce champion in George Packer,” enthuses David Frum. “The Unwinding is an American tragedy and a literary triumph.” George Packer and David Frum are equals once more.

Admittedly, this set piece in literary reputation-making is a small thing, particularly when set beside the grand, sweeping narratives of the American Republic’s steady erosion under the pressures of a newly footloose global capitalism that Packer patiently erects in both Blood of the Liberals and The Unwinding. Still, it’s worth lingering on this curious moment of reputational recalibration, because it says a great deal about Packer’s worthy intellectual ambitions (his un-disappearing, if you will) and the straitened conventions of political narrative in our “second great depression.” 

On the one hand, the post-meltdown convergence of Frum’s and Packer’s views could be viewed as a heartening occurrence—a long-overdue recognition on the left and the right that real Americans have been plunged into a prolonged state of malign neglect, earning little more than rhetorical condescension and lip service from the leading institutions and policy-makers that choreographed the great socioeconomic unwinding of the past four decades. Perhaps the cocky, check-bouncing, right-wing churl of the Reagan era—best known for helping to craft the invasion-friendly phrase “axis of evil” during the post-9/11 heyday of the Bush doctrine—has permitted shades of gray, and nuances of economic self-doubt, to enter into his Manichaean view of the world. And perhaps Packer, who had famously sidled up to the liberal-hawk consensus during the same grim prelude to the American imperial errand—a posture he painfully clawed back in his book on the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, The Assassins’ Gate (2005)—could now speak with renewed authority on the struggles of ordinary Americans to overcome the brute forces of remote privilege and all-too-immediate economic privation. 

More glumly—and, as it turns out, more plausibly—one might suppose that the new millennial accord between these old Yale-bred antagonists suggests that the explanations of our economic woes have become depoliticized, unmoored from any clear sense of who exactly benefits from the ransacking of the once-robust communities of working- and middle-class America. Like many other efforts to chart a path to civic revival amid conditions of economic ruin, The Unwinding is fueled by an ardent hope that our political institutions can be made more responsive to our most pressing material needs, but it pivots upon a fundamentally fatalistic account of institutional drift and human agency in our society—one that makes it extremely difficult to imagine just how this long-hoped-for change might come to pass.

Instead, we’re left to ponder, in The Unwinding, a chronicle of the fraying of our productive lives (albeit an immensely readable and compelling one) that shuns cogent ideological or political explanations of the causes of our present crisis in favor of a thick narrative description of its symptoms. Nearly every character in Packer’s panorama of economic free fall—major and minor, famous and obscure—is a well-meaning and almost always tragic figure, caught up in impersonal economic trials that blow through their lives in the manner of a 1930s dust storm, leaving them bewildered, dispossessed and increasingly desperate to wrest some durable sense of personal meaning from the maelstrom.

The ’30s analogy is especially apt here, because Packer models the narrative structure of The Unwinding on John Dos Passos’s landmark U.S.A. trilogy of Depression-era social realist fiction—The 42nd Parallel, 1919 and The Big Money. Like Dos Passos’s innovative cut-and-paste mimicry of the rhythms of social displacement in the modern age, The Unwinding oscillates between the close-up portraits of its principal protagonists—Youngstown machinist Tammy Thomas, DC lobbyist and civil servant Jeff Connaughton, and North Carolina alternative-energy executive Dean Price—and larger American vistas, evoked through frenetic and semaphoric snatches of period headlines, song lyrics and thumbnail biographies of the era’s representative celebrities, from Colin Powell and Oprah Winfrey to Robert Rubin and Newt Gingrich.

But whereas Dos Passos’s pioneering use of this technique yielded a rich panorama of the social convulsions behind the dramas of ego, economic distress and global confrontation of his era, Packer’s assemblage has a curiously flattening effect. One obvious explanation of this contrast is that Dos Passos knew well enough the social forces his narrative was battening itself against—the destructive chaos of mass industrial capitalism, which leveled both the human personality and the prospects for a humane political future. Packer, meanwhile, can’t bring himself to attribute the personal misery and frustration he chronicles in such heartbreaking detail to any particular system of resource allocation, finance or political privilege. Instead, as most of the vital signs of the American economy gradually flicker into darkness across the pages of his saga—as manufacturers relocate overseas, mortgages sink into oblivion, farms and small businesses collapse, and college students graduate into a lifetime of debt peonage—Packer laments a diffuse failure of American institutions and American citizens to stir each other back to life. 

* * *

The overriding mood of The Unwinding isn’t one of betrayal or populist anger, but rather epic disappointment. The basis of our material prosperity is vanishing beneath our feet—people who had once placed their faith in the institutions of power are now being thrown back on their own woefully inadequate resources—and it’s desperately sad. Moreover, on the handful of occasions that the book’s characters try to stand athwart the crushing forces of institutional dismay, they’re either promptly stripped of their pitiable illusions or simply shunted aside. For example, Packer follows a pair of Occupy Wall Street activists through the heady months of protest in the center of finance capital. We take leave of one—a charismatic organizer from Brooklyn named Nelini—after she’s locked up in jail following Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s vicious dismantling of the Zuccotti Park encampment in November 2011; the other movement figure, an aimless, fiftysomething tech worker from Seattle named Ray, is left homeless and bewildered, hiding from the cops on a remote spot south of the Brooklyn Bridge. Indeed, to judge by Packer’s account of the protest, you’d never know that the Occupy movement remains very much a going concern, organizing inventive “jubilees” of debt forgiveness and mounting new campaigns against the predatory explosion of the student loan industry.

These characters don’t much exercise the narrator’s interest, it seems, because he’s already plotted out the bitter failings of political advocacy. Even at the highest levels of power, Packer observes, “the establishment was much bigger than any president.” The occasion for this rueful observation is President Bill Clinton’s reversal on the question of endorsing tighter regulation of securities trading. When the issue initially surfaced in his administration—via the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, a phony “tort reform” measure cooked up by the first Gingrich Congress in 1995—the earnest liberal Jeff Connaughton, then working as a special assistant to White House counsel Abner J. Mikva, personally made the case for Clinton to veto the bill. In a heady, informal, morale-boosting exchange with the embattled president, Connaughton reassured him that he was doing the right thing. As we already know, by the end of his second term, Clinton had completely shifted course on the issue, enthusiastically presiding over the riotous deregulation of the financial sector. Without any hesitation, he signed the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which disastrously repealed those provisions of the 1933 Glass-Steagall law that banned financial houses from engaging in both investment and commercial banking, as well as the no less catastrophic Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000. This latter measure, which abolished most meaningful restraints on derivatives trading, was endorsed over the strenuous—and prescient—objections of the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Brooksley Born, who warned that unloosing government controls of the volatile derivatives market was a recipe for systemic risk on Wall Street. 

Dissents like Born’s are ready refutations of the sweeping claim that “the establishment” somehow towered over the cringing figure of maximum executive power on the American political landscape. Clinton had access to ample countervailing information at these critical moments of reckoning for the country’s financial future; he simply found it personally and politically expedient to ignore it, and to follow the daft counsel of his own crony-capitalist roster of economic advisers, such as his last two treasury secretaries, Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers. These two trustees of the banking elite should, by rights, be bitter punch lines, in the same way that Herbert Hoover’s liquidationist head of the Treasury, the robber baron Andrew Mellon, retired from public life as a virtual laughingstock. 

Instead, Rubin is granted a surreal, adoring chapter of his own in The Unwinding. We learn, for instance, that after a tour as a low-key technocrat in the 1980s boom on Wall Street, he became the co-chairman of Goldman Sachs in 1990 “by maintaining the modesty of his ambition and the calm of his daring.” While Rubin, like most New York financial titans, “stood in the political center,” he was also a lifelong Democrat “because he was concerned about the plight of the poor.” Indeed, this compassionate titan of finance seemed to physically morph in appearance as the overleveraged debt piled up around him: “As Rubin aged and grayed, his…hooded, pouched eyes got sadder and more skeptical. As Wall Street became an ever larger and more volatile juggernaut, he stayed steady and whippet-thin. As financial services were deregulated, he remained well regulated.”

Steering the economic policy of the Clinton White House, Rubin was, in Packer’s telling, wiser still. After he’d scotched plans for the economic stimulus plan that Clinton campaigned on in 1992 in favor of spending cuts to appease Wall Street, Rubin sternly cautioned the president to abandon even the populist rhetoric of his successful presidential run: by all means, he advised Clinton, shun “polarizing, class-laden terms like ‘the rich’ and ‘corporate welfare’”—and as Packer solicitously notes, this advice did not arise “out of class solidarity, but in fear of undermining business confidence in the president.” After all, Rubin was merely passing along “his best economic advice, always disinterested and on the merits. (If it happened to be Wall Street’s view, too, well, the economy had become dominated by the financial sector, and any Democratic president would be destroyed if he lost its confidence, especially after the party began to raise most of its money on the Street.)” Oh, Rubin would fret sometimes: “he continued to worry about the risks of derivatives as Treasury secretary, the way they could entangle financial institutions and magnify excesses in the market. He had no objection in principle to derivatives being regulated—just not by Brooksley Born—though he never got around to doing anything about it because of the opposition he would have faced from Wall Street.”

And when the president signed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act and Gramm-Leach-Bliley into law, Rubin could bask—after the formal expiration of his tour at Treasury—in that most blessed of Washington dispensations: deniability. To be sure, he went on in October 1999 to serve as the “in-house consigliere” of the newly merged Citigroup, which had to wait for the repeal of Glass-Steagall’s restrictions in order to do business, and he pulled down a cool $15 million a year, plus stock options galore, for his trouble. But, hey—Rubin had “nothing directly to do with [Glass-Steagall’s] repeal and no one could justifiably accuse him of being paid back handsomely by Citigroup.”

It’s roughly at this point in the saga of Wise Man Bob that the reader realizes that Packer, drunk on the Dos Passos method of the multi-perspective “camera eye,” is offering this sympathetic portrait of Rubin as a sendup. The most essential thing to note about the culmination of Rubin’s tenure at Treasury is that it was singlehandedly driven by his need to get out and cash in big time at Citigroup. Rubin had technically left office by late 1999, when Gramm-Leach-Bliley became law, but he and the other apparatchiks on the Clinton economic team (including Rubin’s own deputy, and later successor, Lawrence Summers) had feverishly spent all of the preceding year lining up the basics of the Glass-Steagall repeal with the lords of Wall Street—so much so that Rubin’s future Citigroup overseer, Sandy Weill, openly joked that the measure should be known as the Weill-Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.

But Packer’s narrative ploy is too clever. If one aims to deliver a coherent account of the calamities that pitched the aspirations of the American middle class into history’s dust bin, it makes no sense to treat someone like Rubin as one in a series of collateral casualties of the breakdown of public trust in American institutions. And Packer doesn’t supply any strong corrective account, in the Rubin chapter or elsewhere, that elucidates just how epochally destructive the sweeping deregulation of the financial sector proved to be—a policy that Rubin is directly responsible for (to say nothing of profiting from it in the ugliest fashion imaginable). To use him as the chief de facto narrative authority on the critical policy miscues of the Clinton economic team is akin to praising Charlie Sheen as sobriety counselor of the year. Likewise for Packer’s similarily pseudo-puckish account of Colin Powell’s rise through the military and his mendacious tour of duty as George W. Bush’s secretary of state—a portrait of an “institution man” that’s especially discomfiting coming from Packer, because it so readily doubles as a rationale for the author’s own supremely ill-advised support for the 2003 Iraq invasion.

* * *

The narrative tilt of The Unwinding keeps the proceedings at a scrupulous distance from Rubin and the other prime movers in the nation’s immiserating retreat from the widespread prosperity of the postwar New Deal social contract. This aporia is particularly exasperating because Packer does present sharply observed chronicles of the struggles of several of the book’s central protagonists, who are left to fend for themselves as they sort through the fallout from the steady contraction of their life chances in working America. 

Tammy Thomas, an African-American assembly worker in Youngstown, Ohio, weathered successive crippling waves of industrial recession in her Rust Belt hometown, providing for her family as a single mother, only to be dismissed with a buyout from her employer, Packard Electric, after its new corporate owners shuttered the company in 2006—one among countless restructurings of American manufacturing plants aimed at shedding labor costs and shifting operations overseas. Thomas finds an invigorating new job as a community organizer, and she also volunteers on the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns, which carried the critical swing state of Ohio in both elections. As Packer takes leave of her, Thomas has been given the grim task of pulling together a comprehensive map of abandoned properties in recession-ravaged Youngstown, even as she exults in Obama’s 2012 victory. “My God,” she thinks after the president’s re-election, “it means we’ve got the chance to do something for real.”

Meanwhile, another of Packer’s protagonists has also been riding a binge of Obama-fueled hope: DC insider Jeff Connaughton makes a triumphant return to the centers of Democratic power when his lifelong political idol, Joe Biden, is elected vice president. But Connaughton is understandably deflated by the news that the successful “change” candidate of 2008 is considering appointing none other than Robert Rubin as treasury secretary. As Packer sternly reminds his readers:

No more proof was needed that the establishment (the one Clinton had invoked that night in his private study) would emerge from the disaster in fine shape. The establishment could fail and fail and still survive, even thrive…. Rubin was no longer viable for Treasury, but his people were practically the only candidates under consideration by Obama, who, after all, had fought his way into the establishment from farther back than any of them.

In other words, Tammy Thomas’s hope and Jeff Connaughton’s mounting despair are left oscillating around the same larger-than-life presidency, with Packer offering only the bleak insistence that the transfer of power in Washington is so much shadow play, sponsored and leased for the good of the real manipulators of world events—the “establishment” on Wall Street. Which narrative is the reader to trust: the sickening cronyism atop our sanctums of economic policy-making, or the specter of “real change” finally taking shape before Tammy Thomas’s eyes? Likewise, given Packer’s half-tongue-in-cheek portrayal of Rubin’s term in office, are we also to see his chapter on a genuine financial reformer—the populist Massachusetts senator and consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren—as more fodder for the inevitably sadder and wiser reckoning of misguided reformist ambitions?

It doesn’t seem to matter much in the world of The Unwinding. For all the wrenching personal details of loss, bewilderment and pain that Packer coaxes from his subjects, the baleful forces stripping them clean are weirdly impersonal: either an “establishment” that has reduced the White House to a glorified plaything of the investor class, or, just as frequently, the “institutions” that ensnare well-meaning dupes like Rubin and Powell, while leaving less fortunate Americans straining after vanished moral and social certitudes. In his portrait of one impoverished Tampa family, the Hartzells, Packer implies that they are as much victims of institutional abandonment—from the family on up to the national political scene—as they are casualties of material privation: “They were estranged from their surviving relatives, most of whom were heavy drinkers. They had few friends, and no church (though they were Christian) or union (though they were working class) or block association (though they wished the area was safe enough for the kids to go trick-or-treating). They hardly gave a thought to politics. What they had was one another.” These are, in short, the sort of figures that Packer’s narrative strategy instinctively favors: anomie-ridden yet hopeful; apolitical yet concerned; wounded but not yet angry. Should they tip over into the affirmative sphere of outrage or (shudder) entitlement, they might well end up homeless or jailed, like the hapless souls whom Packer chooses to symbolize Occupy. 

* * *

The “unwinding” itself is another such causeless abstraction. At most points in Packer’s chronicle, the phrase signifies the shriveled condition of the manufacturing economy and the liberal welfare state, as well as the steadily dwindling corps of supporters of both among the political elite and the downwardly mobile middle class. But in the reverie of another battle-tested American dreamer in the book, the energy executive Dean Price, the unwinding calls to mind the creative destruction of an inevitable new age of green power and entrepreneurial grit, an opportunity for a revived American Republic to flourish under the benevolent rule of a fresh generation of Jeffersonian yeomen. “When these farmers can grow their own crops and power their own diesel tractors and not be subjected to anybody and be their own boss, that’s a big change,” Price reflects. “And instead of us thinking that we are going into the unwinding, to me this is the greatest economic explosion that’s ever going to hit in our lifetimes, because all that money that’s being concentrated at the top, with food, fuel, clothing—what else do they control? banking—it might go back to little towns.”

In reality, of course, the economic travails that ordinary Americans are suffering amount to much less of an unwinding—or as Packer is fond of describing it in a misleadingly naturalistic simile, a “plague”—than an outright mugging. A speculative class of investors has grown rich on the systemic securitization of nearly every facet of American life—from the mortgage industry to the student loan bubble (inflated most precariously, of course, at for-profit universities) to the deregulated markets for basic commodities such as aluminum and oil. This is not a panorama of well-meaning Americans caught up in an inexplicably unresponsive battery of institutions; it is, rather, a mechanism for the upward redistribution of wealth, achieved by reducing the incomes of workers and consumers to another exploitable raw material. 

It’s worth recalling that some of the more accomplished chroniclers of our first Great Depression grasped this core dynamic and reported on it in impressively personalized detail. (This was not, by the way, the strong suit of Dos Passos; as the great literary historian Alfred Kazin wrote, “History in the most tangible sense—what happened—is obviously more important in Dos Passos than the people to whom things happened.”) Edmund Wilson, in his own panoramic collection of Depression journalism, The American Jitters, from 1932, cataloged a wide range of familiar American scenes turned upside down by economic distress, from communist rallies to the assembly lines of Detroit to construction sites to jail cells. Novelists such as John Steinbeck, James T. Farrell and Tess Slesinger sought to chronicle the struggles and setbacks of the nation’s embattled working masses, as well as the decade’s more highbrow (and sometimes quite unserious) moods of intellectual and ideological revolt. In retrospective studies, journalists like Studs Terkel and Murray Kempton took clear-eyed measure of the fleeting solidarity and more enduring cultural legacies of the 1930s.

Indeed, as it happens, Melville House and The Baffler (a magazine I work for) have recently published for the first time Cotton Tenants, the undated manuscript that arose out of James Agee’s 1936 Fortune assignment to sojourn among the impoverished tenant farmers of the Deep South. This was the magazine project that would go on to furnish the basis for Agee and Walker Evans’s landmark 1941 book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; near the outset of the manuscript, Agee offers this overture to his own closely observed study of lives laid low by a system of brutal privation:

A civilization which for any reason puts a human life at a disadvantage; or a civilization which can exist only by putting human life at a disadvantage; is worthy neither of the name nor of continuance. And a human being whose life is nurtured in an advantage which has accrued from the disadvantage of other human beings, and who prefers that this should remain as it is, is a human being by definition only, having much more in common with the bedbug, the tapeworm, the cancer, and the scavengers of the deep sea. 

Only if we hold such truths to be self-evident, and inescapable, and quite possibly more serious and quite certainly more immediate than any others, may we in any honesty and appropriateness proceed to our story: which is a brief account of what happens to human life, and of what human life can in no essential way escape, under certain unfavorable circumstances.

Put another way, it does little good to lament the atrophy of our institutions without some clear accounting of the values that are alleged to animate them. If the calamities of our recent economic history have taught us nothing else, it is that most of the institutional fixtures of our common life are empty forms at best and, at worst, the repositories of outmoded and toxic superstitions.

Packer’s book hints at the deeper distempers lurking beneath its tale of corrosive economic decline and displacement, but it can never bring itself to own up to the fundamental moral invocation that Agee summoned. At one point, The Unwinding alights on the story of Mike Van Sickler, an earnest investigative reporter for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times). In the wake of the mortgage collapse—which came to Florida much earlier than 2008, and still looks to cripple the state’s economy for some time to come—Van Sickler had uncovered the story of Sang-Min (Sonny) Kim, a house-flipper in Tampa who had colluded through a shell company in the flipping of more than 100 mostly abandoned properties around the city, and cleared more than $4 million in profit. 

Van Sickler’s story led to a high-profile federal indictment of Kim on money laundering and fraud charges, but the reporter wasn’t satisfied. He pushed against the complacent truisms about the mortgage meltdown that were being retailed by the other prominent outposts of his profession: “We don’t know why, we just got really greedy, and everybody wanted a house they couldn’t afford,” he says, summing up the prevailing consensus in the mediasphere. Van Sickler adds, “I think that’s lazy journalism. That’s a talking point for politicians who want to look the other way. We’re not all to blame for this.” 

After Kim pleaded guilty, the United States attorney for Florida’s Middle District announced that more indictments, of far bigger fish in the mortgage food chain, were in the offing. They never came. “Where are the big arrests?” Van Sickler wonders. “Where are the bankers, the lawyers, the real estate professionals?” Packer finishes the thought for him, in a refrain his readers by now know quite well: “Kim was just one piece of a network—what about the institutions?”

But that wasn’t the question Van Sickler was asking; “institutions” are blank abstractions to any good investigative reporter. Van Sickler needed to know the names of the specific people who were profiting from this particular derangement of our civilization. Unfortunately, he won’t find them in The Unwinding, any more than he can expect Tampa’s federal prosecutors to uncover them. No wonder David Frum likes Packer’s book so much.

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