Book Review: The Unwinding by George Packer

Subtitled “An Inner History of the New America,” George Packer provides readers with America’s institutional transformation in the last 40-ish years. He does so not with a chronological timeline, but rather through smaller vignettes, histories of particular individuals who have worked in the industries that have either reformed, evaporated, or prematurely adapted. The main characters to see such a transformation include Tammy Thomas, a native Youngstown, Ohioan and African American who grew up in a city with an economy predicated on manufacturing; Jeff Connaughton, a man who climbed through the ranks to become one of Joe Biden’s top staffers; and Dean Price, a southern entrepreneur whose life’s mantra had been crystalized by Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich.

Those are the main characters–they are the repeated story lines that help define our new America. However, Packer also includes two other running threads throughout: Tampa and Silicon Valley. The former is the epicenter of the housing crisis and ground-zero for those affected by the  “Great Recession.” The latter is the history of how housing prices in Silicon Valley went from a modest ~150K to an astounding ~800K. Well, not the prices specifically, but how Silicon Valley became the hub for the information age, the cabal for some of our country’s greatest new thinkers. Silicon Valley’s main character is Peter Theil, the founder of PayPal and now a hedge fund manager (you may have seen him for about 30 seconds in The Social Network where Zuckerberg walks into an office late and poorly dressed at the advice of Sean Parker).

Lastly, Packer includes even smaller vignettes–contemporary prominent figures in American culture: Jay Z, Oprah Winfrey, Newt Gingrich, Sam Walton, Andrew Breitbart, Colin Powell, Alice Waters, Robert Rubin, and Elizabeth Warren. Having read Andrew Breitbart’s Righteous IndignationI was already privy to much of the source material that Packer provides. His role as a media magnate can’t go unnoticed, and perhaps I thought his role in modern media was still understated. (In Righteous Indignation, the section where Breitbart outlines his panel discussion on Real Time with Bill Maher is positively riveting). My favorite mini-history is probably Speaker Gingrich’s. During the height of Gingrich’s power,  I was much more focused on Tommy Pickles and what the rest of the Rugrats were doing, but I have since followed his political footprint. The chapter was a nice insight as to what the term “career politician” actually means. We throw it around as a pejorative platitude; however, you actually see someone who’s a master at character assassination, someone–as stated in the novel–holds a cache of terms that can be strung together to fire up a base. It became known as the Gingrich lexicon:

He recruited Republican candidates around the country and trained them with his own words and ideas on video tapes and cassettes, like a motivational speaker, understanding the language was key to power. His memos included vocabulary lessons: if you discuss your opponent with words like betray bizarre bosses bureaucratic liberal lie limit(s) obsolete pathetic radical shame sick stagnation…you had [Democrats] on the defensive,

The main story I found most fascinating was Jeff Cannoughton. He started as an idealist, a bonafide “Biden guy.” (He became inspired when he heard Biden speak while he was a college student in Alabama) He first worked on Wall Street, a place where he discovered the inner workings of the financial system all while making himself a nice payout. Eventually the idea of working for Senator Joe Biden began to itch far too much, and he worked for the Senator as a staffer. In my opinion, there can’t enough news about low, mid, or even high-level staffers for seasoned politicians. The idealism that Cannoughton started with started to fade. He noticed that the same joke Biden opened his speech to a youthful Cannoughton hadn’t  changed. Biden was using the same ice-breaking material for decades. During the impending financial crisis, Cannoughton grew increasingly frustrated by the Washington gridlock. He was convinced that money had far too much influence on politics. Oddly enough, Cannoughton left Biden to work on K-street as a lobbyist.

This was the biggest eye opener for me. If you’ve seen House of Cards on Netflix, you may have noticed how quick politicians will throw each other under the bus in order to climb the ladder (cue Littlefinger in Game of Thrones). As a correlary, one will see how political ideologies don’t quite matter once dollars and cents are involved. Cannoughton had maintained the ideals of Democrats for years. Once he got a job working as lobbyist, he used his networking to work alongside Republicans to represent the interests of their clients regardless of ideology. Here are few tidbits that summarize the place that lobbying had/has in Washington:

Wealth added to their power, power swelled their wealth. They connected special interests to party officials using the adhesive of fundraising. They ate breakfast with politicians, lunch with the heads of trade associations, and dinner with other Professional Democrats. Behind their desks were ‘power walls’–photo galleries showing them smiling next to the highest ranking politicians they knew. Their loyalty was to the firm first, then their former boss in politics, then their party, and then–if he was a Democrat–the president.

Or, how about couples in Washington?

Certain couples belonged to the subset of Washington’s permanent class having to do with the financial sector, the Wall Street–Washington axis–Treasury officials, Banking Committee staffers, regulators. Connaughton called it the blob. Members of the financial blob were unusually tight with one another. In the case of one couple, the husband was an ex-lobbyist who worked on a key Senate committee, the wife an ex-Treasury official who went over to the SEC. They networked night and day, playing the long game, and when the two of them decided to cash in for good, they would be worth a lot of money.

To paraphrase, principles don’t exist inside the beltway of the D.C. elites. Political talking points are merely the pieces to the chess board that is our current political landscape. The best man or woman for the job is negligible. Ever wonder why Susan Rice was at first nominated for Secretary of State before John Kerry? Based on my latest read, I’d say she was climbing that ladder by voluntarily taking a few shots (Benghazi) for Obama and in turn was promised the Secretary of State job. As I read Cannoughton’s story, House of Cards became less and less fictional. Rep. Underwood’s relationship with his wife made much more sense. Its basis as a professional relationship became palpably real.

Meanwhile, in the land of actual people known as the continental United States, people are suffering. Tammy Thomas, who managed to raise two children on a factory job by herself, was now struggling for work. The steel mills that peppered the Youngstown area were now being sold and liquidated to other companies. The jobs were leaving, and people were suffering. Dean Price, an entrepreneur whose goal was to take advantage of peak oil (the point at which oil production has hit it’s peak–supply will no longer be able to keep up with demand–and oil prices will soar) and locally manufacture biodiesel was perhaps ahead of his time. Also, people in Tampa, Florida are foreclosing at a record rate. Some of the blame rests in Washington’s Community Reinvestment Act, which ostensibly gave away loans to people unable to pay them. To compound that, banks were packaging these piss-poor loans in what are called “Mortgaged-Backed Securities.” The mortgages were so sliced and diced that it was simply impossible the trace where the original mortgage belonged. Housing prices soared, people flipped homes, families bought these artificially inflated homes, and then the market crashed. Suddenly the only real middle class asset–a home–became worth a fraction of what it was payed for. Your 500K house can now only sell for 200K. All while politicians and lobbyists muck it up to create meaningless legislation. (While working in a high-ranking staff position for then Senator Ted Kaufman, Cannoughton described Biden and Obama as “financial illiterates.”)

It’s difficult the tell, but it seems Packer leans left. The book, though, is not polemic. Instead, it presents exact histories and asks the reader to think about it. I certainly found the lobbying industry in Washington to be an absolute farce. Though I understand the basis for the Citizens United case, I can’t help but think that lobbying has actually disenfranchised free speech. Real entrepreneurs–the ones who create something from nothing–must face the reality of failure all while established rank and file politicians create their own exclusive Facebook where political ideology is more of a brand than a way of life. Those same entrepreneurs must have their interests represented in Washington to increase their chance at success (grants, favorable legislation, etc.). Ayn Rand was also on to something with Wesley Mouch, the sleazy Washington insider.

Though I have ideas for how to solve such a function, I’m sure they’d be far too radical for those of whom only keep a house in their home district to maintain a seat in the capitol. I vote to decentralize Washington. Why, besides the White House, do representatives need to be there for more than a couple weeks a year? We are in the age of information, where FaceTime has revolutionized long-distance relationships. You can’t tell me there isn’t a way to create a hyper-secure encrypted communication line between Senators and Congressmen/women. Detach these people from the beltway. Make them live within their own mistakes or successes. Also, please tell me with a straight face that government isn’t too big. I dare you.