A Short list of the cast of characters of George Packer’s “Unwinding” (2013)
Dean Price, a farmer with land to develop who put up a truck stop and got convinced that in the age of peak oil that there would be a market for biofuels though with the massive turbulence in energy prices for oil, prices sufficient to support the technologies required for biofuel never made conversion practical, though liberal politicians though it a grand idea but couldn’t rig incentives in order to distort markets in the direction — thus causing his loss of a fortune. Later, a believer in positive thinking, and a persistent champion of new energy technologies, though persistence, he was able to knit a few school districts together in a consortium which pooled spent oil from frying kids food for use as fuel for busses. Heaven knows what will happen if kids start eating healthier.
Jeff Connaughton was a student who long ago spotted Joe Biden as a rising politician who could speak well extemporaneously, and who knew how to charm audiences to his point of view. He used humor and charm, but also seemed to have substance, though having committed years to campaigning for him, and suffering through the worst with his failures related to plagiarism, it was apparent to Connaughton that Biden took people for granted and didn’t acknowledge the contribution of hard workers. Biden had an eye for cutting deals and wasn’t adverse to supporting lobbyists and Wallstreet players, who always seem to win. (Connaughton himself has been a lobbyist, Senate Aide and on Whitehouse staff, and recently wrote “The Payoff”, a book about power in America and the Plutocracie’s capacity to avoid prosecution and subvert financial reform.)
Tammy Thomas was born and raised in Youngstown when the area was laden with little small towns with fine manses, each owned by steel company owners who built companies and communities. These all amalgamated and sold out as American steel lost to international big steel, the fine old houses and towns disintegrated, the neighborhoods of youngstown turned decrepit and became unrecognizable to anybody who had ever been born there and tended a small garden around a well kept little house. All became rotted out dens for gangs and druggies as people who had worked their lives in unions found their companies sold to sharks who managed to divest even pension obligations, leverage financing, and terminate labor contracts in the production of high levels of unemployment. Tammy struggled to hold on, became interested in community organizing, but couldn’t make progress. She took a buy-out deal from the company and not knowing much about investing, and not satisfied with bank interest invested in a relative’s efforts to flip real estate, getting caught out in the 2008 debacle, which left her robbed and broke.
Oprah Winfrey, raped and abused as a passed around orphan somehow made it to school and wanted to be a radio journalist though it was determined that she couldn’t read nor write material very well, so she became a provocative radio host interviewing addicts and outrageous criminals and deviants. Popular in the local media market, she parleyed a fine career and become filthy rich with an ingenious blend of nostrums suited to the audience of the day, from zen-acceptance to victimhood rationalization. She shrank and expanded in size routinely and drew plenty of emotional energy from her audience, defining entertainment for the age.
Sam Walton, who was good with numbers, cautious and practical, and stuck with a business model of cutting costs and expanding scale to the point where he and his customers devoured most of small town anything and everything everywhere. He was straight forward, avoided intellectualization, pressed flesh and did outrageous things like wager to make a fool of himself if his employees beat sales targets. He advertised “made in the USA” and pitted vendors in ruthless competitions, depriving them of any margin that he could. He kept unions out, wages rock bottom, and left incredible fortunes that perpetuated family feuds. The organizational style was compatible with busting unions, minimizing benefits, turning away from any corporate responsibility for pensions, and the sort of short-term thinking that drives Wallstreet wild. The company exported it’s model and became the major employer in a number of countries around the world, usually exploiting the corruption of local politicians in order to make their development path expedient and effective against any resistance.
Telling the story of Tampa is a great way to look into the rather unending depression starting 2007-2009 depending a bit on where you were at the time. Technology had taken over trading, and unregulated Wallstreet banks were innovating new products in order to maximize returns and minimize any responsibility carried on corporate books. Republicans like to say that Democrats pressured responsible bankers to float loans to the incompetent, though there are many ways to tell the story, and the few investigations which have gone on show massive systemic fakery to the core of real estate transaction systems and related court procedures for dunning those obliged by the contracts they undertook. All the fakery led to massive flipping, investment, and quick returns for those playing musical chairs, but a lot of people were caught when the music stopped. There’s still a huge amount of pain involved in many communities which have never and won’t come back, and politicians have only gored the debtors, allowing those responsible to foist legal penalties on stockholders of the firms they manage without a lot of regret.
In the interim, major centers of the country died in vitality, while Los Angels, New York, and perhaps Silicon Valley became the remaining sources of cultural and entrepreneurial energy. Silicon Valley promoted a sort of culture more liberal than that of financial conservatives, but full of an arrogant libertarian individualism, though the non-zero-sum quality of growth in it’s related industries allowed for a patina of collaboration rather than competition. That’s where all the bright people headed, to form start-ups and become overnight millionaires, and many semi-autistic stars in this firmament succeeded rather brilliantly for at least short periods.
There are lots of sources of the unwinding that have gotten us to the point where we’re at. We’re not in the Eisenhower years anymore, or even in an age of any economic advancement. Peter Theil, perhaps one of the most visionary observers of the American scene, and one of the richest of our capitalists tried to convince Mitt Romney that’d he’d have the presidency in a heartbeat if he went straight to the American people and told them in the frankest terms how fucked every aspect of the political, cultural and economic systems in this country has become, but Mitt didn’t get it. Until 2012 the story of American leadership was that winning required an optimistic vision, but the reality is that mentality went out with science fiction in the 70s or 80s, and about all that Americans respond to anymore is fear and anger. It’s amazing how similar the perspectives these days are, of the far left and the far right, and yet so sad that those differences aren’t likely to be bridged in the preferred paralysis and avoidance.