The Unwinding by George Packer

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New AmericaThe Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Packer tells the stories of many people trying to navigate the “unwinding” of the robust and regulated post-WWII American political economy as it has become more individualistic, partisan, globalized, and competitive since the 1970s. Many of the stories of average people are compelling, and Packer often shows empathy for their struggles. He also targets many of the most influential people of the period, slowly roasting them in chapter-long profiles or over the course of the book. Packer is a talented writer whose political sympathies clearly lie on the populist left. This allows him to write with genuine concern for ordinary people, but there also seems to be the assumption that progressive populism is the path forward in a very different world than that which gave birth to the New Deal and Great Society.

David Brooks wrote a nice review of the book. He writes:

By “the unwinding,” Packer is really referring to three large transformations, which have each been the subject of an enormous amount of research and analysis. The first is the stagnation of middle-class wages and widening inequality. Depending on which analyst you read, this has to do with the changing nature of the information-age labor market, changing family structures, rising health care costs, the decline of unions or the failure of education levels to keep up with technology.

The second is the crushing recession that began in 2008. Depending on which analyst you read, this was caused by global capital imbalances, bad Federal Reserve policy, greed on Wall Street, faulty risk-assessment models or the insane belief that housing prices would go on rising forever.

The third transformation is the unraveling of the national fabric. Depending on which analyst you read, this is either a gigantic problem (marriage rates are collapsing; some measures of social connection are on the decline) or not a gigantic problem (crime rates are plummeting, some measures of social connection are improving).

Packer wants us to understand these transformations, but ultimately, narrative and anecdotes are not enough. They need to be complemented with evidence from these long-running debates and embedded in a theoretical framework and worldview.

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