In the Arena

How a Nation Unwinds

Over the past forty years, the nation has unwound from its former rigor.

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Courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Macmillan

This column appears in the commentary section of this week’s magazine underneath the title “How a Nation Unwinds.” To subscribe to TIME, click here.

My favorite character in George Packer’s remarkable new book, The Unwinding, is a real estate development in Tampa called Carriage Pointe. I especially like the way it is spelled—that “e” conveys a certain French elegance. One imagines antebellum carriages rolling up to your very own promontory. But no: Carriage Pointe is a mirage, part of the housing boom based on mort­gages that couldn’t be paid. Too many of the unoccupied dwellings were owned by ­speculators—­flippers—riding the real estate elevator that ultimately crashed. The houses, built on a sodden former tropical-fish farm, are “crappy,” Packer writes. The metaphor is perfect: over the past 40 years, as the U.S. has unwound from its former rigor, facade has overtaken content, speculation has overtaken ­development—and in my profession, slapdash opinion has deluged dogged reporting. The middle class is sliding toward dissolution. The wealthy have become an isolated plutocracy. If it weren’t for the fact that this is America, I’d say we were pretty thoroughly cooked.

The Unwinding, a nonfiction account of the past 40 years told through the lives of average and not-so-average Americans, appears at a particularly fraught moment. I read Packer’s book with one eye on Washington this spring. There was some hope, a few months ago, that we might actually get a budget this year. Both houses of Congress passed a version; it was time to hammer out the final deal. But the Republicans, following a Carriage Pointe ­strategy—nonsense posing as substance, nihilism posing as principle—have blocked any sort of negotiations. They have focused instead on nonscandals—­even South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham has said that there is no evidence linking the White House to the idiotic shenanigans at the Internal Revenue Service. The most prominent Republican to emerge this spring is the sketchy Darrell Issa of California, chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who seems like the political equivalent of an empty sub­division—lots of fancy signage but nothing of value on offer.

It is impossible to read The Unwinding without thinking about what is not being discussed in Washington. There is no discussion of the overwhelming power and moral hazard of the five largest banks, which hold assets equal to 56% of the total U.S. economy and remain too big to fail. There is no discussion of the destructive growth of the financial sector, which is siphoning off our smartest young college graduates to create ever-more-complicated (and less substantive) investment schemes, like the collateralized debt obligations that crashed the market in 2008. There is little discussion of the decline of the middle class beyond the cliché-slinging of both sides. But where do we find the work to replace the factory jobs that sustained a prosperous middle class prior to the unwinding? What do we do about the unraveling of middle-class values, the skyrocketing of out-of-wedlock births and the 20% high-school-­dropout rate now metastasizing from the urban poor to the working class? Where do we find moral authority in a society that, as Packer writes, celebrates an unapologetic former crack dealer like Jay Z?

When Packer and I discussed his book over lunch, he told me that he had no snazzy solutions, just the “obvious” ones: real financial reform, better schools, more infrastructure spending (to provide muscle-labor jobs), a robust national-service plan that would try to re-create a sense of community among our disparate parts. (It would be morally bracing to see the children of Jay Z and Issa spend a year living in barracks, doing disaster relief together.) We have to tilt the balance of rights and responsibilities back toward the responsibility side of the spectrum. The past 40 years have been a time of vaulting libertarianism; we need a communitarian corrective, which seems quite impossible at this moment.

There are those, like the German historian Oswald Spengler, who believe that civilizations decay and die, that democracy ultimately lapses into plutocracy. They certainly seem to have momentum on their side these days. But, hey, this is America—and as a counterargument, let me present Dean Price, one of the four main characters Packer follows. A son of the North Carolina Piedmont, Price is your classic small-business man, striver, dreamer. He goes through marriages, churches, businesses in a way that a non-American could hardly imagine. He is knocked down, gets up, starts experimenting with biofuels, wins a federal grant, gets knocked down again. At book’s end, Price is trying to repurpose frying oil as a fuel for school buses. He might even succeed this time. We have been a nation of Dean Prices—and Henry Fords and Wright brothers. Our best hope is that, beneath the dissolution, we still are.

247 comments
lordofthefly
lordofthefly

How can a serious observer of American life write that many words and not even mention the President of the United States? Instead Klein used his space to berate the people whom he considers "the other side." And this is one significant reason our country is unwinding. No wonder Time is going under with writers like Klein ...

I am reading The Unwinding because David Brooks recommended it, and so far, and so far Packer is on target. No, I am not a conservative. I am a non-labeled, free-thinking American who would like to see improvements in our leadership, left and right.

CluedIn
CluedIn

The middle class is sliding toward dissolution. The wealthy have become an isolated plutocracy. 

> If it weren’t for the fact that this is America, I’d say we were pretty thoroughly cooked.

We are. We have been for a while. We just haven't awakened to what most of the rest of the world already knows, and what we would know too if our news and media weren't so walled-in.

SpikeLee
SpikeLee

Civil liberties are a lost middle class value that Joe Klein values as much as he values the lost middle class.

garykrz
garykrz

too much of America reminds me of Pottersville, as in "Its A Wonderful Life".  Anything goes to turn a buck; no matter how immoral it may be, or detrimental to the community.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

Speaking of America unwinding. The only thing economically related the GOP have done this term is force the Sequester which is now starting to cost Americans jobs, like the almost 3000 in Philadelphia School District alone. And yet these Traitors will be the first ones screaming and blaming Obama when the job number are weak later this Summer and Fall.

BillColley
BillColley

Wow!  Obama Youth are here.  Will they wear brown shirts?  

HelenPearsonSouza
HelenPearsonSouza

Sorry Klein, you fail to mention that a great deal of the problems now confronting us were because of  you and your government stonographer friends in the media. Because all of you decided to get together and give this president a pass for over five years, we are now reaping this awful crop of deceitfulness and lies. No, the IRS scandal was not made up by Darrell Issa, I do, however, feel that Republican elites were a part of this cover up. They, like yur man in the Whitehouse, were protecting themselves. When Issa said out loud what most Americans are thinking....that 'skippy' is a paid liar, it was interesting to see what republicans jumped on that bandwagon. This president will go down in history as the most power hungry and deceitful  in many years. As a senior, though, I've seen a lot. I have faith in the American people to right this ship. You and your stenographers have already been righted because no one believes anything you write anymore, the majority of us do not buy print news, nor watch the evening alphabet soup news. We get our news from citizen journalists not trained in government journo schools. nuf said.

RickFischer
RickFischer

Some examples of utter incompetence: First, removing all US security from the consulate. We provide more security to consulates in friendly countries than we did to Benghazi. Second, ignoring the previous several terrorist attacks in that vicinity over several months. Third, ignoring the significance of the 9/11 date in the planning of terrorist attacks on the US. Fourth, the President giving a vague order to do what was needed, and then retiring from the scene. No subordinate is going to commit military forces without the express authorization of the President. His chain of command was dysfunctional once he absented himself. Sixth, giving stand down orders (twice) to a fast reaction force that was on the tarmac ready to come to their aid. Sixth, the administration believing they could bury this story until after the election. On second thought, the MSM permitted them to do just that. The incompetence lay with the MSM. Seventh, the attempt to openly blame a video and claim there was no evidence of terrorist involvement, when the administration knew from day one that was a lie. 

As for the IRS in 2004, if not a peep was uttered from the leftist MSM, thus passing up a chance to expose Bush to a scandal, then it is clearly untrue that "much worse happened". Since Democrats created a scandal around the fluff of Valerie Plame, they would not have passed up a serious IRS scandal if one existed. 

Nobaloney
Nobaloney

To follow on RickLaBonte's recommendation, in 1973 Jean Raspail wrote "The Camp of the Saints," a novel about immigration gone wild. There have been five English editions since then. While entirely fiction, it is a chilling fast-forward on what may happen if our multicult trend continues.

Jerry Z. Muller's Foreign Affairs article, “Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism (March/April, 2008), is a reminder of the power of ethnicity in human affairs. It has explosive implications for the future.Muller demonstrates that, over the last 150 years or so, the general trend in Europe and elsewhere has been toward the creation of ethnically-based states—"ethnostates". 

Muller points out that "ethnic conflict is apparent as well throughout the developing world, and will likely lead to more partitioning and nation-creation". As Muller notes: "In areas where that separation has not yet occurred, politics is apt to remain ugly".As Muller notes, ethnic homogeneity is “compatible with—perhaps conducive to—liberal democracy”. At a theoretical level, this is because ethnic conflict produces deep, frequently irreconcilable divisions within a society and ultimately, causes group-based competition for resources and political power. These can be very hard, if not impossible to mediate.

lordofthefly
lordofthefly

@mantisdragon91 

I don't disagree in principle, but when my family and I visited D.C. at the height of the recession, it was clear that it was the recession for "the rest of us." Fed. workers had no clue of the hardship and actual suffering going on in American homes outside the Beltway. For the reason of shaking up the status quo in the US, The Sequester has been useful. Right - the big boys and girls are not hurt, but until we let out all the old blood in the WH and in Congress, we will have more of the same stale service, which means those we elect will be about the business of serving themselves to our tax dollars.

C_Ryback
C_Ryback

@mantisdragon91 

STEAL-O-CRAT (D), OweBama hasn't done honest work since high school.

Now, he's being forced to actually product factual reports, and he looks like a lost little child.

Looking forward to Issa, special prosecutors, and independent counsels.

LOL, ROTFL

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@BillColley Obama Youth? Amusingly the only ones who seem to be armed and ready to commit violence are the NRA zealots who all vote GOP.

C_Ryback
C_Ryback

@HelenPearsonSouza H, all Joe Klein wants is more taxes, more useless bureaucrats, and more OweBama (D).

Sure. Just ignore Verizon-gate, AP-gate, IRS-gate, and Benghazi-gate. Like a bunch of a morons (D), fools (D), and dupes (D).

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@HelenPearsonSouza The most power hungry and deceitful? You mean he lied about who attacked us on 9/11 to invade a country that had nothing to do with it? And then had his cronies try to pressure a hospitalized attorney general to allow spying on US Citizens?

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@Nobaloney Excuse me? Sounds like you are advocating for white only enclaves? And yet this country has always succeed as a melting pot of all races and religions

BillColley
BillColley

@mantisdragon91 @BillColley Cite some examples of NRA violence.  The mass shootings, bombings and ricin letters all appear to be coming from lefties & anarchists.  You communists try and rewrite history and spread propaganda but clearly the evidence won't support your devious and wild-eyed claims!  

HelenPearsonSouza
HelenPearsonSouza

@mantisdragon91 @HelenPearsonSouza Bush did it, Bush did it, why are you assuming that I'm a George W fan...just because I don't agree with this President and his actions? Just once, I would like to have a liberal Obamacrat come back at me with facts and address what was actually said in a post.

Nobaloney
Nobaloney

As a matter of fact, this country is not suceeding as a "melting pot of all races and religions".  In fact, that's what this article and others like it are all about.  As professor Byon Roth points out:

“Many today call the tactics of European and US multiculturalists a ‘soft’ totalitarianism. However, the willingness of governments to put people in jail or deprive them of their livelihoods for disagreeing with government policies can hardly be characterized as soft. It should be recalled that in its last years, the Soviet Union rarely murdered opponents, but used tactics similar to the ones being used today in Europe and increasingly, the USA. A world without borders would be one without refuge from despotic rule. Despotic governance was the rule throughout most of recorded history, and it is still the rule for the majority of the world’s citizens… Whether people would be better off without independent nation states, living under the rule of a world government, or in large supernational blocs such as the EU is by no means clear. In fact, history and reason suggest that just the opposite would be the case. Most utopian dreams when implemented have, in fact, been real-life nightmares for the vast majority. One is hard-pressed to think of an exception.”


 

C_Ryback
C_Ryback

@mantisdragon91 @BillColley 

How do you know that? Why are there so many stories about Chinese billionaires?

LIE-O-CRATS (D) -- lock up your valuables, when they are around.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@BillColley @mantisdragon91 The Chinese are becoming Capitalists and have been over the last 20 years and yet their corporate CEOs make a small fraction of what oursdo. The Soviets leaders had everything. But I'm not talking about Government Leaders getting a 6.9% pay raise but public company CEOs. More importantly go anywhere in the Industrialized world and tell them Obama is a Communist and watch people laugh in your face.

BillColley
BillColley

@mantisdragon91 @BillColley The Chinese have a Communist Party and a very wealthy class in charge of the apparatus.  Former Soviet leaders chomped the best caviar & the stock market is smoke and mirrors.  Secession?  I guess it was easier for Alec Baldwin & assorted lefties to make plans to move to Canada when they didn't get desired election results.  Their plans were to abandon the country.  Secession?  I'm guilty & I suspect in a few decades the free states will prosper while the rust belt continues its rot.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@BillColley @mantisdragon91 I'm sorry is it not NRA member who are arming themselves to the teeth and talking about insurrection and secession? More importantly why do you keep throwing out the Communist lie? CEO pay went up 6.9% last year and the Stock Market has hit record high. Neither could happen under a Communist.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@SuprBowlPatriot @mantisdragon91 @HelenPearsonSouza Desperate how? Why would you appoint a car thief and arsonist if you wanted an honest investigation? Why would you claim this administration is power hungry and deceitful while ignoring the facts that the guys they replace were much worse?

steven.l.starr
steven.l.starr

When the SHTF I am going to come find both of you boys and make a meal out of you, I figure cannibalism is going to become really popular, that and I have three kids and a wife to feed. 

C_Ryback
C_Ryback

@mantisdragon91 @C_Ryback @RickFischer 

Hey STEAL-O-CRAT (D) -- OweBama (D) looked like MORON when his teleprompter failed.

Dang, so terrible, he's being asked to actually produce facts. BOO, HOO, HOO

LOL, ROTFL

C_Ryback
C_Ryback

@mantisdragon91 @C_Ryback @RickFischer

47,000,000 on food stamps are "nothing?"

You and OweBama (D) are dumb SOBs.

He's done -- AP-gate, IRS-gate, Benghazi-gate, NSA-gate, Bernadine BOMBER Dohrn (D/Commie). Most happy time in 4.5 years.

Buh-bye, OweBama, you bumbling, Harvard Law amateurish gutter-hack -- it was great, watching you fall.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@C_Ryback @mantisdragon91 @RickFischer So yet again you bring nothing of substance to the discussion. The economy has added 6.8 Million private sector jobs since the GOP crashed it in 2008. And yet here you are shouting out catchphrases. How sad and predictable.

C_Ryback
C_Ryback

@mantisdragon91 @C_Ryback @RickFischer

Hey STEAL-O-CRATS (D) -- OweBama (D) hasn't had an honest job since high school -- and it shows, every day.

47,000,000 on FOOD STAMPS

30,000,000 UNEMPLOYED / UNDER-EMPLOYED

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@C_Ryback @mantisdragon91 @RickFischer  17,000,000,000,000 reasons? Then you should have no problem providing supporting link to some of them. And yet all you have done is spout idiocy without a single fact to support any of your claims.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@C_Ryback @mantisdragon91 @RickFischer Handing the USA over to China? Read and learn fool. It wasn't Obama that pioneered outsourcing of US jobs to China but Romney. And if you think calling everything Gate make it more scandalous it doesn't. Merely dilutes the impact of when a real scandal happens.

C_Ryback
C_Ryback

@mantisdragon91 @C_Ryback @RickFischer That's right, OweBama (D) is a LAME duck, thanks to IRS-gate. He'll be giving depositions for the next five years.

Darn. His Chicago Way FRAUD almost succeeding handing the USA over to Beijing.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@Nobaloney So you think our political divisions are because of race? Look back at the founding of this country and see how deep the political divisions were in the late 1700's and early 1800's, and yet we were basically a homogenous nation from the stand point of race. Go back to your White Supremacist site and spare us your ignorance.

Nobaloney
Nobaloney

@ mantisdragon91

Many people don't care what you think.  Certainly, I don't.  You are in that group that clings to your beliefs rather than fact.   Moreover, the abundant scientific data supporting these issue are easily available tyo those who really want to explore the truth.  People like you merely resort to personal and very public attacks in their criticisms.  As I said, I don't care aabout your mindless barrage of ad hominem accusations.

Time is on my side.  The very premise of this article is that the USA has a very deep political division.  People like me are trying to explain why that exists and leftists like you provide reckless, unscholarly, and plain  uncivil slurs.  You need to get yourself to a good college and university and take some coursework in entnic biology.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@Nobaloney So then you admit that you are pulling your info from an anti Semite White Supremacist website. This country has been multicultural for decades and we are also the strongest country in the world. So keep your delusions to yourself.

Nobaloney
Nobaloney

"normal people"?  LOL  So a belief in a fastasy of multiculturism with no evidence of any success in the history of man defines "normal" for you?  Sad...  Like true liberals you must believe in the myths that have been taught to you in the public grade schools of America.  Again, sad

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@NobaloneyAs can be seen by that fact  that the guy you quoted is making that claim on Vdare

Byron Roth's The Perils Of Diversity: Apologies To ... - VDARE.com

Associated Profiles Peter Brimelow Related Articles  VDARE: GOP Should Concentrate on Whites (2009) Courting Conservatives Federation for American Immigration Reform’s Hate Filled Track Record (2007) 'Paleoconservatives' Decry Immigration (2003) Written Works 

Unity Review

Founded:  1999 Location:  Washington, Conn. Profiled Leadership:  Peter Brimelow Ideology:  White Nationalist

Originally established in 1999 by the Center for American Unity, a Virginia-based nonprofit foundation started by English immigrant Peter Brimelow, VDARE.com is an anti-immigration hate website "dedicated to preserving our historical unity as Americans into the 21st Century." Now run by the VDARE Foundation, the site is a place where relatively intellectually inclined leaders of the anti-immigrant movement share their opinions. VDARE.com also regularly publishes articles by prominent white nationalists, race scientists and anti-Semites.

 http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-files/groups/VDARE#.UbHpXpxi2Gk