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.