Friday, January 31, 2014

Cephalopod Book Review: "The Unwinding"

Friday's "What's Making Me Happy" is occasionally superseded by a Cephalopod Coffeehouse review, but I can make a nod to WMMH by saying this: I am experiencing the kind of happiness that comes from escape, or recognition of escape. It's tinged with the sadness of realizing how many are trapped. I'm happy because my life doesn't look like those lives portrayed in this book, which also happens to be the best book I read in January:


Packer chronicles our nation's recent economic calamity through the lives of those who enabled it and those who have been crushed by it. He doesn't theorize or analyze, he just lets people tell their stories. Mostly ordinary people, too; people like Dean Price, the son of a tobacco farmer in the Carolina Piedmont, who tried to launch his own biofuel business and wound up in near-ruin. And Tammy Thomas, a factory worker in Ohio who lost her job when the factories began closing down; she was sent packing with a pittance and watched her bosses walk away with millions. And Usha Patel, an immigrant who used her life savings to invest in a motel, only to have it swallowed up in the great collapse.

The closest Packer gets to analyzing is when he speaks through Elizabeth Warren, whom he clearly admires. This is from a brief profile on Warren near the end of the book (I just photographed it with my mobile, rather than typing it out): 

P. 348
Packer also documents those who, if they didn't exactly cause the collapse, certainly learned how to game the system. From an invisible lobbyist who made millions, to a party-hardy boy stockbroker, to Jay-Z and Oprah, we learn that the way to do well in America is to be avaricious, disinterested in anyone's welfare but your own, and blasé about the law. Some had a leg up, some scrabbled up out of nothing, but they were all mindlessly focused on money, bling, the trappings of success. They would get rich by any means necessary ... and there are a lot of means, once you leave your ethics behind. Buy yourself a good lawyer, and you can get away with everything from tax evasion to literally stabbing rivals.

Occupy Wall Street protester. Remember those?
Playing by the rules is for suckers: that's what Jay-Z would tell you, and after reading this book it's hard not to see his point. I am a sucker. But I am a lucky sucker, because I was born into a solidly middle-class family that valued education, got that education at good public schools and a state university, met a great guy and had the sense to marry him, and have remained comfortable through the Great Recession. My dad was a scientist working for a national lab during the Cold War: this fairly well insulated him from the vagaries of the stock market. My husband is similarly situated now. (My mom was an entrepreneur, but got in and out of her business before markets went nutty.) I did make some good choices, but I am also just plain lucky

So what's the deep cause of the Unwinding? Is it simply luck and human greed? No, says Packer. While he keeps his opinions out of the book, he did write an article for the Guardian, and in that he writes, "Americans were no less greedy, ignorant, selfish and violent then than they are today, and no more generous, fair-minded and idealistic. But the institutions of American democracy, stronger than the excesses of individuals, were usually able to contain and channel them to more useful ends. Human nature does not change, but social structures can, and they did." Starting in the 1970s, "The US became more entrepreneurial and less bureaucratic, more individualistic and less communitarian, more free and less equal, more tolerant and less fair," he writes. "Banking and technology, concentrated on the coasts, turned into engines of wealth, replacing the world of stuff with the world of bits, but without creating broad prosperity, while the heartland hollowed out. The institutions that had been the foundation of middle-class democracy, from public schools and secure jobs to flourishing newspapers and functioning legislatures, were set on the course of a long decline."

I strongly recommend this book. It won the National Book Award for 2013, is eminently readable (even hard to put down), is lucidly written, and is crushingly insightful. Packer is not a hack or a demagogue trying to fan the flames of populist rage ... this is a book for everyone, and everyone is indicted.

Check out these other Cephalopod book reviews:

1.The Armchair Squid2.What's up, MOCK?!
3.Words Incorporated4.Scouring Monk
5.Huntress6.A Creative Exercise
7.Libby Heily8.Trisha @ WORD STUFF
9.Wishbone Soup Cures Everything10.mainewords
11.Julie Flanders12.Hungry Enough To Eat Six
13.Yolanda Renee14.M.J. Fifield
15.StrangePegs -- Turn Coat16.The Writing Sisterhood
17.Ed and Reub18.StrangePegs -- Vader's Offspring
19.V's Reads20.Wishbone Soup Cures Everything

29 comments:

  1. If nothing else, I appreciate your writing about one of the defining stories of our day. And for pointing out a valuable book about it.

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    1. May you live in interesting times, right? I think historians will look back on this book as an excellent example of oral history.

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  2. It is pretty hard not to be pessimistic about the short term future for our nation.

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    1. Indeed. I expect that's why we're seeing all this apocalyptic fiction: it feels a little apocalyptic out there.

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  3. I can appreciate and respect a different viewpoint from mine. But since so many of these books are written from a political standpoint, it's hard to know what is truth and what is agenda.

    I very much enjoyed your review. It is thorough and thought-provoking. I'll check this out. Thanks!
    Author of Wilder Mage at Spirit Called
    Facebook Wilder Mage

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    1. I think your caution is warranted. When it comes to political books, it's like you have a choice between reading a view opposite yours, which will be aggravating beyond belief, or reading your own view reflected back at you, which is pointless. And so much political analysis these days feels like demagoguery. Normally I avoid political books for that reason but this one caught my attention for two reasons: 1. National Book Award. 2. The oral history aspect: it's not a book of his opinions, but a collection of ordinary people telling their own stories. Readers can draw their own conclusions. I guess I'd offer up a third point to the (justifiably) skeptical: David Brooks liked the book.

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  4. I remember seeing a movie about the beginning of the end in the financial markets and being appalled by the players. The recession changed my life and the life of most Americans, thanks for a great review!

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    1. Do you remember the name of that book, Yolanda? I wonder if it's "Inside Job." I have that film (with Matt Damon, though I think it's documentary) but haven't got around to watching it yet. Thanks for stopping by!

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  5. Hmmm, that sounds like a terrific book. And not only do YOU like it, but so does David Brooks. (He's one of the few political writers I almost always enjoy.) Thanks for the terrific review. (Good girl!)

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  6. Wow! Sounds heavy. The idea that ethics and success are incompatible is saddening, though hardly surprising.

    Excellent review, Stephanie.

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    1. Thanks, AS! I do think people still exist who manage to combine success with ethics. Most of the scientists I know do, and small-business owners. But in the realm of Wall Street and Washington, it's pretty rare.

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  7. This sounds like my kind of book - great review :)

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  8. "We learn that the way to do well in America is to be avaricious, disinterested in anyone's welfare but your own, and blasé about the law."

    Not sure I believe this statement. It seems like a huge generalization. There may be some truth to this, but does he really believe all successful people are unscrupulous and all rule-followers are suckers (and therefore, poor?)

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    1. That's me speaking, not Packer. Packer's book is a series of portraits of a swath of people: a lobbyist, a factory worker, an small-business entrepreneur, etc. The reader comes to her own conclusion, and this review reflects my conclusion; certainly others will have a different takeaway.

      What I was writing was hyperbole to make a point—obviously many people in this country rise to the top through sheer hard work, while some poor people are that way because of bad decisions or laziness. There's a sizable chunk of America that thinks this narrative describes the whole picture, which is unfortunate.

      What I'm getting at is not so much a static picture, but a trend. There used to be institutions in place that kept our worse proclivities in check, but they are evaporating, and inequality rises as a result. It's so easy now to game the system, and the rewards are so great: how could that not result in more corruption?

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    2. I would put the problem slightly differently. The best way to get ahead is to rewrite the rules so that they benefit you, and then proceed to follow those advantageous rules. That is the entire profession of lobbying, which Packer documents through the experiences of Jeff Connaughton. It is perfectly legal and perfectly shameless. And it's not just the extraordinarily rich who benefit: I would guess that most of the people commenting here, myself included, benefit from the extremely regressive public giveaway known as the mortgage interest rate deduction. Another example of system gaming that has just made its way through Congress is the farm bill. Packer could have also written about these, had he chosen to.

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    3. By "shameless" I meant that the lobbyists carry on without shame. I should have been clearer about that.

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  9. I heartily agree with your assessment of this book. Best non-fiction of last year, without question.

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    1. You'll have to let me know other good non-fiction you come across; I expect we have similar tastes.

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  10. Steph, this is something that's been on my mind. This month, I read Thom Hartmann's 'The Crash of 2016' which looks at this dilemma from the angle of, 'How can we turn crisis into opportunity to bolster the hollowed-out foundations?'

    Well done on tackling the subject in this review. It needs to be done.

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    1. I read the blurb for that book and it sure does look complementary to this one. I'm adding it to my to-read list. Please let me know about any other good non-fictions you come across ... I don't read them too often but I trust your judgment.

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  11. This sounds like a good read - unbiased in the way it was written. I don't read much non-fiction but I'd read this!

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    1. If you do, pop back in and let me know what you think!

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  12. Oral histories are compelling to read, I've always liked social history. Politics makes me feel a bit sick, it seems to bring out the worst in everyone. But if you never speak up, what then?

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  13. Here's the thing: I think I would read it, simply because I love hearing stories from other people about their personal experiences. I might have a hard time getting through it, because it also sounds sort of depressing, like most of the stories center on failure in one format or another. Are any of the stories (other than Ophrah's and Jay-Z's) uplifting? Like any of the ones in the regular middle class? Otherwise, I think I'd walk away from it kind of depressed.

    I've been doing a lot of research about the turn of the 20th century, and believe it or not, the same predictions about our government and our system were being made then. Fortunately, we made it through a stock market crash and the Great Depression. The outlook on America tends to go in cycles, but you'll notice that when things get bad, many doomsday naysayers crawl out of the cracks.

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  14. Great review. I'd like to read this book, but everything about the "Great Recession" from any side of the debate just makes me so angry, probably because it still greatly affects me and everyone I know. I might need to give it a couple of more years before I delve into it.

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  15. Great review. Just reading this brings up so many insights. I'm trying to read a bit more non-fiction these days, so I'll add this to the list of possibilities. Sounds like a good book club book, too.

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