The Saturday Read – George Packer ‘The Unwinding’

If you need additional convincing that the income gap between the wealthy and the ‘middle class’ is widening, set aside some time to read George Packer‘s ‘The Unwinding: An Inner History Of The New America‘. Originally published in 2013, the book takes us on a pilgrimage with a lead cast of three ‘American dreamers’: Dean Price, Jeff Connaughton and Tammy Thomas.

We meet Dean and Jeff in 1978 and Tammy in 1984. As each of their stories unfold, the author adds a ‘supporting cast’ of politicians, journalists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and ‘institution men’. It’s this supporting cast that influence decisions that effect the lives of Dean, Jeff and Tammy, but they are fuzzy background noise to the reality of trying to make a living in today’s United States.

“No one can say when the unwinding began – when the bolts that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way. Like any great change, the unwinding began at countless times, in countless ways – and at some moment the country, always the same country, crossed a line of history and became irretrievably different…When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.”

We encounter our ‘ordinary’ Americans at the beginning of their respective careers.

Dean Price earned a degree in political science and is hired as a pharmaceutical rep for Johnson and Johnson.  “It didn’t take him long to realize that he hated his job…He had bought into a lie: go to college, get a good education, get a job with a Fortune 500 company, and you’d be happy. He had done all that and he was miserable…He decided to start over and do things his own way. He would become an entrepreneur.”

Jeff Connaughton first met Joe Biden in 1979 at a meeting of the National Student Congress in Philadelphia. “Biden was youthful, he was witty, he knew how to talk to college students. Connaughton never forgot the moment.” 

After earning an MBA from The University of Chicago Business school he moved to New York to work for Smith Barney in their public finance department. His next job was at E.F. Hutton where he survived the company’s wire and mail fraud scandal. “He was a twenty-seven-year-od assistant vice president making more than a hundred grand, and yet he went home in the evenings thinking that this was not what he wanted to do with his life.”

“Biden was like a cult figure to me,” Connaughton said much later. “He was the guy I was going to follow because he was my horse.  I was going to ride that horse into the White House. That was going to be my next stop in life. I had done Wall Street, and I was going to do the White House next.”

Tammy Thomas grew up in Youngstown, Ohio as the city began to decline. “Tammy vowed to herself that she would not go on welfare and live in the projects. She didn’t want to have just enough to barely get by but not enough to actually be able to do anything. She didn’t want to get stuck.”

“She finished high school on time, in 1984, and became the first person in her family to get a diploma…She got an associate’s degree at a technical college and worked for two years as a supermarket cashier in the hope that she’d get a management job, but none opened up…But up in Warren, the Packard Electric plants were still operating, with eight thousand workers making wiring harnesses and electrical components for General Motors cars. It was lighter, cleaner work than steelmaking, and two-thirds of the employees were women, a lot of them single mothers like Tammy. She went in to the interview and was hired for the assembly line at $7.30 an hour. So in 1988 she got off welfare and became a factory worker.”

This is a book that will reconnect you with reality. In his review of the book for The New York Times, Dwight Garner concluded:

“At one point in “The Unwinding” we meet a talented reporter in Florida who is writing about the foreclosure mess. This reporter, we read, “believed that there were two kinds of journalists — the ones who told stories, and the ones who uncovered wrongdoing.”

Mr. Packer is both, and he’s written something close to a nonfiction masterpiece.”

What Work Is – A Poem by Philip Levine

On Fridays, at the end of the traditional work week, I want to share the poems that have given voice over time to workers and their work.

The poem this week is by former United States poet laureate Philip Levine who died on February 14. On Monday, Dwight Garner writing in The New York Times described his background and achievements: “Mr. Levine was born in Detroit, was educated in public schools and went to college at Wayne State in Detroit. He held, he liked to say, a lot of “stupid jobs.” Those stupid jobs informed his sense of the way so many Americans live.”

In 1991 Mr. Levine published a book of poetry, ‘What Work Is’.

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

Philip Levine reads “What Work Is” from What Work Is on NPR: