ONE OF THE most fascinating plot-points in the story of America’s financial crisis of 2008 was not how, as house prices started to plunge, the tables turned against those who’d invested in too large a property, or in too many. Rather it was how the tables spun and rattled and leapt like something out of Mary Todd Lincoln’s famous séances in the White House – turning against lending agencies and lawyers, then big banks, Wall Street, the government itself.
At first the debt-ridden homeowners simply relinquished their assets. The documents for foreclosure looked official enough. The Law Offices of So-and-So, Esq., on behalf of Nationwide Lending, or Bank of America, or some other vast untouchable entity. They did owe money after all, these once so optimistic homeowners; and if they couldn’t pay, the sheriff’s office would pin a summons to their door, and that was that.
But something wasn’t right. The banks’ paperwork bore fraudulent signatures, phony dates, bogus seals. The original title deeds for the houses were nowhere to be found, because financial institutions had been trading them like monopoly cards, that is, an online version of monopoly, or rather, an online version of monopoly hosted by an eight-year-old. “America’s mortgages turned out to be a hoax,” writes George Packer in his tremendous new book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Or, as one of his many carefully drawn subjects, a Tampa-based attorney named Matthew D. Weidner, sums it up: “Our entire system of property ownership is in chaos and turmoil.”
America has always produced some of the highest grade of hucksterism. Mark Twain captured the essence of this refinement in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, through a pair of petty charlatans who call themselves the “King” and the “Duke.” Twain understood the trickery of language; how easy it was to dupe a provincial Southerner by taking on a royal title, or employing (and usually massacring) a phrase from Shakespeare. Even more insightful, at one point Tom Sawyer imagines a coat of arms for Jim, the runaway slave. Tom’s description of the fake escutcheon is so opaque, so impossible to decipher – a “saltire murrey,” with “nombril points on a dancette indented” – that it’s as if Twain wants us to understand: Here, reader, is what it’s like to be enslaved by gibberish.
And so the brows of America furrowed at “synthetic collateralized debt obligations” and “credit default swaps” while melting in dreamy infatuation at the snake-oil evangelists feeding off their confusion. One of the great puzzles about America’s democracy, according to Packer, is how in recent years the underclass have favoured policies that hurt them. “White people [who were] getting poorer every day voted for a party [the Republicans] that wanted to deregulate Wall Street and zero out of the capital gains tax.” Just how Americans can formulate such wildly incongruous dreams and convictions is a mystery which Packer sets out to examine.
He assembles the full gamut of shady dealers, suspects, victims, heroes, innocent bystanders, all involved in what becomes the American “unwinding” – a decline, an implosion — between the years 1978 and 2012. The investigation is meticulous and often reads like a police report written by someone with an ear for J.S. Bach (Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, knows how a few closely observed refrains can transform into a fugue of social events). Front doors, closets, refrigerators are opened and searched; a struggling family in Tampa eat cheap Wal-Mart pizzas, “Velveeta Cheesy Skillets and six Salisbury steaks for $2.28,” while cockroaches, the small infesting kind (as opposed to the larger breed which Oprah Winfrey claims to have kept as pets in childhood), are found in “the bathroom sink and the kitchen Tupperware, the air-conditioning ducts blowing the horrible smell of their poo throughout the apartment.”
Trailer parks and cockroaches. Assembly lines, picket lines, tobacco barns and canola oil; porches and pool halls, maids and mansions and private planes and the elegant offices of a lobbyist in Washington D.C.; truck stops, Tastee Freez, Backyard Burgers, Hot Diggity Dog – The Unwinding is an elaborate mosaic of an elaborate country viewed as a con-game. And on September 11th, 2001, a financial day-trader gazes outside his office window in downtown Manhattan to see what looks like a ticker-tape parade. Only — the shreds of paper are on fire.
To be American is to grapple with the quackery of ambition. Some, like Shawn Corey Carter (a.k.a. Jay-Z, the rapper), who grew up in the Brooklyn projects selling cocaine and busting rhymes, are born hustlers, embracing their inner gangster, flaunting their guns, their diamonds, driving their BMWs straight into the Palace of Forbes. Some develop their guile over time. And some, like a four-star General named Colin Powell who showed up at the United Nations to peddle a fraudulent war, have their quackery thrust upon them.
The Unwinding is so effective at calibrating our fraud detectors, with alarms sounding every time Oprah enters the room, that it’s hard not to wonder if the book itself is a kind of artful dodge: A collection of Packer’s profiles made to look bulky, but ultimately unified by nothing more than the nationality of the subjects. Packer repackaged, so to speak. New, improved.
Possibly. But holding everything together are the fine details of disillusionment. And something profound, as well. “Empires decline when elites become irresponsible” is the banal observation of one of Packer’s characters, a congressman from Virginia. The Unwinding, however, is not just about irresponsibility, or about committing oneself to the latest self-help books only to wake up a few years later to discover the hoax (Packer alludes to the history of this tradition in America, from the popular 1937 book, Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill, to the cassette tapes by Glenn W. Turner, “Dare to be Great,” which sold for $5000 a piece in the 1960s). Rather, The Unwinding captures the moment when the veil rips open and we catch a glimpse of the world; when our eyes de-scale and Jim, the runaway slave, sees Huck’s chicanery for what it is; and Huck sees Jim as more than a target for tomfoolery (“It made me feel so mean,” says Huck, “I could almost kissed his foot.”). It’s the pained epiphany that comes in a crisis. A once touted wisdom turns to gibberish, and authority descends into rancour…
…the din of shouting in town halls and on AM radio, cable TV, and the Internet; the hostile and anonymous commercials filling the airwaves, paid for by the coal and insurance companies and the Koch brothers; the entanglement of cash, interest groups and spinelessness on Capitol Hill; the strangely ineffectual Obama White House.
It’s that moment when a city’s tallest building starts to shake, and someone shouts for everyone to stay calm, the Fire Marshall is on his way, but you think like Packer’s day-trader did on that terrible day: “I’m not staying calm. I’m getting the fuck out of here.” As Packer sums it up: “In a crisis you realized that society operated without anyone knowing deep down what the hell was really going on.”