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"Decline and Fall: How American Society Unravelled" By George Packer, Author of 'The Unwinding'

Society & Culture  (tags: US society, social cohesion, social contract, greed, US elites, income inequality, deindustrialization, globalisation, rigged game, Wall St, Glass-Steagall, New Great Depression, 'The Unwinding', 'Inner History of, the New America', George Packer )

- 1726 days ago -
30 yrs ago, the old deal that held US society together started to unwind, wi social cohesion sacrificed to greed. Was it inevitable -or engineered by self-interested elites? In or around '78, America's character changed. Ordinary people's aspirations...

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LucyKaleido ScopeEyes (82)
Friday June 28, 2013, 7:56 am
the Guardian - "Decline and Fall: How American Society Unravelled" - Thirty years ago, the old deal that held US society together started to unwind, with social cohesion sacrificed to greed. Was it an inevitable process – or was it engineered by self-interested elites?, by George Packer, journalist for The New Yorker writing mainly on US foreign policy, and author of several books, including "The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq," & the recently published "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America."
(I cannot post the photographs that illustrate this article, nor can I reproduce all the links in the text, so take a look at Packer's article on the Guardian site)

In or around 1978, America's character changed. For almost half a century, the United States had been a relatively egalitarian, secure, middle-class democracy, with structures in place that supported the aspirations of ordinary people. You might call it the period of the Roosevelt Republic. Wars, strikes, racial tensions and youth rebellion all roiled national life, but a basic deal among Americans still held, in belief if not always in fact: work hard, follow the rules, educate your children, and you will be rewarded, not just with a decent life and the prospect of a better one for your kids, but with recognition from society, a place at the table.

This unwritten contract came with a series of riders and clauses that left large numbers of Americans – black people and other minorities, women, gay people – out, or only halfway in. But the country had the tools to correct its own flaws, and it used them: healthy democratic institutions such as Congress, courts, churches, schools, news organisations, business-labour partnerships. The civil rights movement of the 1960s was a nonviolent mass uprising led by black southerners, but it drew essential support from all of these institutions, which recognised the moral and legal justice of its claims, or, at the very least, the need for social peace. The Roosevelt Republic had plenty of injustice, but it also had the power of self-correction.

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.

At the time, the late 1970s felt like shapeless, dreary, forgettable years. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, preaching austerity and public-spiritedness, and hardly anyone was listening. The hideous term "stagflation", which combined the normally opposed economic phenomena of stagnation and inflation, perfectly captured the doldrums of that moment. It is only with the hindsight of a full generation that we can see how many things were beginning to shift across the American landscape, sending the country spinning into a new era.

In Youngstown, Ohio, the steel mills that had been the city's foundation for a century closed, one after another, with breathtaking speed, taking 50,000 jobs from a small industrial river valley, leaving nothing to replace them. In Cupertino, California, the Apple Computer Company released the first popular personal computer, the Apple II. Across California, voters passed Proposition 13, launching a tax revolt that began the erosion of public funding for what had been the country's best school system. In Washington, corporations organised themselves into a powerful lobby that spent millions of dollars to defeat the kind of labour and consumer bills they had once accepted as part of the social contract. Newt Gingrich came to Congress as a conservative Republican with the singular ambition to tear it down and build his own and his party's power on the rubble. On Wall Street, Salomon Brothers pioneered a new financial product called mortgage-backed securities, and then became the first investment bank to go public.

The large currents of the past generation – deindustrialisation, the flattening of average wages, the financialisation of the economy, income inequality, the growth of information technology, the flood of money into Washington, the rise of the political right – all had their origins in the late 70s. The US became more entrepreneurial and less bureaucratic, more individualistic and less communitarian, more free and less equal, more tolerant and less fair. 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. It as a period that I call the Unwinding.

In one view, the Unwinding is just a return to the normal state of American life. By this deterministic analysis, the US has always been a wide-open, free-wheeling country, with a high tolerance for big winners and big losers as the price of equal opportunity in a dynamic society. If the US brand of capitalism has rougher edges than that of other democracies, it is worth the trade-off for growth and mobility. There is nothing unusual about the six surviving heirs to the Walmart fortune possessing between them the same wealth as the bottom 42% of Americans – that's the country's default setting. Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are the reincarnation of Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie, Steven Cohen is another JP Morgan, Jay-Z is Jay Gatsby.

The rules and regulations of the Roosevelt Republic were aberrations brought on by accidents of history – depression, world war, the cold war – that induced Americans to surrender a degree of freedom in exchange for security. There would have been no Glass-Steagall Act, separating commercial from investment banking, without the bank failures of 1933; no great middle-class boom if the US economy had not been the only one left standing after the second world war; no bargain between business, labour and government without a shared sense of national interest in the face of foreign enemies; no social solidarity without the door to immigrants remaining closed through the middle of the century.

Once American pre-eminence was challenged by international competitors, and the economy hit rough seas in the 70s, and the sense of existential threat from abroad subsided, the deal was off. Globalisation, technology and immigration hurried the Unwinding along, as inexorable as winds and tides. It is sentimental at best, if not ahistorical, to imagine that the social contract could ever have survived – like wanting to hang on to a world of nuclear families and manual typewriters.

This deterministic view is undeniable but incomplete. What it leaves out of the picture is human choice. A fuller explanation of the Unwinding takes into account these large historical influences, but also the way they were exploited by US elites – the leaders of the institutions that have fallen into disrepair. America's postwar responsibilities demanded co-operation between the two parties in Congress, and when the cold war waned, the co-operation was bound to diminish with it. But there was nothing historically determined about the poisonous atmosphere and demonising language that Gingrich and other conservative ideologues spread through US politics. These tactics served their narrow, short-term interests, and when the Gingrich revolution brought Republicans to power in Congress, the tactics were affirmed. Gingrich is now a has-been, but Washington today is as much his city as anyone's.

It was impossible for Youngstown's steel companies to withstand global competition and local disinvestment, but there was nothing inevitable about the aftermath – an unmanaged free-for-all in which unemployed workers were left to fend for themselves, while corporate raiders bought the idle hulks of the mills with debt in the form of junk bonds and stripped out the remaining value. It may have been inevitable that the constraints imposed on US banks by the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 would start to slip off in the era of global finance. But it was a political choice on the part of Congress and President Bill Clinton to deregulate Wall Street so thoroughly that nothing stood between the big banks and the destruction of the economy.

Much has been written about the effects of globalisation during the past generation. Much less has been said about the change in social norms that accompanied it. American elites took the vast transformation of the economy as a signal to rewrite the rules that used to govern their behaviour: a senator only resorting to the filibuster on rare occasions; a CEO limiting his salary to only 40 times what his average employees made instead of 800 times; a giant corporation paying its share of taxes instead of inventing creative ways to pay next to zero. There will always be isolated lawbreakers in high places; what destroys morale below is the systematic corner-cutting, the rule-bending, the self-dealing.

Earlier this year, Al Gore made $100m (£64m) in a single month by selling Current TV to al-Jazeera for $70m and cashing in his shares of Apple stock for $30m. Never mind that al-Jazeera is owned by the government of Qatar, whose oil exports and views of women and minorities make a mockery of the ideas that Gore propounds in a book or film every other year. Never mind that his Apple stock came with his position on the company's board, a gift to a former presidential contender. Gore used to be a patrician politician whose career seemed inspired by the ideal of public service. Today – not unlike Tony Blair – he has traded on a life in politics to join the rarefied class of the global super-rich.

It is no wonder that more and more Americans believe the game is rigged. It is no wonder that they buy houses they cannot afford and then walk away from the mortgage when they can no longer pay. Once the social contract is shredded, once the deal is off, only suckers still play by the rules.

LucyKaleido ScopeEyes (82)
Friday June 28, 2013, 8:06 am
Also of interest & related
NYTimes BACKDROP - Living on Minimum Wage

At least one part of the labor force has expanded significantly since the recession hit: the low-wage part, made up of burger flippers, home health aides and the like.

Put simply, the recession took middle-class jobs, and the recovery has replaced them with low-income ones, a trend that has exacerbated income inequality. According to Labor Department data, about 1.7 million workers earned the minimum wage or less in 2007. By 2012, the total had surged to 3.6 million, with millions of others earning just a few cents or dollars more.

In his State of the Union address in February, President Obama made raising the federal minimum wage his banner economic proposal. The White House argued that increasing the wage to $9 an hour from its current $7.25 and indexing it to inflation would lift hundreds of thousands of families above the poverty line.

Combined with tax measures the administration has supported, Alan B. Krueger, the departing chairman of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, said that raising the minimum wage would undo “a lot of the rise in inequality we’ve seen over the last 20 years.”

But the proposal has gone nowhere. Democrats in Congress put forward a bill raising the minimum wage to more than $10 an hour, and their Republican counterparts voted it down.

Many conservatives and some economists say that raising the cost of employing workers results in fewer workers. “What happens when you take away the first couple of rungs on the economic ladder, you make it harder for people to get on,” John A. Boehner, the House speaker, has said.

Mr. Krueger disagrees. His work with David Card of the University of California, Berkeley (later replicated by others) demonstrated in a real-life experiment that raising the minimum wage did not result in businesses shedding workers, perhaps in part because it helped reduce turnover.

But for now, it seems the minimum will stay where it is. Because of inflation, the minimum wage loses value over time if it is not bumped up. Accounting for inflation’s effects, it is now worth less than in the 1960s and 70s. And, as the people pictured here can attest, getting by on it — whether the federal minimum or a state version, which can be somewhat higher — is getting harder.

What follows is a series of large-format photos of 6 people who've agreed to be part of this article and write up short accounts of what staying afloat entails for them, how their aspirations are blocked and how life on food stamps & McDonald's feels.

LucyKaleido ScopeEyes (82)
Friday June 28, 2013, 8:18 am
A review of Packer's book from the Chicago Tribune made me want to read it, until I got to the last paragraph. Here's an excerpt which includes that conclusion:

His latest work, "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America," is a fascinating hybrid. It borrows from John Dos Passos' 1930s "U.S.A." trilogy with its mosaic structure; its collages of headlines, song snippets, advertisements and other cultural markers; and its attempt to relate the story of America through its people. Packer fuses these literary techniques with immersion journalism to re-create actual American lives.

Packer's central characters include Jeff Connaughton, a lawyer and longtime "Biden guy" who ricochets between the public and private sectors; Dean Price, a North Carolina entrepreneur and biofuel enthusiast; and Tammy Thomas, a Youngstown, Ohio, factory worker and single mother turned community organizer.

Each of their stories is essentially a quest narrative, with the characters searching for both meaning and a secure livelihood in an increasingly chaotic social order. Each figure represents a different rung on the class ladder but has his or her eyes trained firmly upward.

Packer, an economical and often elegant writer, interweaves these stories, told in short takes, with reporting on distinctive American locales: Silicon Valley, Wall Street and, above all, Tampa — where the Great Recession and the housing crisis converged well before the Republicans gathered in 2012 to nominate Mitt Romney.

Especially vivid is the plight of the Hartzells, a family with decaying teeth, a sick daughter and few employment options who flee a roach-infested apartment in Tampa for the hope of a better life in Georgia. At the opposite end of the economic spectrum, representing Silicon Valley, is technology billionaire Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, an early Facebook investor and a committed libertarian who wants to be a force for good.

All of this makes for a richly complex narrative brew. And it is seasoned further by portraits of American success stories such as restaurateur Alice Waters, short-story writer Raymond Carver, Oprah Winfrey, Newt Gingrich, Colin Powell and Jay-Z. Packer is particularly sardonic toward Winfrey and Gingrich, but overall these portraits underline that, even in our broken America, an insatiable drive and periodic self-invention can lead to fame and riches.

The tone of "The Unwinding" is reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen, especially his 2012 "Wrecking Ball" album, a direct response to the Great Recession. (Even the book's title sounds like a Springsteen homage.) Packer and the characters he channels share a sense of restlessness, disillusion and even rage at America's failure to fulfill its economic promises.

"The establishment could fail and fail and still survive, even thrive. It was rigged to win, like a casino," Packer writes in a section on Connaughton. By contrast, the struggling families of America's de-industrializing South and Midwest seemed to have the game rigged against them. The death spiral was particularly severe in places like Youngstown, where the shuttering of small factories in the 1970s resembled "tremors preceding a massive quake."

The outlines of Packer's story are by now familiar. The Great Recession has spawned a flood of books on the reasons for the financial collapse, the insufficient governmental response, the principal players, the dilemma of rising inequality, and the impact of hard times on the middle and working classes.

Surveying "the new Depression journalism" in the April 29 New Yorker, Packer complains that too many recent books see the calamity only "through the filter of elite experience." He writes sympathetically about the exceptions, works of "documentary reportage" that include Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson's "Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression" (2011) and Barbara Garson's recent "Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession." .../...

A product of his times, Packer is skeptical of institutions and movements, from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street. Don't read "The Unwinding" expecting either grand epiphanies or nuts-and-bolts solutions to America's problems — only graceful writing and modest faith that a few dreamers and strivers among us may lead the way to a better future.

LucyKaleido ScopeEyes (82)
Friday June 28, 2013, 10:15 am
There IS a solution: it's in "The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger", a brilliant book by epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, who have spoken about it at numerous venues in their determined, indefatigable efforts to turn their findings into an international movement & government policy.

Many of their talks have been posted on YouTube. I have just taken a sampling! Listen to them:

A short intro to their findingsThe Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett: Groundbreaking analysis showing that greater economic equality -not greater wealth- is the mark of the most successful societies, and offering new ways to achieve it

More In-depth: Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett's Talk at the University of Washington, Seattle- Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger

Friends of the Earth Scotland and Edinburgh University Business School are proud to present The Spirit Level, a 45-minute long talk given by Richard Wilkinson

42 minutes: Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett present some hard evidence to show how many measures of well-being (including life expectancy, mental illness, violence, illiteracy, trust among people) are not related to how wealthy a society is, but to how equal it is. Their work is based on years of research presented in their groundbreaking book, "The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone"

Almost an hour: Richard Wilkinson on The Age of Unequals talk sponsored by TVO, Ontario's public educational media organization

LucyKaleido ScopeEyes (82)
Friday June 28, 2013, 1:55 pm
From 'The Spirit Level Documentary' site, a blog entry by Katharine Round, the film director: "Katharine Round is currently directing The Spirit Level documentary, a film based on the award-winning book of the same title, that looks at how wealth gap in developed countries impacts on all aspects of society. Watch the trailer and read her update on this link - The Spirit Level documentary: the story so far, and the next chapter.

If you scroll down just a bit after finishing director Round's blog entry & watching the trailer, you can also read the important piece by Labour commentator & 'Shifting Grounds' contributing editor Jeremy Cliffe, "Child poverty is absolute AND relative - why inequality matters." - "A new campaign is raising awareness of the social impact of inequality – and you can help."

Jelica R (144)
Friday June 28, 2013, 8:05 pm
Oh, dear. I should, at least, check those links before commenting, and sort my thoughts. Right now, they are like a pack of kittens, jumping and running in all directions, without any recognizable pattern. Give me a day...

LucyKaleido ScopeEyes (82)
Saturday June 29, 2013, 1:38 am
Jelica, i am one big pain in the ass - I overstuff my posts with too much information & end up intimidating everybody! What's more, I draw attention away from the initial post! Stupid! Stupid!

How about you just reading the posted article & commenting on that?

Then, when/if you have the time, take a look at anything else that strikes your fancy; & if you like, come back & comment on any of that. I'm not going away, you know! I would hope you take a look at some of the stuff on The Spirit Level, as the next priority. I think it's the greatest thing since the printing press & would like your opinion.

Hugs to you forever.

Susanne R (234)
Thursday July 4, 2013, 12:50 pm
I took your advice, Jill, and chose to comment on your first post. I was drawn immediately to the paragraph that appears below:

"Much has been written about the effects of globalisation during the past generation. Much less has been said about the change in social norms that accompanied it. American elites took the vast transformation of the economy as a signal to rewrite the rules that used to govern their behaviour: a senator only resorting to the filibuster on rare occasions; a CEO limiting his salary to only 40 times what his average employees made instead of 800 times; a giant corporation paying its share of taxes instead of inventing creative ways to pay next to zero. There will always be isolated lawbreakers in high places; what destroys morale below is the systematic corner-cutting, the rule-bending, the self-dealing."

Might this help explain the 1% vs. the 99%? When the greedy vultures saw their opportunity, they didn't hesitate before they capitalized on the "holes" in the system. Kind of like ALEC holding its secret meetings and writing legislature that benefits corporate millionaires and billionaires while destroying our environment, lowering our wages, putting us out of work and influencing our government and SCOTUS decisions --not to mention infringing on women's rights and tearing down the walls of "separation of church and state," while freely quoting our forefathers when doing so suits their needs.

And please don't ever refer to yourself as a "pain-in-the-ass"! Nothing could be further from the truth. This world needs people like you --intelligent and dedicated people who do their homework, have the courage of their convictions and who try to inform others in an effort to make positive change. I'm pleased to say that I've made several such friends here on Care2, and I'm honored to know them and call them 'my friends.'

Sheryl G (363)
Sunday July 21, 2013, 12:11 pm
Lucy with the Beautiful eyes.....when time is limited we tend to want to over stuff, to get important information out. But I do believe you are correct when you say, placing too much on takes away from the point needing to viewed. Might I suggest just leaving the links without the words that the links lead one too, that way it will be leaving less words onto the threads. You leave live links, so they should be able to open the link, if interested.

I'm long winded myself at times, so I more than understand. When I place on my own stories I try to not go on too much so as to leave the open conversation. We learn from each other, those reading but not adding to the comments also learn.

I saw an interview with Charlie Rose who had as his guest George Packer so I was aware of what was in the post. I had noted to give it some legs, coming back to see what others may of left for opinion. Got a wee bit of time so leaving my thoughts too.

Within the article it said:

It is only with the hindsight of a full generation that we can see how many things were beginning to shift across the American landscape, sending the country spinning into a new era.

My continued comment:I

Indeed, hindsight is a marvelous thing, but I think we all had opportunities to stand up to a lot of it but few will do so if they are comfortable, they don't want to rock THEIR boat.

I recall when my Mother lost her job in the Shoe Factory, few stood up for her. Yes, the people who are able to see down the road understood what this loss was meaning to her, but the majority of the talk was, people will have the benefit of cheaper shoes. Yes, shoes became cheaper but so did the quality, and no one thought about how those overseas now doing my Mother's job were being exploited nor that my Mother, a single Mom was left high and dry.

The other most common statement was "these are low wage jobs, they will be retrained and get better jobs." Well, there was no retraining for most of those who worked in the low ends, one just had to find another job. My Mother went to another factory making the parts for stereos, having to now purchase a car to get there as she could walk to the other job, her pay didn't go up, she had to start over at the bottom again in hourly wage plus now she had to take on car payments, gas costs, and what took her 10 minutes to walk now was a half hour drive one way, and she lost that job when that too went overseas.

Is always easy to look the other way when it isn't YOUR job, when it doesn't affect you. This sending jobs to other places only multiplied as few spoke up for the shoe workers, the mill workers, that it just moved over to the Steel Workers and all other types of work. When the Traffic Controllers were all fired under Reagan, all of the Unions should of stopped what they were doing and banded together. When a mass firing happens to one group then it could happen to any other group of workers.

Americans, feed the line, rugged Individualism, and caring about others is somehow evil, that is Commie talk or Socialism speaking. This only caring about oneself, how I'm doing, how my family is doing, without looking to see how is my neighbor doing has been our downfall. Yes, Americans are generous people, we'll help in lots of ways, but what we failed to see is that we didn't help in the Big ways that counted. Too many bought the Corporate lines without question, the "we will work smart in clean jobs and give those dirty manual labor jobs to those overseas."

Well my Mother who was only allowed to obtain an education up to age 16 when she was pulled out by her Mother to help with her 6 siblings was very happy to have that dirty manual labor job. By then protections had been placed in to those factories for safety, she got yearly vacations, she had health insurance, and a living wage pay. Was she living high on the hog, no, but she was able to keep a clean and safe roof over my head and hers, she was able to make sure that we had enough to eat. She did it as a single parent, she had a life that she was satisfied with, her friends were in the Shoe Shop, and the employer gave a yearly Christmas Party with bonus monies and toys for the children of the employees. There was a yearly picnic on the boss so everyone got together for a day off at the beach or a shaded park with lots of food. Imagine McDonalds or the Wal-Mart of today offering those things. ha ha ha.

Although I lay most the blame at the top, those who moved these things to become what we now are living under. However I also blame each of us for not speaking up more, we all need to take on some of the blame.

“Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
― Abraham Joshua Heschel

So my fellow Americans, do you sit by and watch it become worse just because it isn't affecting you as bad, or do you start rolling up your sleeves and start signing a few petitions, educating others, and joining as able in a few rallies or marches.

Do you vote for the same fools to get into office or do you educate yourself as to who will really stand for the best interests of this entire Country. Will you be willing even to look into 3rd Parties if there are no Candidates in either of the main Parties that have worked for the Highest and Best of this Country and the least among us.

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