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Heading downhill fast

Journalist delivers pessimistic account of American economic conditions

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American decline has had a durable history. In 1679, Puritan ministers in Massachusetts lamented backsliding, tale-bearing, and galloping greed in their godly community.

Through subsequent years of revolution, civil war, mass immigration, recessions, industrial conflict and many wars, the American republic, though often deeply wounded, has shown resilience and an ability to reform that defies its harshest critics.

This time, U.S. journalist George Packer seems to suggest, it may be different. Packer, first among equals in that brilliant stable of political writers for the New Yorker magazine, has written a large, elegant book laden with a deeply pessimistic assessment of current American conditions. This is journalistic "reported" work, in the best sense.

In the familiar New Yorker style, Packer connects the generic to the particular: the Great Recession of 2008-2012 is reflected in the lives of a baker's dozen of common Americans, from a black singer and mother assembling wiring harness in Youngstown, Ohio, to as ex-farmer running truck stops in North Carolina.

What has been unwound, in all this anxious, sometimes desperate, experience is nothing less than the post-1945 settlement, which Packer calls the "Roosevelt Republic." Until the 1980s it seemed settled that the federal government would vigorously promote full employment, American industry would lead the world in productivity and innovation, and American culture would conquer the popular imagination.

The last 30 years have seen all these assumptions battered. In response, the people hunker down in shaky economic refuge, wondering if their lean-to will be blown away. Proud citizens who had three-bedroom homes and steady jobs find themselves working for Walmart and Target for $7.75 an hour with no benefits.

As if to mock their efforts, the images of the great celebrities they admire loom over them: Oprah Winfrey, full of sympathy, with all her capital O enterprises; the founders of PayPal, Google and Microsoft, whatever their charitable civic impulses, flying away in their personal jets; Jay-Z doing his rhymes for millions.

Worst of all, argues Packer, were the defaults of the "institution" figures. After a distinguished career, Colin Powell was suckered into justifying George W. Bush's Iraq War in the United Nations, making a fool of himself affirming fabricated evidence. There was Robert Rubin, the great leader of Goldman Sachs, who led the drive for de-regulation of investment banking in the Clinton administration.

Does Packer find any hope in this blasted landscape? He hears echoes of Roosevelt's New Deal and its regulatory spirit in the person of the "prairie populist," Elizabeth Warren, now pursuing the banking malefactors from her seat in the U.S. Senate. But her efforts seem vestigial when set against the spring floods of banking money flowing into national politics.

And Obama? Naive in basic economics, he too-readily embraced the advice of the champions of barely regulated banking, who argued the banks could not be broken up or strictly regulated. His campaigns depended as much upon investment money as his more extreme opponents.

The book's one big weakness is the imprecise discussion of these economic issues. Although the stagnation of median real wages over 30 years and the growing inequality of wealth clearly lie behind the experience of Packer's afflicted citizenry, he omits dry tables of economic data, which would get in the way of a good inner story.

Nor does he go the full route with the American economist Robert Gordon, who has recently argued that the period of immense industrial prosperity in the U.S. was but a century-long blip that will not be seen again.

If American history is an intriguing subject for you, and American politics seem to grow ever stranger, threatening and extreme, this book, in all its granular detail, is a must-have.


Garin Burbank taught U.S. history for 39 years at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2013 A1


Updated on Saturday, August 17, 2013 at 10:18 PM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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