Editor’s Note: September 2013

September 3, 2013

Trying to comprehend the ongoing economic disintegration of the United States, I've been reading The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. George Packer, a staffer at the New Yorker, has written an account of America's fall from grace in a peculiar, evocative way: as a series of closely reported profiles of both average Americans and some of those privileged few (Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton, economist Robert Rubin) who control the national conversation. In 400 pages, he does a remarkable job of showing how shortsighted greed and self-interest have cut so many of his countrymen adrift.

The chance to peer into ordinary lives in extraordinary times is addicting. Wanting more, I contacted Packer to ask a few follow-up questions. Did the research and writing leave him optimistic about his country's future? "The U.S. is undergoing an anemic economic recovery while its political institutions continue to sink into paralysis," he wrote back. "In the longer term, there are no signs of a revival of middle-class fortunes or of widely shared prosperity." So, no. I asked, too, whether he believes the economy has yet fully unwound. "It's difficult to describe the endpoint of a historical phenomenon from the inside, at its midpoint. I will say, glibly, that we'll know we've reached the end of this period when the share of national wealth held by the bottom 80 percent begins to increase and that held by the top five percent begins to decrease."

Yes, we have different banking laws and government oversight mechanisms, but culturally does he think we're capable of treating our least affluent as poorly as Americans have? "From what I understand, Canada has wisely kept its banking boring, its safety net intact, and its immigration policy open. I do think there's an only-in-America quality to some of the stories in The Unwinding. Positive thinking is part of our national creed, a combination of material and spiritual aspiration with a boundless faith in individual effort. It leaves Americans with the sense that if they can't make it, it must be their own fault."

Ask Packer your own questions when he appears at the Vancouver Writers Fest in October-just one of our must-do entertainment picks.

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