George Packer, “THE UNWINDING: An Inner History of the New America” | Talks At Google

George Packer. I’m a fellow New Yorker. That’s my latest book, “The
Unwinding: An Inner History in the New America.” And I’m on
staff of “The New Yorker” magazine, where I’ve been a
staff writer for 10 years. And it’s great to be in
heaven at Google. I was on the West
Coast version of heaven a few weeks ago. So forgive me if I say a few of
the things that I said out in San Francisco. But I’m going to leave a lot
of time for questions. And because you’re New Yorkers
and not San Franciscans, I don’t expect you to be as polite
as they were out there. So “The Unwinding” is a book
about the past generation of American life really from the
late ’70s up to the present, and some of the big changes that
have passed through the country and changed
people’s lives. It’s really a book about how
certain institutions that used to work on behalf of the
majority of Americans, sort of supporting the aspirations of
middle class Americans, from schools, government
corporations, to the media, have eroded, and how the idea of
a kind of cohesive society has begun to fall apart. And how the deal that used to
exist among Americans, which said that if you worked hard
and if you educated your children, that not only would
you have a secure place and they might have an even better
one, but you would have recognition in society. There would be a place
at the table for you. And although that deal left out
a lot of Americans, it had within it the tools to correct
those injustices and to include more. And over the past generation,
that deal, which you could call the social contract, has
frayed to the breaking point so that more and more we are a
country of winners and losers. We are both more free and less
equal than a generation ago. We are more inclusive
and more stratified. Those two things have been
happening at the same time. These are not unfamiliar
themes. And, in fact, you’ve probably
heard of a lot of books that deal with issues like income
inequality, globalization, the effect of the information
revolution on society, the decline of the middle class,
political polarization, the rise of both organized money
in Washington and also an organized right wing
in Washington. All of those are themes of “The
Unwinding.” But they’re not talked about explicitly
because this is not another policy book. It’s not another “10 things that
are wrong with America and 10 ways to fix them.” I
don’t have a prescription. So don’t ask me for one. What this is closer
to is a novel. It reads like a big, panoramic,
but also quite intimate novel about American
life over the past generation except that all of it had
to clear fact-checking. It’s all true. But it has texture and the focus
on individual lives that you expect from a novel. And I hope it has the narrative
power and the pull of a novel that makes you want
to know what happens next, and what’s going to happen to these
characters, and how are they going to recover from the
latest setback in their lives. So I’m going to read from the
very short prologue, which will give you a feel for the
language of the book and for the scope of the book. And then I’ll introduce some
of the characters a bit. And then we should spend most
of the time having a conversation. No one can say when the
unwinding began, when the coil 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. If you were born around 1960
or afterward, you’ve spent your adult life in the vertigo
of that unwinding. You watched structures that had
been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of
salt across the vast visible landscape– the farms of the Carolina
Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things harder to
see, but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday
life changed beyond recognition– ways and means in Washington
caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners
and morals everywhere. When the norms that made the old
institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders
abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt republic that had
reined for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the
default force in American life, organized money. The unwinding is nothing new. There have been unwindings every
generation or two, the fall to earth of the founders
heavenly republic in a noisy marketplace of quarrelsome
factions, the war that tore the United States apart and
turned them from plural to singular, the crash that laid
waste to the business of America making way for
a democracy of bureaucrats and everymen. Each decline brought renewal. Each implosion released
energy. Out of each unwinding
came a new cohesion. The unwinding brings freedom
more than the world has ever granted and to more kinds of
people than ever before. Freedom to go away, freedom to
return, freedom to change your story, get your facts, get
hired, get fired, get high, marry, divorce, go broke, begin
again, start a business, have it both ways, take it to
the limit, walk away from the ruins, succeed beyond your
dreams and boast about it, fail abjectly and try again. And with freedom, the unwinding brings its illusions. For all these pursuits are as
fragile as thought balloons popping against circumstances. Winning and losing are
All-American games and in the unwinding, winners win bigger
than ever, floating away like bloated dirigibles. And losers have a long way to
fall before they hit bottom. And sometimes they never do. This much freedom leaves
you on your own. More Americans than ever
before live alone. But even a family can exist in
isolation, just managing to survive in the shadow of a huge
military base without a soul to lend a hand. A shiny new community can spring
up overnight miles from anywhere, then fade
away just as fast. An old city can lose its
industrial foundation and 2/3 of its people while all
its mainstays– churches, government, businesses, charities, unions– fall like building flats
in a strong wind, hardly making a sound. Alone on a landscape without
solid structures, Americans have to improvise their own
destinies, plot their own stories of success
and salvation. A North Carolina boy clutching
a Bible in the sunlight grows up to receive a new vision of
how the countryside could be resurrected. A young man goes to Washington
and spends the rest of his career trying to recall the idea
that drew him there in the first place. An Ohio girl has to hold her
life together as everything around her falls apart until
in middle age she finally seizes the chance to do
more than survive. As these obscure Americans
find their way in the unwinding, they pass alongside
new monuments where the old institutions once stood. The outsized lives of their
most famous countrymen, celebrities who only grow
more exalted as other things recede. These icons sometimes occupy
the personal place of household gods. And they offer themselves as
answers to the riddle of how to live a good or better life. In the unwinding, everything
changes and nothing lasts, except for the voices– American voices– open, sentimental, angry, matter
of fact, inflected with borrowed ideas, God, TV, and
the dimly remembered past. Telling a joke above the noise
of the assembly line, complaining behind window
shades drawn against the world, thundering justice to
a crowded park or an empty chamber, closing a deal on the
phone, dreaming aloud late at night on a front
porch as trucks rush by in the darkness. So that prologue gives you
a map of the entire book. It introduces you to all the
key people and places that you’re going to meet. And what I wanted to do was to
combine the very obscure people you’ve never heard of– and would be unlikely to
hear of if not for reading about them– to the most famous people in the
country, from Tammy Thomas who is the Ohio girl growing
up in Youngstown amid the collapse of the steel industry
and the collapse of the city, trying to survive and raise
three children on one of the last good assembly
line jobs left. To Newt Gingrich, who stands,
I think, more than any other politician, for the toxic
atmosphere of demonization that we’ve come to expect as
normal in our politics. From Jeff Connaughton, who’s the
Washington guy who arrives there full of idealism and
becomes an aide to a young senator named Joe Biden,
thinking he will ride Biden’s charisma into the White House,
and then gradually becomes disillusioned and ends up
becoming a lobbyist and passing through that revolving
door that so many people in Washington do, makes a lot of
money, loses a lot of money in the financial crisis, which is
sort of the critical moment– the reckoning– for almost all the characters in
the book, and decides to go back into government one last
time as the chief of staff to Biden’s successor, Ted Kaufman,
in order to try to make Wall Street pay
for what it did in the financial crisis. From him to Alice Waters, the
food evangelist of local cuisine and organic food. From Peter Thiel, whom you
probably know is the founder of PayPal and the first outside
investor in Facebook and a libertarian philosopher of
sorts in his own right, to Jay-Z, who as much as anyone
sort of represents the culture of coming from nowhere to the
top and what it says about celebrity today. So you move between people
you don’t know and the most famous. You also move between
the power centers– Washington, Wall Street,
Silicon Valley– and some of the forgotten parts
of the country, such as the textile and tobacco region
of North Carolina where you meet a man named Dean
Price, who is the son of tobacco farmers. His father was a failed
fire-and-brimstone preacher who eventually took
his own life. And Dean grew up in the shadow
of his father’s failure, determined to become independent
and to make his own way as an entrepreneur. And Dean’s set up a chain of
truck stops and fast food restaurants along a stretch of
US 220 between Greensboro, North Carolina and Martinsville,
Virginia. And for a while, he was making
a go of it selling gas and fried chicken until he realized
that Walmart up the hill on the interstate or on the
state road and Sheet’s Oil next door with low-cost gasoline
were squeezing him so that he couldn’t compete. The word he used was hogtied. The multinationals
had him hogtied. And meanwhile, the economy of
the region was plummeting so that people were more and more
dependent on Walmart for everything that they needed. So in the middle of his career,
with his chain of truck stops beginning to topple
with the financial crisis, Dean Price, who in
unconventional ways is a very religious man and sees his life
as a kind of a quest, had an epiphany. And that epiphany was he needed
to get away from this model of selling imported
oil and fast food. He needed to move
into alternative energy, into biodiesel. And that the source of it was
all around him, these fallow tobacco farms that could
be used to grow canola. And out of canola oil could
come biodiesel. All the fast food and barbecue
joints around him that threw out their waste oil at the end
of the night, that waste oil could be used to
make biodiesel. So at the passage I’m going to
read now, Dean is just on the cusp of this epiphany of moving
out of his old business into this new one, still an
entrepreneur, but with a vision of not just how he could
make a fortune, but how he could remake the countryside
which had fallen on these hard times. The landscape Dean had returned
to where he planned to live out his life was very
old and also new, as particular as anything in
America and also as generic, as beautiful and as ugly. In his imagination, it had
become a nightmare, so profoundly wrong that
he called it sinful. And he hated the sin more than
any casual visitor or distant critic possibly could. Yet he also saw here a dream of
redemption so unlikely and glorious that it could only
fill the mind’s eye of a visionary native son. Once, driving through Cleveland
County, Dean happened to pass the hardshell
Baptist Church that his father had once tried to get but
failed, the failure that had broken his father’s will. Dean had gone down with them to
Cleveland County and heard the sermon that his father had
given for his audition back around 1975. So that decades later, he
recognized the church. And he also noticed that there
was now a fucking Bojangles right next door. For Dean, Bojangles had come to
represent everything that was wrong with the way Americans
lived, how they raised their food and
transported it across the country, how they grew the crops
to feed the animals they ate, the way they employed the
people who worked in the restaurants, the way the money
left the community. Everything about it was wrong. Dean’s own business– gas and fast food– had become hateful to him. And he saw the error of his ways
as his father never had. And the conjunction of his
father’s legacy and his own struck him with bitter irony
as he drove past. He was seeing beyond on the
surfaces of the land to its hidden truths. Some nights he sat up late on
his front porch with a glass of Jack and listened to the
trucks heading south on 220 carrying crates of live chickens
to the slaughter houses always under cover of
darkness, like a vast and shameful trafficking. Chickens pumped full of hormones
that left them too big to walk. And he thought how these same
chickens might return from their destination as pieces of
meat to his floodlit Bojangles up the hill from his house. And that meat would be drowned
in the bubbling fryers by employees whose hatred
of the job would leak into the cooked food. And that food would be served up
and eaten by customers who would grow obese and end up in
the hospital in Greensboro with diabetes or heart
failure, a burden to the public. And later, Dean would see them
riding around the Mayodan Walmart in electric carts
because they were too heavy to walk the aisles of the
super center, just like hormone-fed chickens. Somehow in North Carolina, that
passage got a big laugh. Maybe not in Google New York. Dean’s story, the story of Tammy
Thomas in Youngstown, Jeff Connaughton in Washington,
Peter Thiel in Silicon Valley are the backbone
of the narrative. And you move between them as
their lives move from the late ’70s to the present and as you
also meet the VIPs, the celebrities, who cast a
different light on the big events and trends
of the period. And I hope that the overall
feeling is not completely one of darkness and despair. I’ve been accused of peddling
a pessimistic message here. But when you know someone like
Dean Price or Tammy Thomas, when you listen to Peter Thiel
talk about the future, when you see someone like Jeff
Connaughton coming back to try to right the wrongs of
Washington, it’s very hard to be completely pessimistic
about America. I get pessimistic when I think
about the big picture, like the 10 things wrong with America
and how to fix them, when I think about Washington
and Wall Street. But when I’m writing about these
individuals, there’s a certain resilience and a
resourcefulness in them, a refusal to quit that might be
particularly American and that tells me there’s still people
who have an investment in what used to be called the
American Dream. So that’s “The Unwinding.” And
now I am happy to try to answer whatever questions
you might have. AUDIENCE: Hi. GEORGE PACKER: Hi AUDIENCE: So one of the things
that your prologue was making me think about was the
connection between the breakdown of community
structures and the lack of money caused by the financial
collapse. Our CEO Eric Schmidt, one thing
that he’s said from time to time is more money solves
all known problems. GEORGE PACKER: All
known problems. AUDIENCE: Yes. GEORGE PACKER: Right. AUDIENCE: I don’t necessarily
agree. But do you think, without the
financial collapse, this breakdown of community would
still be going on? Do you think it was
just unmasked by the financial collapse? Or do you think it was
brought about by the financial collapse? GEORGE PACKER: I think it
was unmasked by it. That’s why my book
begins in 1978. My guess is most people
in this room were not born in 1978. I was a teenager. It seemed like a dreary,
formless, impossible to define kind of dismal time. Jimmy Carter was in
the White House. The big song was the Bee Gees
from “Saturday Night Fever.” And yet, looking back, that
was a key moment. Several things were
happening at once. And so to answer your question,
it’s been a generation-long development
that the financial crisis accelerated, brought out in the
open, but didn’t cause. De-industrialization really
began to take off. Tammy Thomas’ story from
Youngstown is about what happened when the steel
mills started shutting in the late ’70s. The rise of the personal
computer– the Apple II in 1977 was like
the beginning of, really, the popularisation of computers,
which led to what you do. And big money coming to
Washington began around ’78 with lobbying as
a major force. So did the rise of
the new right. Gingrich came to Washington
in ’78– that’s one reason why he’s
profiled in the book– with a purpose not to build up
the institution of Congress, but to tear it down and out of
the rubble to build his own base of power and the power of
the conservative movement. So what you see is the beginning
not of building institutions, but of
tearing them down. And you see the physical
results in towns all over the country. But you also see the social
results in the lack of structures that people
can count on. Now one thing we might talk
about is whether the structure called the internet is beginning
to replace those old social structures. And we can discuss that. But I think you were getting at something with your question. And if so, I agree with you that
this has been something much longer than just a
five-year process, as you will find out if you ask anyone from
the Midwest or from rural North Carolina. AUDIENCE: Thanks. GEORGE PACKER: Yes? AUDIENCE: You alluded to the
public school system in California. But my sense was that while
California may be the worst of it, the public school system
all over the country has degraded since the ’70s. Why pick on California? And what do you have to say
about the public school system in the US overall over
the last few decades? GEORGE PACKER: Well, I’m picking
on California because I’m a product of the California public school system. And I graduated, again, in
that key year of 1978. Maybe I’ve started the book
then because I think everything began the year I
got out of high school. But, in fact, that was also the
year of Proposition 13, which was the first big shot
fired in the tax revolt and which initiated a wave of
anti-tax initiatives across the country. And in California, the results
were almost immediate and devastating. It went from being the best
public school system in the country and then over the
following decades to being down there close
to Mississippi. Now there are other
reasons, too. There are social reasons. There’s reasons of poverty,
of how people raise their children, of family structure. But without the funding– and I know this because
my son goes to public school here in New York. And I have to bring in the
paper towels at the start of the year. When I was in school, the
parents did not have to bring in the paper towels. So there’s been a starving of
resources of public schools across the country, which is
maybe what you’re getting at. But California is the most
egregious case, so they deserve to be picked on. Yes? AUDIENCE: One of the reasons
that I’m excited about your book is that when the folks that
I know in Silicon Valley and myself talk about the
institutions that you’re talking about, we talk
about them in a very technocratic way. When we talk about government,
we talk about externalities and nudges and things
like that. And certainly in your book–
and it seems like the characters that you’re talking
about– there are the VIPs and then there’s the rest– it seems like there’s a thread
that these things have some sort of moral significance. And I was wondering if could
talk about that distinction. GEORGE PACKER: That’s a
great way to put it. You’re absolutely right. I mean, institutions are
complicated things. And they’re made up of rules, of
traditions and precedents, of the technical ways in which
they function, but also of deals between people and of
people’s attitudes toward each other, and what corners they’re
willing to cut, and how much they’re willing
to get away with. And one of the things that’s
happened over the past generation is our leaders have
been willing to get away with more and more. And the taboos and sort
of social stigmas have dropped away. And once that happens, it’s hard
to put them back because people don’t want to be the
sucker at the table. I wrote a piece that maybe some
of you saw in “The New Yorker” about the political
culture of Silicon Valley. And there seems to be more and
more interest in government in Silicon Valley. And one expression of that is an
idea of using technology as a model for how government can
be organized and how to fix what’s wrong with government. So that we have new apps that
are there really more for citizens to use in order to
interact with government and to improve the way it works. I have nothing against those. I think they’re all
good steps. I just don’t want to
over-hype them. Because government really
comes down to power and resources and conflicts of
interests and conflicts of values, which don’t really yield
to technological fixes. It has an engineering component,
but it also has a moral and a social component. Issues of justice and fairness
can’t be solved by computers. So although I’m interested in
Citizenville, I don’t look to it for all the answers. Yes? AUDIENCE: In your introduction,
you talk about the unwinding and subsequent
renewals throughout American history. Given that you’ve studied the
unwinding, what are you seeing as being what could potentially
be the renewal? GEORGE PACKER: You know, there’s
several models that I’ve seen out there. And I’ll talk about them. And then I’ll tell you why I
don’t see in any of them a really convincing long-term
solution. One is localism, which is to say
Washington does not have the answers. It’s just a paralyzed place. And it is. I was just there a week
ago on my book tour. And as soon as I got out at
Union Station, I just felt this heaviness settle over
me like this is not where things get fix. This is where problems
are made. So it’s become a self-fulfilling
prophecy. Do you remember Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address? He famously said government
is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem. By saying that, he guaranteed
that it would be true. And it’s become true because
there are a lot of people in Washington who want to
see government fail. Imagine if you had people at the
head of tech companies who wanted to see technology fail. It would fail. So in response to that, there
is a sense among people, including people like Dean Price
in North Carolina, that they have to find answers
where they are for the problems that they have. And one thing I really admire
about Dean and Tammy Thomas in Youngstown is they
have not left. They’ve stuck it out in these
hard-pressed areas and improvised answers. For Dean, the answer to the
failure of tobacco is not tobacco or a cash crop. It’s to use the land, to
revitalize the land, doing something that needs to be done,
which is to create fuel in order to get us off foreign
oil and off our dependence on it. So that holds some promise, I
think, for North Carolina. But is localism multiplied
across the country going to solve these bigger institutional
erosions? I’m skeptical because we’re just
too complex a society. We’re too intertwined. We’re too interconnected, and
not just by technology. For every little region to have
its own Dean Price as an entrepreneur with an idea,
it’s a good thing. But it doesn’t have, to me, the
makings of something that can really re-bind the country
in the way that, say, the New Deal did after the Wall
Street crash. And another model
is the internet. There’s some writers like Steven
Johnson who hold the internet up, and the concept of
peer networks, of breaking down hierarchies and
establishing connections with people across different groups
by virtue of something like Kickstarter, something like
Wikipedia, something like a new currency that don’t rely on
centralized models and on government structures, but are
much more happening in civil society and happening
through technology. And there, too, you know, Peter
Thiel is in my book because although he’s a tech
billionaire and one of the most successful tech investors
in the world, he asks the skeptical questions that need
to be asked, and that should be asked, above all, at
a place like this. How much of a change are
we really making? How broad is it? Why is it that the 35 years
from the Apple II to the present, to the apotheosis of
Google and Facebook, have also been 35 years of middle
class decline? Is there a relation between
those two phenomena? Are they independent? These to me are key questions,
and questions that all too few people in Silicon Valley are
answering or even are asking because their success has
decoupled them, to some extent, from the fate of the
rest of the country. So Thiel is a skeptic that the
internet is more than a net positive, but not a big one, as
he put it to me, which is a shocking thing to hear from
the founder of PayPal. He doesn’t think the internet
has done enough to raise living standards and bring broad
prosperity in the same way that the earlier
industrial age did. Maybe it’s too soon. You know, maybe in the
next generation we’ll see the benefits. But when I hear some people it
tech talking about, well, cash value is overrated. And what we really need to focus
on is all the social value of technology companies. That’s when I get a little
bit suspicious. Because it seems as if you’re
saying as long as you have very cool new ways to hang out
with your friends online and otherwise by mobile, you
shouldn’t worry too much about whether there’s a job for you. Because jobs are overrated. Well, tell that to Tammy
Thomas in Youngstown. So that’s a long way of saying
there are new ideas about how society is reorganizing
itself in this wide open and chaotic time. I haven’t seen the outlines of
a convincing reorganization that actually will bring broad
benefits to most of us. Any more? Yes? AUDIENCE: So as institutions are
declining that people used to rely on, what did you find? Were there any patterns in the
characters of your books on what people were falling back
on to do what they needed to do in their lives? GEORGE PACKER: That’s
a great question. You’re on the right track. Yes, Dean Price does not have
a business association or a newspaper or union or a local
college behind him. So what he has is a very
American faith in himself handed down through different
folk philosophers from our past starting with Emerson and
“Self-Reliance” and then, in Dean’s case, this guy
Napoleon Hill. Has anyone here heard
of Napoleon Hill? Very few people have. He was like the first “how to
succeed in business” guru in American history. And he wrote a book called
“The Law of Success” and another book called “Think
and Grow Rich,” which are codifications of all that he
learned from Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford and John
D. Rockefeller and the titans of his age. He’s like the Timothy Ferriss
of the early 20th century. And Dead has imbibed that
philosophy of if you can think it and conceive and believe it,
you can achieve it, which is also the philosophy you find
on pop culture figures like Oprah Winfrey, who is also
one of the celebrities I profile in the book. And it’s a very tenacious
American idea. And I think it is especially
prevalent in times when people feel the normal channels of
upward mobility have been closed off. So they have to fall back on
what might be a kind of magical thinking about the
powers of the mind. So that’s one. I mean, religion is a key in
the lives of many of the characters in my book, but
not organized religion. They’re not really involved– Tammy Thomas, briefly– but not so involved in a
particular church, but more in, again, a kind of individual
faith that might connect them to something
invisible, but not necessarily to other people. There is a real alone-ness to
the lives of these characters. And they are very much carrying
the weight of their lives by themselves. Yes? AUDIENCE: Hi. So there’s a conventional wisdom
that’s been around for a while that says that first the
industrial revolution and then the information revolution
have push jobs up the educational food chain by
eliminating the need for unskilled labor, but that the
high-skilled jobs that replaced them have
been even better. But then there’s been
a counter push to that idea recently. I know Paul Krugman wrote an
editorial recently in which he warned about the day when
computers can take over the functions of lawyers
and doctors and software engineers. GEORGE PACKER: Software? No, not software engineers. AUDIENCE: Well? GEORGE PACKER: You can’t
take that away. AUDIENCE: Well, as they say,
the singularity is coming. GEORGE PACKER: Yeah,
that’s sort of a Peter Thiel idea, too. AUDIENCE: So I’m just wondering
where you stand on this debate. And what do you think would
happen if computers became so intelligent that none of us– GEORGE PACKER: That there’d
be no need for us? AUDIENCE: Yeah, basically. GEORGE PACKER: No need
for writers? No need for advertisers? I’d say, we might
as well give up. AUDIENCE: Or does it mean that
our concept of capitalism itself needs rethinking? GEORGE PACKER: There you
get closer to the Jaron Lanier idea. I don’t know if any of you know
his new book, which is also a critical picture of where
technology has brought the economy over the
last generation. There seem to be a whole bunch
of books coming out right now that are beginning to look more
critically at tech, which I think is a good thing. Not that it deserves to be
torn down, but it’s so powerful and so successful
that it needs to be scrutinized with as much
critical energy as the oil and gas sector or the lobbying
industry. You’ve just outlined of
terrifying portrait of the future where none of
us are necessary. My editor who’s here
is not necessary. None of you are. I mean, I thought at least the
software engineers would be spared, just running around in
the ruins of the singularity. But is that conventional
wisdom? Or is it wisdom that
you just outlined? I mean, it seems to me that
is what’s happened. The industrial revolution took
away a lot of jobs and created a lot of jobs. And the jobs it created were,
for a while, better jobs. We’re now at a stage where
a lot of those jobs have disappeared partly because
of technology. But there are some very good
jobs that have been created in the ruins. And a lot of them
are right here. I mean, what could be better
than working for Google? You get all these benefits that
are just unthinkable to people in other industries. But there’s not that
many of you. Google’s pretty big compared
to Facebook and Twitter. What you’re suggesting is with
Moore’s law, we’re getting closer to the point where even
Google could reduce to maybe 200, or maybe 20,
or maybe two. And then the people at the top
will continue to tell us that Moore’s law is good. But the question of
good for whom will be even more pertinent. So I guess you pretty much
answered your question. No one outside of a tiny, tiny
little group could be happy with the picture that you’ve
portrayed of the future. I think there will have to be
some rethinking about the idea of inevitable progress coming
with technological change, which is not necessarily
an argument. But it’s almost a faith that
people in the tech world have, and which people outside it
might be a little more skeptical of. One more? AUDIENCE: In your time travel
back to the late ’70s, permit me to observe that that’s also
the era when deregulation started to appear and gain
momentum, and looked to many people like common sense. Because they always pick the
horror story of needing five guys to change a light bulb at
Lincoln Center, or whatever the examples are always
phrased as. Do you believe that contributed
to the unwinding? Or do you think it’s part of
the unwinding’s emphasis on personal choice and
personal freedom? Why would I want to be regulated
if my own personal freedom is the most
important thing? GEORGE PACKER: Right, right. Well, one purpose of regulation,
actually, is to create a little barrier between
you and the power of corporations, which
could be called a kind of personal freedom. So I wouldn’t pit regulations
against freedom quite so neatly. But you’re absolutely right
that the late ’70s– and it started under Democrats, too, we forget that– in which transportation,
airlines, telecommunications, oil and gas were all– the
deregulation began then. In fact, Edward Kennedy was one
of the main champions of deregulation. It seemed like common sense. And perhaps it was at the time
because the economy had really run up against some pretty
serious contradictions. The word stagflation, which some
of you might not be too familiar with, was like
mortgage-backed securities back then. It was the thing. It was like the virus that
we couldn’t get rid of. And it seemed like deregulation
and the financialization of the economy
through unleashing Wall Street was the
answer to that. So every answer creates
a new problem. And the de-unionization, which
also really had its beginnings in the late ’70s with the
decline of manufacturing that, too, to some people, seemed
like common sense. Unions were standing in
the way of progress. Well, unions also created a
middle class that would provide a huge mass of consumers
for the products that were made in
this country. So for every problem you
solve, you might create a new one. And now, I think we’ve run up
against maybe the outer limits of maximizing freedom. There’s always a balance between
freedom and equality. And what we’ve done in the past
generation is moved as far as you can get toward
freedom without having society flying apart at the seams. And that’s what I see
happening now. And yet there is this irony,
which is we’ve also become more inclusive. I don’t see why we couldn’t
have become more inclusive without becoming less equal. Why we couldn’t have gay boy
scouts and good public schools at the same time. Maybe time for one
more question? Is there one more? Yes? AUDIENCE: So a lot of the
decline of manufacturing, I guess, in the US correlates, I
think, with the decline in the middle class. And that correlates, I think,
with globalization. Do buy in to that? And if you do, should we feel
bad about the relative minor decline in American standard
of living when hundreds of millions of Chinese have
significantly better standard of living because of this? GEORGE PACKER: Right, right. Well, you’re asking why should
we care more about Americans than about other people, which
is a big question. This book is very insular. It’s very much focused on this
country, even though it’s aware of these big changes
happening elsewhere. I guess I feel concerned
about my country. It’s like being worried
about your family. You don’t want it to fail. You want your children to
grow up in a good place. We’re not all just citizens
of the world now. We still belong to certain
physical places that are going to shape our future. So that’s one motive for
my writing the book. You’re right that globalization
brought benefits to a lot of people and that
there was something inevitable about it. I’m not going to fall into the
trap of saying we should rewind to a period before we
had instant communications around the world. It’d be crazy. But what I see happening is
along with these macroeconomic forces sweeping in, there have
been social and even moral changes coming through the back
door and taking advantage of the big upheavals
in the economy. Which is to say our leaders’
vision growing narrower and more self-centered and more
willing to do what benefits to them at the greater expense. An idea that used to exist in
places where you wouldn’t expect to find it, of having
some responsibility beyond one’s own most immediate
interest. I don’t see that very much. I don’t see it in elected
officials. I don’t see it in former
elected officials. And I don’t see it in business
leaders very much either. And to ask yourself, did
it have to be this way? You can compare us to a country
like Germany, subject to all the same forces of
globalization, immigration, the pressures on
manufacturing. And yet, they made decisions
there that has retained that social contract among Germans
that we have been willing to tear up. We decided we’re going to let
the landscape be denuded and new things will be built. And so some new things are
being built, like this. But I’m concerned about the
country my children are going to grow up in. And I’m not sure there’ll be
jobs at Google for them. So that’s a long-winded
answer. And I’ve been a little
long-winded in general. But I really thank
you all for your attention and your welcome.

10 thoughts on “George Packer, “THE UNWINDING: An Inner History of the New America” | Talks At Google

  • 36:36 Instead of thinking of it as Doom and Gloom, imagine having everything so automated and technically advanced that each of our needs are met locally with no human labor. Machines can shepherd livestock and tend gardens! Then, if we choose to work, it would be in the arts, crafts, philosophy et cetera and if you chose not to work–then I'll see you on the lake as I float by on my 3D printed wind-surfboard. =)

  • By introduction of Unconditional Basic Income. Everyone should be entitled to guaranteed modest lifestyle, including healthcare and education. Automation can provide that.
    Culture is still obsessed with *job* as something dignifying in all cases. Huge majority is not. Everyone is desperately trying to fit somewhere as a middleman, from redundant shop clerks to pharma bribed doctors. Just look honestly around you. Most jobs today are made-up bullshit meant to justify status quo of 20th century.

  • So who gets this UBI?
    If it's everyone, the task of setting up structures that would allow this is a century(s) long task in a world where you can somehow get every living person to focus on the task.
    If it's just a specific area how do you justify the location? And any location (for instance a small country like Netherlands) it's still decades before any benefit is felt.
    A small community could probably be built within our lifetime but only with a large amount of input from residents.

  • Machines must be maintained. Any machine complex enough to care for a useful number of livestock would have its own needs. Who takes care of the machine?
    And how do you propose these machines be set up in the first place?Machines have to be designed, prototyped, tested, built, and implemented. That process takes money. The first part can be done on a volunteer basis but the other parts require lots of money, especially implementation.
    Hate to crush a dream but that world is still out of reach.

  • In the movie "9" a machine made and repaired machines. We don't need a better mouse trap–so the design wouldn't have to improve. Again, unless someone wants to improve it (for fun) and then wants to either repair and maintain it or develop the machine to repair and maintain it. Additionally, so what if you had to maintain or repair your shepherd once in a while; I can take two weeks time off from relaxing to work. 😉

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