Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Unwinding

In The Unwinding, George Packer makes his case that America has begun to unwind from its apparent glory days in the 1960's.

To me, however, the book made a very weak case that life in America is worse today than it was several decades ago. If I hadn't read the book's intro twice (once when I first started it, and then a second time when I was done, as I couldn't figure out the point of the book), I wouldn't have even known that this is what the book was about.

The problem is that the case is made through anecdotes, which tell the tales of the lives of about 10 people. Some are successful, some less so. But at no point does it become clear that there are fewer opportunities for advancement now than there were then.

Furthermore, the moral pontifications within the anecdotes are full of contradictions. For example, businesses involving non-local trade (e.g. Walmart, which procures its goods from all over) are vilified for taking money out of the community. But the author appears to yearn for a period when steel towns were full of manufacturing jobs. But these towns can't possibly consume all the steel they produce...where do you think all the products produced in steel towns goes?

In another case, when an employer of one of Packer's protagonists files for bankruptcy protection, it's painted as a sneaky way to avoid obligations. When one of Packer's protagonists files for bankruptcy, however, it's seen in a positive way: it allows his business to keep operating.

It seems to me that where Packer goes wrong is he sees changes in types of jobs as a bad thing. Undoubtedly, when industries go bust, it hurts those who worked in that industry. But just as the steel industry pushed some other producers/servicers out of business during its boom time, steel labourers got pushed out when its industry required fewer workers.

Through that process of creative destruction, capitalism has improved our standard of living. To yearn for a time when a particular type of job was in vogue, as opposed to accepting that job compositions change over time, will lead one to miss the extraordinarily positive changes that have taken place in our society over the last few decades. Thanks to the innovations drawn from this system, we live better than did the kings who ruled over our ancestors.

Unless you already share Packer's view of the world, which I clearly do not, I don't think you're likely to take much from this book.

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