“You’d better cash in while you can” is the mantra that defines our times says George Packer.
His new book, “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” takes a close look at people trying to cope with accelerating change as institutions and traditions crumble around them, interspersed with portraits of the rich and famous.
We spoke at Bloomberg world headquarters in New York.
Lundborg: You point out that in 1997, lobbying was still called “selling-out,” but by 2009 it was known as “cashing in.” What changed?
Packer: Partly what I’m writing about is the way taboos get toppled. And once they do, everybody rushes through because you’re a sucker if you don’t.
Before, a senator who had statesman-like aspiration didn’t then become a lobbyist. One little data point that’s stuck in my head is that Al Gore, who used to be the born-to-the-manner patrician-politician, made $100 million a few months ago, $70 million by selling his TV network to Qatar. That’s an inconvenient truth, if there ever was one.
Lundborg: You wrote: “On Wall Street, to succeed you just had to be somewhat comfortable with math or else with bullshit. The former went into trading and the latter into sales. And a quant who could lie made the big money.”
Packer: This is from the only pseudonymous character in the book, who goes by the name Kevin Moore because he’s still at a bank. I thought it was pretty clever.
Lundborg: How did you pick the celebrities?
Packer: Oprah is just this goddess presiding over so much of American life and her story is really interesting -- the way she made herself, and the ruthlessness it took, and also the fantasizing that it took.
There’s a lot of magical thinking in the book among different people, and Oprah is a real queen of magical thinking. And there’s a sort of “If you can think it, of course, it will happen.” It’s a deep American desire to believe that.
Lundborg: Among journalists, why did you pick Andrew Breitbart?
Packer: He figured out how this flattened landscape could be turned to his advantage, because there’s no resistance anywhere and there’s the Internet that allows you to shout as loud as you can and be heard.
Lundborg: You describe Jay-Z as a “mogul, a revolutionary, an icon and a thug.”
Packer: To me, he’s a figure for our time. There is something utterly self-honest about him: Take me or leave me. I know what I’m doing. I’m about the money. “Sometimes I think I’m getting away with murder,” is a line in his autobiography.
Jay-Z has kind of shown that you can get to the very top without waiting, without following rules. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. People will admire you more if you break the rules.
Lundborg: Playing by the rules makes you a sucker?
Packer: That’s the way a lot of people feel all over the country. Two things have happened in this generation that I describe in “The Unwinding.” One, there’s the widening circle of inclusion, greater tolerance, social equality.
At the same time, there’s more and more rigid stratification along economic lines and not just in inequality of wealth. The way people live is more and more defined by how much money they have and what education they have and that is handed down. We’re much less socially mobile than we were a generation ago and less than Europe is now.
Lundborg: It’s all part of the Walmartization of America that you describe, where a lot of the middle-class has been hollowed out.
Packer: Yes, and the six Walton heirs have the same wealth as the bottom 42 percent of Americans. If you want to get someone’s attention on economic inequality, just throw that one at them and it will do the trick.
Lundborg: What about Robert Rubin, earning millions for bad advice?
Packer: There’s no crime there. His reputation will never be the same though. In another time, he would have done fine, but the institutions were rotting.
Rubin wanted to be a wise man who moves between Wall Street and Washington and gives his advice to presidents. You can’t do it now because those are directly antithetical. Citigroup’s interests and America’s interests are not just not harmonious, they are opposite.
Lundborg: How is Obama doing?
Packer: His presidency is ebbing. There are a lot of ways to blame him, but I think it comes back to all these institutions not working. He would’ve been a much better president in a different time.
I was in Washington and as soon as I got out of Union Station, I physically felt this sort of paralysis settling over me. You just knew this is a place where nothing happens.
It’s a disaster.
Lundborg: So the general feeling is cynicism?
Packer: The perception is that if you were a big guy, you got off. If you were a little guy, you got screwed. I heard that from the Tea Party and from Occupy Wall Street. It’s the populist cry.
To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
Muse highlights include Patrick Cole on music and Manuela Hoelterhoff on books.