George Packer is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of a new book, The Unwinding, which examines the lives of ordinary Americans affected by the economic crisis that began in 2008. The Unwinding adopts a novelistic approach to detailing the lives of community organizers, farmers, and political aides, among others. Packer takes readers to the less glamorous parts of America to uncover some of the human struggles that have emerged in the wake of the crisis. He sat down recently with the Gate’s interview team to discuss the book, Silicon Valley’s supposed heroism, and the problem with Al Gore.
The Gate: Is there Silicon Valley exceptionalism that’s harmful to a more traditional notion of what American exceptionalism represents?
George Packer: I think there’s a Silicon Valley exceptionalism that assumes that they’re not just another special interest; they’re not just another industry. They’re “changing the world,” in their terms. And you can point to a lot of more nefarious practices in other sectors like oil and gas and pharmaceuticals and Wall Street. Silicon Valley is a healthy place, and they’re making things that are, on balance, positive. I just think there’s a utopianism out there that they have more answers than they do, because they’ve so brilliantly engineered successful solutions to some problems. Political problems are a different matter, and they’re not sophisticated about the rest of society because it’s such a self-enclosed paradise. They could do us all a benefit by reentering the fallen world of the rest of America, where things don’t work so well.
Gate: Why in The Unwinding was it important to focus on regular people who represent the common struggle in America?
Packer: They are the overall narrative. To tell the story of history as just the story of the famous is one way to do it, and it’s done all the time, and done successfully a lot, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to tell history from the bottom up, and to see what effect the policies and the changes had on people who were vulnerable to them, who didn’t have the means to just wall themselves off. You really see history happening in the raw when you go to Youngstown or you go to Tobacco Country. It’s also just more fun to talk to ordinary people. They talk to you. They don’t have PR people. They don’t have teams of aides who are there to keep you away, to prevent them from saying anything remotely interesting. It’s both fun and a privilege to hang out for a long time with very thoughtful, smart people who are living outside the limelight. You just learn a lot more from that. And their stories are more dramatic!
Gate: You write about Elizabeth Warren as an old-fashioned kind of politician. Is there a rift between traditional Democratic politics and Silicon Valley?
Packer: The obvious riff would be more between Wall Street and the Democratic Party, because Silicon Valley is still kind of holy, and has that aura of exceptionalism. I do think that Silicon Valley just doesn’t understand the world from Elizabeth Warren’s point of view. They don’t see the need for protections for ordinary people. They don’t see the need for regulation. They hate regulation. It gets in their way. It makes life more difficult. It’s not as though they’re averse to paying their income taxes, but they just haven’t been living in the rest of the country where things have been so hard lately. They’ve got a kind of wrong idea about how easy it is to change. Elizabeth Warren lacks their innovative thinking and their forward energy, but what she has is a long experience, starting with her own childhood in Oklahoma, of seeing how hard it is to just stay afloat in America, and how many people just get swept under all the time. You just have to go out and look for them and you find them. That’s who’s on her mind, and to me that’s what a public servant has to do, first and foremost.
Gate: Is the spirit of regulation one that Silicon Valley is just too resistant to now?
Packer: There are always stupid regulations that you can point to while making a case that regulation is bad, so I don’t want to defend regulation per se. But the FDA, the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts—they, on balance, probably made life better, longer, healthier. Now there’s an ideology, that’s not necessarily based on a practical assessment, that the government doesn’t know how to do this because the economy is too complicated; Wall Street is too sophisticated; Silicon Valley firms are too complicated. Government just doesn’t know how to do it. And that may be true, but the answer then is not to just push it aside. It’s to put people in government who are capable of educating themselves about this stuff. I thought Jeff Connaughton and Ted Kaufman (from The Unwinding) are a great example. These guys both went to business school. They were unintimidated by Wall Street, because they really knew what Wall Street does. So when Wall Street lobbyists came and said, “Look, you guys really don’t understand these derivatives; you’re going to mess it up,” they sort of said, “No, we do understand. It’s actually not that complicated.” That’s a very healthy confidence that Washington lacks.
Gate: Is there a single most detrimental change America has undergone in the last decade?
Packer: I think the single most destructive idea is that public life—the public sector—is doomed to fail. That crosses so many different parts of society, from public TV to schools to infrastructure building to the workings in Congress. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If your ideology is that the government is bound to fail, you will be proven right, because it needs the positive actions of people to succeed, and it’s hard to make it succeed. One party has its entire purpose to show that government has to fail. To pat Apple on the back for successfully avoiding paying their corporate taxes, as doing a good thing for the country by starving the government—there you have institutional failure in a little parable.
Gate: Do you think that anti-government attitude is changing?
Packer: I do think it’s shifting, but Americans are very reluctant to vest too much power anywhere, whether in a corporation or in government. It’s in our DNA to not want to see power concentrated anywhere. Right now if you were to ask where power’s concentrated, we’ve concentrated it in multinational corporations more than anywhere. There’s a backlash against that, and even someone in Silicon Valley told me that we’re going to see a backlash against tech as Google and Facebook have their tentacles in every part of our lives. People are going to start to say too much. Dean Price (one of the main figures in The Unwinding) is a perfect example of someone in a conservative area who sees that corporations are strangling the life out of the economy. They’re not adding value and good jobs and economic opportunity. They’re strangling economic opportunity. That’s a hard thing for Americans to see, because we believe in free enterprise. At a certain point corporations are no longer avenues for opportunity. They become obstacles.
Gate: You’ve written about the influence of celebrity on American culture. How does an obsession with the famous change the way we think about communities and institutions?
Packer: I think it leads to magical thinking. We’re waiting for the god of public health, or the god of public education, or the god of road or rail building, to come down and solve it. It in a way saps people’s own enterprise. The problem with the way we worship celebrities now is that they’re not just objects of gossip and fascination. They’re doing it in our place. They’re sort of rising out of the rest of us. And they have this god-like status and power. To sound corny—it’s undemocratic, and it doesn’t create lasting structures. If Mark Zuckerberg suddenly loses interest in public education, then we’re in trouble. I don’t like the personalizing of this stuff.
Gate: Is the failure of institutions changing the function of our government?
Packer: I just see government becoming more and more what people hate. It’s a bureaucracy that doesn’t seem to add value to people’s lives. It’s just there to write a check and get in your way. It’s the institutions, but it’s also people’s faith in them. That’s what I get back to. When that goes, then government is sort of hollowed out. It is, after all, a human institution, and if it can’t command conviction in human beings, then they become these empty shells. And government does feel like that, and people in government are sort of spooked. They’re afraid to do their job. They’re in awe of celebrities, and it sort of reverses what I think should be the natural hierarchy of things. Celebrities should be somewhat irrelevant. Public servants should be central.
Look at Al Gore, who was sort of a model public servant. He came from this patrician family of senators and other public servants, and now he made a hundred million dollars in one month this year by selling Current TV to Al Jazeera and by selling his Apple stock, which he got by virtue of being on the board. Suddenly Al Gore is like one more empire-building celebrity who wants to hang out with other celebrities. There’s no limit to how much money he needs. Forgive me for sounding old-fashioned, but I don’t think vice presidents should act that way. I think there should be a little line. He’s got plenty of money. What’s he doing? I don’t know if you saw Jon Stewart grilling him about the sale of Current TV to Al Jazeera: “Well, Al Jazeera Qatar, oil sheikdom, global warming. Aren’t you kind of funding global warming by doing this?” [Gore] didn’t have an answer, because maybe it’s the prerogative of the celebrity not to have an answer to a good question like that. The answer is, “I win!”
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