Two-thirds of the way through George Packer’s harrowing and magisterial account of post-2008 America, we meet a Florida boat builder named Jack Hamersma – a rough-hewn, working-class guy who’d climbed up the economic ladder only to find himself drawn into the maelstrom of the real-estate speculation that destroyed huge tracts of suburbia in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse.
Like thousands of naïve speculators – the 1920s-era shoeshine boys with the hot stock tip – Hamersma’s savings were tied up in a heavily mortgaged house that lost most of its value after the bubble burst. With repo men circling and foreclosure looming, he retained Matthew Weidner, a small-time Florida lawyer (think Paul Newman in The Verdict) to defend him against the venality of a banking sector that imploded after an orgy of deregulated and frequently fraudulent greed.
The lawyer was able to keep the lenders from foreclosing on Hamersma. But as lawsuit dragged on, Hamersma’s life unwound into insolvency and costly cancer diagnoses. “That happened a lot to Weidner’s clients – the job, the house, their health, usually in that order,” writes Packer, a New Yorker staff writer, novelist and playwright. “Weidner watched Jack shrink before his eyes, dropping a hundred pounds until, three years after that first consultation, he limped into the office one afternoon to discuss his case, wasted legs sticking out of his shorts, a canvas bag hanging over his shoulder, from which a drip tube extended under a bandage on his chest.”
Weidner fought off the creditors and Hamersma, astonishingly, retained hope amidst the ruins. Yet he died two months later, in a house with no value.
Much has been written about the “deleveraging” in the long shadow of 2008 and the ever-widening gap between the 1 per cent and the rest in the world’s wealthiest nation. Economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman have fiercely attacked the policy architecture (or lack thereof) that decimated not only the “boomburgs” in the southern U.S. but seemingly prosperous economies such as Iceland, the U.K. and Spain.
British sociologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett cross-referenced national data on income disparity in OECD countries against a range of social indicators – drop-out rates, drug use, heart disease – and concluded, in The Spirit Level (2009), that more equal societies tend to be healthier and more cohesive (America ranks way down on the list; Canada is about in the middle). An inverted version of the same ideas is explored in Chrystia Freeland’s recent book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, in which she concludes that billionaires’ abiding faith in the wealth-creating power of globalized trade and finance is not merely self-serving, but also self-destructive.
Packer, in this book, elegantly reveals the human face of inequality by following a handful of Americans whose stories bring us deep inside the centrifugal forces that laid waste to the huge and prosperous middle class which took root after World War II. In short chapters, he intimately tracks the lives of his cast: a hard-scrabble Appalachian entrepreneur determined to rise above poverty; an African-American woman trying to survive in a depressed rust-belt city; a Florida newshound who uncovers the scandalous subprime scandal; a Democratic lobbyist confronting the hypocrisy of his political tribe; and a wealthy, libertarian Silicon Valley tycoon. He rounds out the collage with a series of snapshot profiles of figures such as retailer Sam Walton, rapper Jay-Z and TV celebrity Oprah Winfrey.
While Packer says he drew his inspiration from John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, I found the book to be Dickensian in the breadth of its scope and depth of its conscience (although it also reads a bit like a non-fictional re-telling of Tom Wolfe’s 1987 potboiler, Bonfire of the Vanities). With his focus on ordinary Americans, Packer hasn’t merely sought out sound-bites to put a human-interest gloss on the 1 per cent story. Rather, he brings a novelist’s sensibility to the messy humanity of his characters – their mistakes, their contradictory opinions, and their struggle against implacable forces.
Like Dickens writing about the harsh industrial transformation of the mid-19th century, Packer is devastatingly precise in his judgment of the neo-liberal commercial ethic that has gripped the U.S. since the 1980s. “Over the years,” he notes in a chapter about Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, “America had become more like Wal-Mart. It had gotten cheap. Prices were lower, and wages were lower. There were fewer union factory jobs, and more part-time jobs as greeters. The small towns where Mr. Sam had seen his opportunity were getting poorer, which meant that consumers there depended more and more on everyday low prices, and made every last purchase at Wal-Mart and maybe had to work there, too. The hollowing out of the heartland was good for the company’s bottom line.” And then this bell-ringer: by the early 1990s, the six surviving members of the Walton family (Sam died in 1992) had as much wealth as the bottom 30 per cent of Americans combined. Marx, who warned about the internal contradictions of capitalism, would no doubt feel vindicated by such indictments.