I have no idea how I have come to own this book. I thought it had found its way into my pile of books to read after my partner had read it – it’s more his type of book than mine – but he disclaimed all knowledge of it and has just started reading it.
The dust jacket blurb says that this is a book about “the extraordinary story of what’s happened in America over the past 30 years” and a “panorama of the relentless breakdown of the American social compact over a generation”. I would describe it as a social history, following a number of extraordinary people from 1978 to 2012.
The main strands are rural North Carolina, Youngstown, Washington DC, Florida and Silicon Valley. There are guest appearances from Newt Gingrich, Sam Walton, Colin Powell and Oprah Winfrey.
The individual stories are a mixture of how people strove to rise about the poverty they grew up in, how they strove for political power or how they spotted n opportunity. In some instances they succeeded and in others everything ended in abject failure.
The most powerful stories are those that follow through the whole book and for me the stand out story is that of the woman in Youngstown who after a number of struggles and set backs managed to make a difference to the city described as the capital of Rustbelt USA.
The strongest message of the book, and I think a global one, is that a lot of damage was done in the 1980s dismantling the checks and controls that held financial institutions to account. What seemed at the time like a liberation from restrictive rules – and I worked in financial services at the time so I know – turned out to be like letting an addict loose in a chemist’s shop. Quest for market share became a chase for greater and greater profit and led to greed, manipulation and subterfuge.
I don’t want to go back to the days when banks were austere and intimidating places but I feel they should be places where you make serious consideration of the commitment you are making when you take out a mortgage.
I don’t feel I have enough knowledge of USA to make a judgement on whether this book is accurate and/or makes sense in economic terms. I did find it really interesting and it has made me think long and hard about what has happened in UK since 1978. What has happened for the good and where I think we have lost something important in creating the society we have today.
I suspect a lot of the political turmoil we are seeing across the world stems back to quite a few of the topics covered in this book.
I enjoyed the book and I will search out some of George Packer’s other work.