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A FLOCK OF BLACK SWANS.

That's the story line of George Packer's The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, our Book Review No 2.  The thesis of the book advances the logic of saecular decline and fall, although that idea does not explicitly appear anywhere in its pages.

If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding.  You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape -- the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools.  And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition -- ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere.  When the norms that made the old institutions normal began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone.  The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.
Unwinding follows a number of people from 1978 through to about 2012.  Some of these people are famous, some of them obscure, a number of them actually living in the Carolina Piedmont or trying to hold body and soul together in the Mahoning Valley or going from rich on paper to underwater on their mortgages in Florida, while in Silicon Valley, the new technology masters of the universe, not exactly organized money, prosper alongside expanding pockets of poverty just the other side of the expressway.  And in Washington, the expanded opportunities for women to participate in the labor force enhance the opportunities for family rent-seeking, with one half of the power couple in government service and the other half lobbying or working for the press corps or in a university.

Perhaps the strength of the work is that it simply relates the stories, and leaves the policy implications, the quest for stylized facts, the formulation of testable hypotheses to others.  Likewise, the deconstruction of The America That Worked(TM) is simply the background against which these people, for better or for worse -- and for many, it is unrelentingly worse -- make do.  The identification of causes and the identification of consequences are also left to others.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)

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