The Unwinding: Erosion of our institutions and the concern that you picked the wrong profession

I’m working through my pile of books I collected at the end of the year. I just finished George Packer’s The Unwinding, a book telling the story of the Great Recession through the eyes of several main characters (factory worker turned organizer Tammy Thomas; civil servant turned lobbyist turned civil servant again Jeff Connaughton; truck stop owner turned biodiesel entrepreneur Dean Price) as well as vignettes of famous ones (Jay-Z, Oprah, Robert Rubin, Elizabeth Warren, among others).

The fourth main character in Packer’s story isn’t a single person, but the story of Tampa, Florida. Packer weaves several individuals together as a part of the storyline, including Mike Van Sickler. Van Sickler now writes for the Tampa Bay Times’ Tallahassee bureau, but reported extensively on foreclosures, mortgage robo-signing, and general planning and development issues in sprawling Tampa. Packer introduces Van Sickler, the journalist who once pondered a career change:


When he was covering city hall at The Palm Beach Post, he’d gotten deeply interested in urban planning – for a while he even thought about switching careers, until he realized that city planners had even less clout than reporters.

I had mixed emotions reading this. It’s a shot at my chosen profession that strikes awfully close to home, but also because it speaks to the challenges facing our institutions across the board – not just those involved in planning, development, and all things urban. It’s one of those uncomfortable statements we know to be true.

Packer’s focus on narrative means telling the story from the viewpoint of the characters, rather than offering an overarching analytical framework. This approach threw off Chris Lehmann (“a chronicle of the fraying of our productive lives that shuns cogent ideological or political explanations of the causes of our present crisis in favor of a thick narrative description of its symptoms”), accusing Packer of letting Robert Rubin off too easily for his role in the unwinding.

Lehmann clearly doesn’t prefer the subtlety of Packer’s method, using the perspective of different characters to critique someone like Rubin, rather than state so explicitly. Packer isn’t trying to be Chris Hayes (another good read, by the way) and lay out a theory of institutional decline. Even for Lehmann, however, adding Van Sickler’s character to the story helped provide some critical thinking:

Van Sickler’s story led to a high-profile federal indictment of Kim on money laundering and fraud charges, but the reporter wasn’t satisfied. He pushed against the complacent truisms about the mortgage meltdown that were being retailed by the other prominent outposts of his profession: “We don’t know why, we just got really greedy, and everybody wanted a house they couldn’t afford,” he says, summing up the prevailing consensus in the mediasphere. Van Sickler adds, “I think that’s lazy journalism. That’s a talking point for politicians who want to look the other way. We’re not all to blame for this.”

After Kim pleaded guilty, the United States attorney for Florida’s Middle District announced that more indictments, of far bigger fish in the mortgage food chain, were in the offing. They never came. “Where are the big arrests?” Van Sickler wonders. “Where are the bankers, the lawyers, the real estate professionals?” Packer finishes the thought for him, in a refrain his readers by now know quite well: “Kim was just one piece of a network—what about the institutions?”

Of course, urban planning isn’t separate from the unwinding. The foreclosure crisis, sprawl, and the decline of the middle class are all linked and all have spatial consequences. And these outcomes are all shaped by our institutions, often with substantial unintended consequences. Perhaps that was part of Van Sickler’s hesitation about a career change. What does that say about the planner’s role, both operating within our institutions and outside of them?

2 comments to The Unwinding: Erosion of our institutions and the concern that you picked the wrong profession

  • charlie

    I was going to post this over at Richard’s, but you hit the subject first.

    I’d say a huge problem is that planners get sucked in a mushy form of pro-market ideology, where they get confused between what markets are good at (pricing) and bad at (allocation).

    In fact, the job of the planner is almost always anti-market. Markets are designed to be unstable and NOT seek an equlibrium. What we neeed — for places we live — is more stability and a human touch.

  • Alex Block

    I wouldn’t agree with the idea that the planner’s job is anti-market; and framing it that way hurts the planner’s understanding of how markets work.

    If you want to make the case that the planner’s job is to manipulate and shape markets, then that’s different.

    I also think that we’re facing a problem in our cities where the problem is too much stability (in some areas), and that stability (of, say, zoning supply) is leading to rapid change (read: gentrification) socially and economically in the city, even if the physical change is constrained.

    I wouldn’t encourage planners to embrace a pro-market ideology, but at the same time I wouldn’t encourage them to reject it, either. Rather, a better understanding about the limits of influence of the profession is needed, particularly concerning the unintended consequences of planning actions.

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