What if U.S. Social Fabric Tears?

by: Cam Hui, CFA
I have written before about what academics call anchoring, or expectations. My previous post was about the anchoring of inflationary expectations. This time, it’s about the social fabric of America, which is far more important.

The American Dream
The mythic story of America has been the American Dream. America has long held to be the Land of Opportunity, where people like Michael Dell could build an empire by selling computers out of his college dorm.

How much unravelling can the Dream take?
I posted previously that an OECD study showed that social mobility in the United States is actually lower than more “egalitarian” countries like Denmark and Norway. But those are only statistics and statistics don’t really impact the social psyche.

What is a greater concern to me is how the American Dream is unravelling in some parts of America in the wake of the Great Recession. A good example can be seen in a post at Naked Capitalism about the trials and tribulations of a family struggling with unemployment and credit card debt. Here are some messages from the family:

We haven’t eaten out in years, never pick up fast food, ever, don’t walk the malls, never received any public assistance, have a 2000 Tundra and a motorcycle to save on gas, make everything from scratch (even my own homemade laundry soap!)… frankly, I don’t know many folks around here that have saved for a stormy day. Saved? That’s a joke to most of us. We’ve gotten our phone disconnected and share a cell phone, we plan each and every trip to the store with a list of necessities, haven’t had a vacation in over 15 years, and up until my husband got a job last week, we were selling everything we could sell in the house on ebay. At least I am cleaning out the closets that haven’t been cleaned in years.


We had lentils and cornbread last night…yum yum, and we’ll heat them up tonight as well. I did mention that my husband got his first paycheck last Friday. Sent from Heaven. We celebrated with brats and homemade kraut and hard rolls! Beats a t-bone any day in our book. Hubby is from Austria, so he can make some great kraut.

A Naked Capitalism reader responded [emphasis mine]:

I am astonished at how many readers you have who have no idea whatever how the financial bottom fourth or fifth of America lives. When I was a kid in western Kentucky I had a few classmates who lived in unpainted old clapboard houses out in the country, in some cases former slave quarters and so a century old. I remember one such house that even had a dirt floor. When I was little my mom’s parents lived in a tiny mountainside house in Appalachia that had no indoor plumbing. They hand pumped water from a well and heated it on a coal stove, and for a toilet across the dirt road there was an outhouse that hung out over and dumped onto the weeds on the descending slope. Stunk to high heaven, of course, and there were lots of bugs. At eight years of age, having to go in the middle of the night armed only with a flashlight was a character-building experience.

Things are a little better in the rural south now, but they sure aren’t good, now that the small farms are gone. In my adult life I’ve seen one relative living in a broken-down trailer with a caved-in roof and a goat tied up in the yard. And I’ve seen my cousin, with a small-college degree in math no less, getting by for a good while in the middle of nowhere, south Carolina on $9,000 a year from intermittent and part-time jobs. We can be all snooty about the poor not working hard enough, but I’ve also seen a sister quit a job pulling visibly diseased tissue off of Tyson chickens on a production line rather than get campylobacter one more time. We demand they live and act all middle class, but as a society we honestly don’t give them half a chance.

These guys who talk about saving hundreds of $thousands in small-town rural America are particularly irritating. How do you do that on $9K/year or $12K/year exactly? The US Census Bureau says in 2007 the bottom 20% of US households earned less than $19,178, so these are not trivial numbers of people. We never won our war on poverty really. We just forgot about it when the conservatives become obsessed with the hordes of welfare queens (and drag queens) that they imagined were filling our cities.

One of my big shocks when I started traveling more was to discover that compared to a lot of places a large part of the central and southern US (including parts of the upper Midwest) was actually what used to be called a third-world country, with way more poverty, illness, and borderline illiteracy than Europe et al. Re literacy I remember in Turkey seeing Chekov plays for sale at a truck stop in the middle of nowhere. My Turkish friends thought it odd that I’d find that odd. To them it was perfectly reasonable that a truck driver might want something interesting to read.

Does the social fabric tear? How do people anchor expectations?
As the Great Recession takes its toll on the bottom half of the US population, what happens if people move from America the Land of Opportunity to Third World America, the Land of “broken-down trailers with caved-in roofs and a goat tied up in the yard”?

The mood of America could very well turn from being aspirationally driven to one where “I want my slice of the pie.” The former promotes growth while the latter leads to social turmoil and is highly investor unfriendly. At its worst, it can result in socialist and communist tendencies if dominated by the Left, or skinhead-like tribalism if dominated by the Right (think KKK or even Hitler).

Where the middle class goes, so goes social stability. If there are significant tears in the social fabric, then does the world start anchoring on America the Superpower to America as another country, just like Brazil is another country?

Before you dismiss this as leftish claptrap, consider this Randall Forsyth commentary, in that bastion of socialism Barron's, about the captain and galley slaves who are at risk of getting thrown overboard. (And if this mentality is getting into the pages of Barron's, what does this say about the rest of the country?)

Watch this space. While I don’t believe that a descent into chaos is inevitable, it is definitely a risk and would create incredible social, political and financial upheaval not only in the United States, but the rest of the world.

Those risks are now just starting to show up in the currency and commodity markets.