From the subprime to the ridiculous

Americans are uncertain about how to explain downward mobility

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Who is to blame for America’s housing mess? This is a question that has provoked endless debate in the US, not to mention the rest of the world, during the past three years. And as the economic pain has piled up – around 5m American homes are in foreclosure or at risk of it – there has been no shortage of culprits to blame, including politicians, regulators, bankers, mortgage brokers, economists and credit rating agencies. Indeed, if you want to feel really angry in 2011, you could do worse than read a great new book by two US business journalists, Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera, called All the Devils are Here. As its somewhat unsubtle title suggests, the book holds up many a “sinner” for our consideration, ranging from Lloyd Blankfein to [disgraced former Countrywide CEO] Angelo Mozilo, and many in between.

Amid all this finger-pointing, it is also worth taking a glance at some fascinating research currently being conducted by anthropologists in America’s rust belt. At first glance, this might seem a rather strange place for anthropologists to work – during most of the 20th century, most adherents to this discipline generally headed to exotic, glamorous climes. (In my case, I once did fieldwork in the Hindu Kush.) But these days, anthropologists are increasingly trying to study the rituals of the western world, even in prosaic places such as Michigan. And so, a couple of years ago, Anne Jefferson of the University of Michigan began a research project that analyses how mortgage foreclosures are unfolding.

Her findings are fascinating. When she arrived in her “fieldsite” three years ago, as the housing crisis got underway, one of the first things that struck her was the prevalence of suicide tales. More specifically, when she spoke to citizens groups involved in the housing market, they were buzzing with tales of homeowners who were killing themselves just before being evicted from their homes, seemingly as an act of revenge and despair.

So far, so horrifyingly tragic – and inevitable. Or so it might seem in a country where foreclosures are rising and the unemployment rate has recently jumped to 9.8 per cent, above that of the UK or Germany. (In Michigan some 90 per cent of mortgage defaults are sparked by job loss.) Yet, when Jefferson started investigating those suicide tales, she discovered something odd: while tragedies existed, few were solely linked to eviction. Indeed, the number of suicides was far more modest than the urban legend implied.

So was this just media hype or part of a political game? Perhaps. However, Jefferson thinks something else more interesting is also going on. In the past century, American culture has developed a well-entrenched, commonly shared national narrative to explain and justify success – the myth of the “American dream”. But, observes Jefferson, while “the American dream narrative explains upward mobility ... we have fewer cultural narratives to help us understand and cope with downward mobility”. Thus, widespread foreclosures pose a “narrative challenge”; there is no single, commonly agreed national way to explain these events. Different groups are fighting to control the story.

During the first phase of the housing downturn, for example, Jefferson found that many informants blamed homeowners themselves for their woes, since they were perceived to have recklessly taken on stupid loans. So did the local media and online webgroups. Thus modification schemes were disliked, because they created moral hazard (and, in a sense, were deemed “un-American”, counter to the capitalist spirit). But then, as foreclosures increased, another narrative emerged: borrowers were seen as victims, crushed by the banks and a profoundly capricious, irrational and inhuman foreclosure system. So suicide tales circulated. More recently, a scandal also exploded about so-called robosigners, or the automated procedures that banks are using to evict homeowners.

But at the grassroots level, a third narrative also exists: Jefferson found that eviction is increasingly portrayed in popular discourse as a quasi “liberation” from a warped, consumerist society. “Former homeowners sometimes present losing a house as virtuous – shedding the shallow affliction of consumption to remember ‘what’s really important’,” she writes, adding that the language that has been wrapped around the foreclosure process in all three narratives has become increasingly emotive, borrowing heavily from religion.

Now, such narratives may well shift again. After all, the key point to stress is that Americans remain uncertain and divided about how to explain downward mobility. And (despite McLean and Nocera’s book) they do not yet have an identifiable set of “villains” who have been publicly sacrificed to draw a line under the saga. Thus the anger keeps festering, like a boil that cannot be lanced. Politicians rail against bankers, while bankers fume about “the lack of blame being put on consumers and politicians” – and consumers just feel confused. Little wonder, then, that the political mood is so volatile and contradictory. Times of shifting national narratives are also moments of potentially important change. In Michigan, as elsewhere.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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