Saturday, July 2, 2011

Blogging alone

A review of Putnam's Bowling Alone, about social connections as social capital.

In "Bowling alone", (2000), sociologist Robert Putnam offers a wide-ranging critique of recent US society as having become more disconnected and socially poverty-stricken, even as we have gained in many other forms of intellectual and material wealth. It is enough to make one wonder whether the Islamists and related extremists have something of a point, as they resist the destruction of traditional Afghan and other Islamic societies by the steamroller of Western commercialization.

I was reading another delightful book, the Big Bonanza, by Dan DeQuille, about the silver mining days of the 1880's Comstock lode, which mentions the dizzying array of social associations in Virginia City in its glory days: the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Ancient Order of Druids, Knights of Pythias, Knights of the Red Branch, Improved Order of the Red Men, Masons, Champions of the Red Cross, Caledonia Society, Society of Pacific Coast Pioneers, German Turnveriens, trade unions for miners, printers, and others, churches, Virginia Benevolent Society, St. Mary's Orphan Asylum and school, two daily papers, and more. This in a town of 30,000. I realized that this connected significantly with Putnam's thesis, though I had never read his book. Not having TV back in the day, they entertained each other in grand style, making music, gambling, meeting, lecturing, dining, doing good deeds, prospecting, and pontificating. Now, much of that social connection has fallen by the wayside as we cacoon in our homes with professional entertainment piped in profusion, via cable, internet, broadcast, and radio. We have gained immeasurably, but what have we lost?

So I read Putnam's book, which provides a detailed and multifaceted analysis of what he calls social capital. The first thing to ask is- what is social capital, and what is good about it?

Social capital is the kind of thing that researchers like to visualize with complicated maps, like the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon. It is the degree to which we are connected to other people by bonds that are social, and thus reciprocal and feeling, rather than commercial and anonymous, or imagined via novels and film. It is saying hello to someone on the street, making both of you feel more human and connected in a society, rather than anonymously alone. It is voting, and marrying, and writing letters to the editor, and conducting meetings of the bridge club or neighborhood group, and running the library. It is baby-sitting for others and looking in on an elderly neighbor.

Social connections generally make us feel good and improve health. Marrying raises life expectency the same amount as quitting smoking. "Regular club attendance, volunteering, entertaining, or church attendance is the happiness equivalent of getting a college degree or more than doubling your income." On the work front, connections are self-evidently conducive to getting better jobs and greasing the wheels of commerce. "Rainmakers" are hired in many businesses almost solely for their Rolodexes. And in the political sphere, those with more social capital vote more, and those with more connections have more influence. Organizing is all about aligning the participation of the many towards shared ends. The tea party is an example of (relatively few) people of like mind banding together on behalf of an agenda and gaining influence from that solidarity.

But there is a flip side to social capital as well, which is freedom. Moving to the anonymous city from the gossipy small town can be hugely liberating. Everyone needs some personal space, and some, such as many artists, intensely need quiet and solitude to plumb the depths of their muse. So there needs to be a balance. Putnam notes that when it comes to happiness, while attending club meetings monthly is far better than attending none, attending them daily is worse than monthly ... there are diminishing returns to sociability. We observe the same among monkeys and chimpanzees, that infants need intense social connection to their mothers, but thereafter, there is an ongoing and shifting balance between independence / exploration and the need to be part of a group- to have a sound home base to work from.

Additonally, social capital is not always positive, but can bond in intolerance and bigotry. The KKK was a voluntary civic organization, after all.

So what's the problem? Putman points to a variety of studies and statistics that show that our civic life and social connections have become weaker over the last few decades. Membership in all kinds of organizations has declined. Many organizations that used to be truly civic and locally based are now skeleton membership and lobbying operations based in Washington DC. Graph after graph shows declines in such things as membership rates in chapter-based national organizations, local meeting attendance, service as an officer, volunteering in campaigns, voting, social visiting, family dinners, stopping at stop signs, philanthropy, subjective happiness, card playing, and yes, bowling as part of a league.

For example, membership in the PTA, per family with children, is less than half what it was at its peak in 1960. Union membership is less than half of its peak in 1950. United Way giving is roughly half of its peak in 1960. The number of security guards has doubled per capita since the 1950's, as has the number of lawyers. Hitchhiking has become unheard of. Suicide is three times more prevalent among youth in the 90's than it was in the 50's. Putman makes quaint reference to people raking their own leaves before they blow onto someone else's yard, in the general (socially rational) expectation that similar good turns would be done by others. Today, of course, the name of the game is to power-blow your leaves and other detritus onto as many neighbor's yards as possible.

Probably this is not surprising to anyone. All kinds of civic virtues have been faltering noticeably, as have bridge clubs, entertaining, smoke filled rooms, percolators, and the rest of it. Despite all the hoopla surrounding the many internet communications technologies, one has to say that facebook is a social wasteland- focused on the barest of substance- "like"!- and the barest of interaction, however far-flung. Blogging can occasionally furnish more substance, but its interactions remain rather disembodied, as well as parochial.

More interesting is Putnam's analysis of why this social decline happened. There is a long list of possibilities, of which I will give a few, mixing in some of my own:

  • The auto-addled suburb
The twin benifices of oil and prosperity allowed most of us to move out of the warm Jane Jacobs urban community into sterile Levittowns, requiring an isolating and draining car trip to go anywhere and do anything. While the genteel ideal of living in the country took the US by storm, it left in its wake neither the closeness of traditional rural country life nor the close-packed inescapable community of the traditional city.
  • The demon tube
TV is the only form of entertainment that, according to Putnam, destroys social capital, sitting us on our couches and frying our brains. The average household has their TV on an average of eight hours per day, shockingly enough. Those who watch only what they plan for in advance are far more resistent to its corrosive effects on social engagement than those who watch "whatever's on".
  • The greatest generation
In a word, war is the greatest social glue, especially if you win. 
  • The feminist vacuum
Not vacuums that are feminist! The 50's and 60's were the age of stay-at-home moms driven bonkers by their isolation in the above-mentioned suburbs by the problem that had no name, who then devoted their vast energies to den-mothering, league of women voter-ing, and all the other worthy pursuits of social gluing and betterment they have no time for today.
  • The forgetting of Keynes
Life was supposed to be getting better about now, with jetpacks and endless leisure. Instead, most workers face stagnant living standards, higher risks off-loaded by their employers, (principally in the areas of retirement and job security), less effective leisure time, and longer working lives due to the downturn and the lack of secure retirement. Meanwhile, income has risen immensely for the fewer rich, making the entire society, as an economic system, poorer and less prosperous than it could be if wealth and spending were more evenly distributed. All this is principally due to the ideological forgetting of Keynes, whose policies were aimed at maintaining overall prosperity through full employment.
  • The prosperous cacoon
The home has taken on increased significance in modern America, as the consequence of all the above trends, principally those of suburbanization and electronic entertainment. 
  • The inequality curse 
Putnam has numerous graphs of social metrics tabulated by state, where states of the South always come off worst. One could view this through an economic lens, since economic inequality has long been higher in the South than elsewhere, with its stronger class distinctions, glorification of hereditary wealth, and antipathy to unions, not to mention the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. In recent decades, the entire country has moved in the same direction, dramatically losing union membership and seeing rising economic inequality. Republicans keep trying to repeal inheritance taxes as the purest expression of their plutocratic proclivities. Of course, as mentioned above in the discussion of Keynes, inequality is fundamentally corrosive to prosperity. But it is also directly corrosive to social capital, as the rich rule the political system and airwaves from within gated communities, served by a pliant underclass, and feel less beholden to and less like the "little people". 
"Inequality and social solidarity are deeply incompatible." 
  • The red scare (not one of Putnam's theses)
Communism was far more popular during the Great Depression and WW2 than it is today. Social solidarity, socialism, unions, and similar sentiments had great traction, while today, even being a community organizer seems to be a dirty word. Of course as the 50's wore on, the revelations of Stalinism and McCarthyism eroded this legacy, focusing communitarian sentiments on less liberal practices like keeping women in the kitchen and showing wholesome family dramas on TV. Still, the greatest generation had significantly more exposure to and practice of serious socialism than we would dream of today, with FOX news keeping a careful watch over our bodily fluids.
  • A surfeit of civil rights (not one of Putnam's theses)
The civil rights movements of the last century, encompassing successive waves of inclusion of, well, virtually everybody, have been unquestionably good. But is it possible that the club that everyone can join has become devalued in the process? One theory of our unique national founding is that the founders were especially conscious of liberty and the rights/values of association because they denied them so systematically to their slaves. Putnam makes a substantial point about social capital taking two forms, either bonding capital, which can be quite introverted within a community and exclusionary, versus bridging capital, which is open to all and encourages cross-fertilization. But there may be less to this distinction than meets the eye, if a society is class-structured so that no truly bridging capital is really possible. In short, in psychological terms, do we always need an out-group, however distant and implicit, to support in-group social solidarity?
"Slavery was designed to destroy social capital."

So what's the answer? Mostly, it's war that's done it. Putnam tracks the changing complexion of civic engagement, and finds a very strong generational component, where engagement rose in a small spurt after WW1, then massively around WW2. The WW2 generation has been consistently more civically inclined throughout their lives than those before or after, for several probable reasons. First was that the war directly trained US citizens in countless acts of engagement, from actual military service with their fellow bumpkins from all over our fair land to intensive mobilization on the home front for victory gardens, scrap drives, bond drives, and all sorts of other sacrifices. As religious leaders know well, the greater the sacrifice, the greater the psychological commitment.

Secondly, the whole mood of war is rather electrifying and unifying. In my lifetime, we have experienced faint echos in the various Middle Eastern wars, but none in the existential way that world war against utter evil engendered. And lastly, winning the war certainly helped as well, with the added flourish of devising and dropping the most incredibly powerful weapon ever. This mood of sheer power and potency was later sapped away in the Vietnam war, as we faced an enemy that made a mockery of our technological power with its understanding of social capital, ironically enough.

So, the greatest generation was highly trusting of each other and their institutions, expressed in their high degree of involvement in those institutions and in other forms of social engagement. Call them square, but they were cohesive and civic-minded in a way that our later jaded, ironical generations are not. It is also noteworthy that the Civil war, for all its internecine horror, also engendered a generation of civic activity that was reflected in the profusion of social organizations mentioned above in Virginia City, Nevada.

The other factors listed above also have roles in the drama, especially TV, which Putnam blames for perhaps a third of the decline. The TV epidemic is indeed serious, as bad as the much discussed obesity epidemic, and closely connected to it. Both are characterized by the ingestion of junk and the displacement of healthy fare. Both make us less fit and are promoted by corporations pushing what are essentially drugs in the guise of free choice, individualism, and easy living, not to mention better sex, ironically enough. TV presents the additional insult of the thoughts and desires of corporations themselves in a constant barrage of deceitful harangues that form our ambient intellectual atmosphere, and as a bonus, forms our current mode of politics as well.

Is there any hope? Putnam has an absolutely dreadful concluding chapter, full of stentorian "Let us find ways to ..." pronouncements. More interestingly, he devotes a long chapter to the Gilded age, also called the progressive age (1870's through 1920's), when the US really transitioned to modernity and when most of the large associations that survive today were born, like the Boy Scouts, League of Women's voters, Red Cross, NAACP, Goodwill industries, Lion's Club, Teamsters, and Sierra Club. It wasn't just the civic energy from Civil War mobilization that caused this flowering, but the deep social changes of urbanization and immigration that posed the problem of rootlessness as never before. Social entrepreneurs of many stripes devised new organizations to replace some of the rural civic connections that had been lost, using the dense new urban neighborhoods as springboards to restore social connection.

Conservatives might comment that it was precisely the lack of government meddling that called forth the private action and philanthropy that made this flowering possible. Ironically, in that view, the aim of many of the new organizations was to regularize their charitable activities as part of the state, in which they succeeded in cases like hospitals, welfare, work training programs, and Carnegie's libraries. Did they succeed too far?

In essence, these organizers discovered and promoted novel public goods, which are most fairly provided on a public basis. If we find that various social services (like, say, Kindergarten) are important to have on a universal basis, then leaving them to the vagaries of sociability as it ebbs and flows with the generations, let alone leaving them to the free market, isn't a fair, efficient, or consistent way of providing them. So government provision simply makes sense, even if it has an eroding effect on our voluntary scope of activity. One of the last bastions of social solidarity occurs during natural disasters, when communities pull together to pile sandbags, evacuate the elderly, rescue pets, and eventually rebuild and sue oil companies. Yet even these sacred tasks are being seized by FEMA and other government agencies! Where will it all end?

One wrinkle in the greatest generation theory above is that the older generation still votes at far higher rates than succeeding generations. And despite their higher civic-mindedness, they also vote their pocketbooks, which in California has meant the decline of public eduction, and nationally means the government-mandated transfer of wealth from the young to the old, in the form of social security and medicare.

What is the solution? As has been often remarked, we missed a significant opportunity after 9/11, when we were told that more tax cuts and more shopping were the proper sacrifices to make for this new war effort. While a nice world war against an evil empire might be just the ticket, that doesn't seem to be in the offing, largely due to the good work of the greatest generation who, through WW2 and the long cold war, sought to reduce the scourge of war, more or less successfully. Very well, there we are!

Politicians have long been calling us to the "moral equivalent of war", against poverty, inflation, cancer, oil shortages, obesity, whatever... These faint echos only accentuate the dilemma, which is that only a real war presents the existential threat that calls forth the commensurate social solidarity. Were it up to me, the new war would be waged against global warming, in a global Kumbaya effort to save the biosphere, uniting not just one nation, not just all humanity, but all life forms in one intense shared effort to make a greener, richer, and sustainable world. Unfortunately, that seems psychologically naive. All of evolution and anthropology tells us that there is no quarry or enemy nearly as lethal nor as numinously significant as our fellow humans.

Thus we may just have to settle for a less-than-greatest-generation level of social solidarity. Without unifying wars or sufficient rates of natural disaster, the US still has a strong civic mythos, whose cultivation remains of great importance. On the other hand, we don't have to give in to twitter, facebook, and TV as they dumb down our discourse and keep us glued to our individual seats & tray tables. I am hardly one to talk, blogging and all, but perhaps the odiferous tide of faux-reality TV may finally prompt viewers to turn themselves into doers ... to go outside and say hello to their neighbors.


  • Arctic village tells of a fascinating and rich society in the 1930's Alaskan wilderness.
  • Along with social capital, remember natural capital.
  • Pax Mongolica, successor to the Islamic golden age, precursor to the Renaissance.
  • "Tomorrow's China will be a country that fully achieves democracy, the rule of law, fairness and justice, ..."
  • Speaking of rotting our brains, the decepticons will enslave us all.
  • Joseph Stieglitz relates how globalization has not helped its targets- the underdeveloped masses, cancelling out our global hearts and mind operation, such as it is.
  • Krugman on books that inspired him.
  • The Bank of International Settlements hires Lehman's former risk manager.
  • Economics quote of the week, from Krugman:
"The key insight is that while debt does not make the world poorer – one person’s liability is another person’s asset – it can be a source of contractionary pressure if there’s an abrupt tightening of credit standards, if levels of leverage that were considered acceptable in the past are suddenly deemed unacceptable thanks to some kind of shock such as, well, a financial crisis. In that case debtors are faced with the necessity of deleveraging, forcing them to slash spending, while creditors face no comparable need to spend more. Such a situation can push an economy up against the zero lower bound and keep it there for an extended period."
  • And even Martin Wolf recognizes that government deficits play an essential role in allowing private deleveraging in the current depression:
"The question I have is this: does the BIS know that every sector cannot run financial surpluses at the same time?"

1 comment:

  1. The balance you speak about is to be found in A Pattern Language, and the introduction to A Pattern Language is to be found in A Timeless Way of Building:

    http://permaliv.blogspot.com/2011/04/timeless-way-of-building.html

    I'll also strongly recommend Federico Mena Quintero's last essay!

    Software that has the Quality Without a Name:

    http://people.gnome.org/~federico/misc/software-with-qwan.pdf

    ReplyDelete