Monthly Archives: March 2011

Innovations in social capital and housing

Two interesting things to watch on the intersection of social capital and housing:

1) The claimed growth of “pocket neighborhoods” (a handful of houses around a shared common yard) to reduce the necessary land for a house but still leave homeowners and children with a safe outdoor space to play in and entertain in.  (See USA Today article.)  This obviously could increase social interaction since there is far less private space.  I haven’t seen any studies of this, but it would be hard to test, because families that move into pocket neighborhoods undoubtedly desire greater interaction than families moving into houses with private yards. So, even if there were more social capital in pocket neighborhoods, it is hard to disentangle how much is the shared yard and how much is the community-mindedness of the residents. [For more examples of pocket neighborhoods see Ross Chapin, Cottage Company, and this blog post.]  A wikipedia article describes pocket neighborhoods in other areas like Boston (MA), Duluth (MN), Beloit (WI), Redmond (WA), among others.  Pocket neighborhoods are somewhat related to other attempts to engineer more social capital through physical design, such as co-housing or New Urbanism.

2) Bob Putnam has written about the challenges of building social capital amidst greater diversity.  One interesting approach to this challenge, is Singapore’s policy of rough ethnic quotas in public housing at the block and neighborhood level, begun in 1989, In theory this policy could be quite successful in building social cohesion and trust across the 3 major community groups in Singapore: the Malay (14%), the Indians (8%) and the Chinese (77%).   Given the fact that 82-86% of the Singaporean population lives in public housing, the impact could be quite widespread.  We’re not aware of good, careful studies of the social consequences of this mixing, and one should be wary of declaring victory based on the chastening US experience with HOPE VI.  Mixed income housing under HUD’s HOPE VI program may be successful along some lines, but hasn’t led in general, in the studies we’re aware of (or see this report), to strong cross-class mixing in these neighborhoods.  Read this Singapore Online Citizen piece for an update on Singapore’s Housing Integration (2/17/11).

Robert Putnam on economic mobility and Great Recession

Flickr photo by bupowski

Robert Putnam was on the NewsHour yesterday in a story by Paul Solman on how inequality and decreasing economic mobility are affecting Americans even as the economy modestly recovers out of the Great Recession.


PAUL SOLMAN: So, the American dream — your kids will do better than you — neither you nor your kids think that that`s the case?

COOKIE SHEERS: No, we all feel stuck in a rut. You feel like you can`t move, you can’t grow, like you’re just at that edge of water where you can come up for air every few minutes, but never long enough to feel that you have accomplished something. You always have to go back down.

BOBBY HICKS: Like she says, I feel like, once I feel like I have reached that part where my nostrils can come out the top, life comes back and just steps right on my face and says: You know what? It’s not time for you to come up for air yet.

PAUL SOLMAN: The numbers support the stories. Economic inequality in America, widening steadily since 1980, grew during the financial crisis, with the top 5 percent of Americans owning 65 percent of national wealth by mid-2009, up from 62 percent two years before. The losers were the bottom 80 percent, whose share of wealth fell during the crisis. Nearly half had negative net worth by mid-2009….But, at least historically, there was always the very real hope of moving up, at least across generations.

ROBERT PUTNAM, Harvard University: That isn’t true anymore….So, one of our competitive advantages as a — as a society, which used to be that we were very mobile, and we were constantly getting new infusions of talent and so on at the top, and — and that people down near the bottom had a hope that, if they didn’t do well, their kids could do well in the past in America.

That a poor kid could grow up in a tenement, go off to city college, do well, and himself end up in the next generation pretty well-off, that’s what’s becoming less likely in America. And I think that undermines a crucial part of the American myth or the American dream or the American social contract.

PAUL SOLMAN: Adds economist Sam Bowles:

SAMUEL BOWLES, Santa Fe Institute: America is distinct in the extent to which inequality is inherited from generation to generation. The kids of rich parents have a strong tendency to be rich, and the kids of poor parents are very, very likely to be poor. That’s one of the things which I think Americans find most shocking. That’s a huge discrepancy from what we think of as the land of opportunity.

Even a college-education, the key ingredient in economic mobility, doesn’t seem to immunize Americans from these economic problems:

DENISE BARRANT: In our family, everybody is college-educated. Most of us have masters’. Myself, I’m unemployed. My brother is unemployed. People used to think it was a guarantee. It is not. To invest $200,000- plus in an education, with no guarantee that you have a job, is scary.

PAUL SOLMAN: As for Bobby Hicks’ job, it’s inequality, he says, that makes it possible.

BOBBY HICKS: In the security industry, you know, there is a demand for jobs, because the rich want to protect their assets.

PAUL SOLMAN: But those jobs are low-pay and low-prestige, despite the high stakes.

BOBBY HICKS: A pressure release valve for the domestic water in the building broke. And there was water flooding, and this was on the sixth floor. If their servers got wet, it would have wiped out the entire East Coast for this one particular company — and Bob, $9 an hour, to the rescue. Make the call, count on you, all right? But, if I screwed up, you’re gone.

Listen to NewsHour segment by Paul Solman “Many Americans Feel ‘Stuck in a Rut’ as Economy Improves but Inequality Grows” (3/24/11).

Note: the story is factually incorrect in claiming that Robert Putnam helped run Harvard’s Inequality Program.  He has never done that and Bruce Western runs Harvard’s Inequality Project currently, but Harvard’s Kennedy School Saguaro Seminar which Putnam leads has been undertaking a 4-5 year investigation of a growing youth social class gap.

Extinction of Western Religion?

Flickr photo by moominsean

CNN reports the projected extinction of western religion.

A few major caveats:

1) The underlying paper on which this report is based only focuses on Western Europe (which has seen rising rates of secularization much faster than in the US).  While rates of “nonery” (those saying “none” to a question of what their religious tradition is) have risen dramatically in the US (see “American Grace“), most of these “nones” still actually believe in God, they just haven’t found the right church; and

2) Relatedly, these projections assume that people flip to be “secular” to mirror the populations around them, but assumes that the religious environment itself doesn’t change to attract these seculars.  U.S. history is rife with examples of religious entrepreneurship — religious leaders inventing or reinventing religion to meet changed needs.  “American Grace” in Chapter 6 discusses a host of these like megachurches, Mormonism, circuit riders, the chapel car, cyber- religion, televangelism, etc.

Excerpt from “American Grace“:

In the nineteenth century, the American frontie4r presented a problem for religious leaders.  People, especially young people, were spread out in far-flung communities, many of which were too new to have churches.  And so both Protestant ministers and catholic priests came up with an ingenious solution — the chapel car.  Clergy would use these train cars repurposed into mini-chapels to travel from town to town, holding services for the otherwise unchurched settlers on the frontier.  They are largely forgotten today, but in their day chapel cars represented the state of the art in bringing religion to remote areas.

The paper by Abrams et. al, summarized in the CNN story, ignores this entrepreneurship and assumes that religious leaders and entrepreneurs will sit idly by and watch their denominations dwindle rather than invent new ways of helping to attract new converts.  This seems extremely short-sided in making predictions of the future.

The quote from Peter Berger at the end of the CNN story is telling.

Peter Berger, a former president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, once said that, “People will become so bored with what religious groups have to offer that they will look elsewhere.”

He said Protestantism “has reached the strange state of self-liquidation,” that Catholicism was in severe crisis, and anticipated that “religions are likely to survive in small enclaves and pockets” in the United States.

He made those predictions in February 1968.

Obviously Berger’s prediction hasn’t materialized.

For more detail, see paper by Daniel Abrams, Richard Wiener and Haley A. Yaple called “A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation,”presented it this week at the Dallas meeting of the American Physical Society.

For more blog posts on “American Grace”, visit here.

Japan’s catastrophy, social capital and order

Fukushima Daiichi Plant – Flickr photo by digitalglobe-imagery

My heart and thoughts are with the Japanese people.  Dealing with either of the menaces facing the country — the horrific aftermath of the tsunami or the gradual meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant — would be more than enough, to say nothing of dealing with both simultaneously, and with a disaster that may leave hundreds or thousands of square miles of a crowded Japan uninhabitable for decades.

There have been some interesting articles on how Japanese society, Japanese cultural group values social capital, and reciprocity, are or will aid Japan’s effort to rebuild.  As the conservative Financial Times‘ Lex column noted, despite the continued weakness of Japanese government leaders, “Japan’s hidden strengths are being under-appreciated, not least by its own public….In Nietzsche’s formulation, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This disaster will not kill Japan, and it could emerge psychologically stronger if the aftermath of the quake is handled well. Everyone knows there’s no god to put the stone back on the catfish [the Japanese folk wisdom that earthquakes are the thrashings of a giant catfish below the earth]. People have to do it themselves. The greatest cause for optimism about Japan is the reservoir of social capital that has sustained it through two tough decades.” And the FT Lex column wrote: “The social capital of a well-organised government and solidarity among the people is priceless.”

Where does this Japanese solidarity come from?  Slate has a column pointing to several factors:”

Honesty, with incentives. Japanese people may well be more honest than most. But the Japanese legal structure rewards honesty more than most. In a 2003 study on Japan’s famous policy for recovering lost property, West argues that the high rates of recovery have less to do with altruism than with the system of carrots and sticks that incentivizes people to return property they find rather than keep it. For example, if you find an umbrella and turn it in to the cops, you get a finder’s fee of 5 to 20 percent of its value if the owner picks it up. If they don’t pick it up within six months, the finder gets to keep the umbrella. Japanese learn about this system from a young age, and a child’s first trip to the nearest police station after finding a small coin, say, is a rite of passage that both children and police officers take seriously. At the same time, police enforce small crimes like petty theft, which contributes to an overall sense of security and order, along the lines of the “broken windows” policy implemented in New York City in the 1990s. Failure to return a found wallet can result in hours of interrogation at best, and up to 10 years in prison at worst….

Even Japan’s organized crime (the yakuza) has their rules and culture.  As Slate observes, “They make their money off extortion, prostitution, and drug trafficking. But they consider theft grounds for expulsion….

“That’s not to say that a culture of reciprocity and community doesn’t play a role in the relatively calm response to the quake. It’s just that these characteristics are reinforced by systems and institutions. Adelstein quotes an old Japanese saying that explains the reciprocal mindset: “Your kindness will be rewarded in the end. Charity is a good investment.” But there’s a flipside, too: Unkindness will be punished.”  [Slate, "Why so little looting in Japan", 3/17/11, Christoper Beam.]

Contrast this report of high levels of Japanese trustworthiness with this AP report of a coziness between the nuclear power industry executives and the government: ” ‘Everything is a secret,’ said Kei Sugaoka, a former nuclear power plant engineer in Japan who now lives in California. ‘There’s not enough transparency in the industry.’ Sugaoka worked at the same utility that runs the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant where workers are racing to prevent a full meltdown following Friday’s 9.0 magnitude quake and tsunami. In 1989 Sugaoka received an order that horrified him: edit out footage showing cracks in plant steam pipes in video being submitted to regulators. Sugaoka alerted his superiors in the Tokyo Electric Power Co., but nothing happened – for years. He decided to go public in 2000. Three Tepco executives lost their jobs.” [AP, "Nuclear Power Industry has History of Scandals", 3/17/11]

Nevertheless, assuming that the Japanese are more honest or trusting, these are not monolithic concepts. If one graphed average Japanese levels of trust of various out-groups (say trust of family, trust of kin, trust of co-workers, trust of neighbors, trust of strangers) you get at what sociologists refer to as the “radius of trust”.  The Japanese have very high levels of trust of family and kin, much higher than Americans, for example.  But the slope of this trust line trails off much more steeply towards distrust as one gets towards more distal groups.  The same line plotted for an average American would look much flatter, with more similar levels (than in Japan) for closer in and more distal groups.  As a result, trust of family is much higher in Japan, but trust in strangers is, on average, higher for Americans. It will thus be important for the Japanese to use approaches, like the emperor’s recent remarks, to help build a stronger sense of communal trust with more distant groups.

Solidarity: although the Japanese do have a strong sense of solidarity, this has often been built off of high levels of distrust or a social shunning of outsiders:  for example, the ainu (indigenous Japanese) are treated quite poorly, in the same way as Americans treat Native Americans.  The strong sense of social solidarity makes it far more difficult for westerners (gaijin) to be truly accepted into Japanese society.  Moreover, the relative low levels of diversity in Japan, make it easier to have this sense of solidarity than in a far more diverse place than the US.

In addition, it is extremely important to differentiate short-term from longer-term social capital and altruism in a post-disaster situation.  High social capital in the immediate aftermath of disasters is nothing unique to the Japanese.  As my colleague Bob Putnam has written, almost all disasters produce initial high levels of social capital as people work to help stricken neighbors or countrymen.  The $64,000 question is the staying power of these impulses.  America saw a quick wave of civicness and altruism post 9/11 that fizzled within 6 months (as our polling showed).  [See Putnam's "A Better Society in a Time of War"] The real litmus test for Japan’s recovery will be their level of co-operation andaltruism a year or two from now.  Along these lines, some sort of continual brownouts for the rest of the country, as bad as they may be for the economy, may help all of them to have a sense of participation in the pain and suffering of those in the Northeast of Honshu who have suffered the most.

See also, “Why the Japanese Aren’t Looting” (Thomas Lifson, American Thinker, 3/15/11) and “Why the Japanese behave better than Westerners” (The Telegraph, Ed West, 3/18/11)

My review of “New Tech, New Ties”

Flickr photo by fensterbme

A review that I wrote about New Tech, New Ties: How Mobile Communication is Reshaping Social Cohesion for the American Studies Journal was finally published 3 years after I wrote it!

Rich Ling concludes that unlike cellphone ads would tell you, we can’t be both here and there.  Excerpt:

Cellphones exploded onto the U.S. scene, going from commercial launch in the mid-1980s to 88% penetration by 2008 and penetrating still further in Ling’s Norway. They clearly enable us to be in contact when we previously couldn’t. And they have become a cultural icon: cellphone-shaped balloons, parents hearing kids feigning adult cellphone conversations on their toys—“have your secretary call my secretary.”
Undoubtedly cellphones can challenge social norms. A few examples suffice:

  • A couple walking down street together with each talking to someone else on a cellphone.
  • A plumber summoned to Ling’s Oslo house for a leak strolled into Ling’s home as house guests were saying goodbye. The plumber’s refusal to interrupt his cell call to introduce himself, or ask permission to enter, violated Ling’s sense of social norms, not repaired by the plumber’s nodding to Ling and removing his shoes per the Norwegian custom.
  • Whether we should flush when someone in the adjacent bathroom stall is on an important call.
  • What cellphone conversations should be off-limits in public?

[Read rest of review.]

David Brooks’ “The Social Animal” (REVIEW, UPDATED)

The Boston Globe reviews Brooks’ Social Animal: How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life: “The outward mind, according to Brooks, focuses on the power of the individual; the inner mind highlights the bonds among people. Those bonds have become frayed in recent decades, he argues, and need rebuilding if we are to thrive as individuals and as a society.

“ ‘The unconscious is impulsive, emotional, sensitive, and unpredictable. It has its shortcomings. It needs supervision. But it can be brilliant. It’s capable of processing blizzards of data and making daring creative leaps. Most of all, it is also wonderfully gregarious. Your unconscious, that inner extrovert, wants you to reach outward and connect. It wants you to achieve communion with work, friend, family, nation and cause. Your unconscious wants to entangle you in the thick web of relations that are the essence of human flourishing.’ ”  (Boston Globe)  Brooks suggests that the unconscious is more important to determining our actions than the conscious.

“Some groups are far better than others at inculcating functional norms and social skills. Children from disorganized, unstable communities have a much harder time acquiring the discipline to succeed in life. And a famous experiment conducted around 1970 demonstrated that the ability of 4-year-olds to postpone gratification by leaving a marshmallow uneaten for a time as a condition of receiving a second marshmallow was a very good predictor of success in life: ‘The kids who could wait a full 15 minutes had, 13 years later, SAT scores that were 210 points higher than the kids who could wait only 30 seconds. . . . Twenty years later, they had much higher college-completion rates, and 30 years later, they had much higher incomes. The kids who could not wait at all had much higher incarceration rates. They were much more likely to suffer from drug- and alcohol-addiction problems.’ ” (NY Times)

The WSJ suggests that it is directionally correct (and that non-cognitive skills may be 75% of the action), but in fictionalizing research into its novels two characters (Erica and Harold), it strays from some of the strict limits of the underlying research.

In the process of celebrating intuitive over rational thinking, Mr. Brooks lets his own unconscious biases get him into trouble. He describes in some detail, for example, clever experiments by Dutch psychologists who found that consumers make better purchasing decisions if they mull the relevant information unconsciously while their minds are occupied with other tasks—as opposed to making a quick decision or consciously analyzing the options and then deciding. But he doesn’t tell the reader about the one big problem with studies like this: Other researchers have been unable to reproduce their results.  This is a chronic problem…[t]he first study on a topic is rarely the last word.

…The narrative [in The Social Animal] begins with Erica taking a job with a consulting firm of wonks who show off their big brains by citing their favorite equations and debating esoteric trivia at staff meetings. They hire mainly on the basis of intelligence but never develop lasting, profitable relationships with clients. Once Erica figures this out, she leaves to start her own company.

If this story is meant to illustrate a broader point, it must be that …[t]he brilliant are more likely than the average to be socially awkward. But…] in reality, tests of emotional intelligence correlate positively with IQ tests.

But Mr. Brooks makes an even bigger claim: “Once you get past some pretty obvious correlations (smart people make better mathematicians), there is a very loose relationship between IQ and life outcomes.” [Chabris notes that Brooks in relying on an argument made by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers that IQ attendance at Harvard or MIT can't predict who will win Nobels, encounters problems that this research is based on] “tiny sample sizes, the shaky assumption that prize juries (and elite universities) make decisions based only on merit, and the focus on the tails of a distribution (here, the highest extremes of intelligence and academic achievement), which is the method guaranteed to tell you the least about the characteristics that matter across the whole range of human ability. To dismiss IQ testing as invalid because it can’t pick out the minuscule minority that will attain world-wide fame is to confuse a positive correlation with a perfect one. Only oracles have perfect records of prophecy, and surely no one desires a world in which IQ tests are that good.

…The research that Mr. Brooks minimizes or ignores does not, of course, prove that intelligence is the only relevant trait for success. A host of “noncognitive” skills, many of which Mr. Brooks explains well, are undoubtedly important. But there is no need to tear down intelligence in order to build up the rest.  Even if differences in intelligence explain 25% of the differences among people in how well they perform at work (a much better estimate than the low-ball 4% cited by Mr. Brooks), there is still three times as much territory left to be mapped out. Surely that’s plenty of space for researchers to investigate the role of social acumen, mindset, culture, self-control and much else. A thousand flowers can bloom.

See also David Brooks’ humorous TED talk on this topic, relating his talk to everything from politicians, to school reform, to financial reform, to the war in Iraq. He discusses why the rational world has trumped the social and emotional world at great cost.  He talks about how we are deeply social animals, and formed out of relationships with each other (mentioning the importance of “social capital.”)  To succeed in life, Brooks believes we need mindsight (empathy into what others are thinking), equipoise (serenity in reading our overconfidence and biases), metus (sensitivity to the physical environment), sympathy (ability to work within face-to-face groups through non-verbal communication), blending (a new fusion of two different ideas), and limerince (the ability to find moments of transcendence).

See Guardian article “What’s the big idea?: David Brooks’s theories on society were fashionable 200 years ago, he tells Stuart Jeffries. So why are British politicians such fans of his new book?

Update on British government measurement of happiness [UPDATED 7/24/12]

Dancing in Bankside London-Flickr photo by ChrisJL

I reported earlier on the British government’s recent foray into measuring the happiness of its citizens.

Cameron charged their Office of National Statistics (their equivalent of the Census Bureau) with asking respondents to rate themselves on a 1-10 scale on the following items:

  • How happy did you feel yesterday?
  • How anxious did you feel yesterday?
  • How satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
  • To what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

The first results of the Measuring National Wellbeing Programme (MNWP) or “Wellbeing Index” were released on July 24, 2012.

Among their results, they found that: 16-19 year olds and 65-79 year olds were the most happy Brits as were married Brits, the Indians and folks living on Orkney, or the Western or Shetland Islands.

Roger Cohen reports that Andrew Oswald, a well-respected economics researcher on happiness at Warwick believes this is “a good start, although he would have added, ‘How well have you been sleeping?’ — an important mental health indicator — and ‘How pressurized do you feel your time is?’  The important thing, he argues, it to shift ‘from the concept of financial prosperity to the idea of emotional prosperity.’ Perhaps that’s the 21st-century indicator we need: gross emotional prosperity, or G.E.P.”

Roger Cohen’s own views of the happiness initiative: “So I’m ready to give Cameron the benefit of the doubt and even give a wary nod to his related “Big Society” project, also the source of much guffawing. The essence of this idea is that people can give more to one another — British A.T.M.s, for example, would automatically give customers an option of donating to charity. It’s a tough sell in a grim economy, but it captures a need among dislocated people to connect more.

“That’s also true in the United States. Liberty is an inalienable right of Americans, along with the pursuit of happiness. Note the distinction here, evidence of the wisdom of the founding fathers. The Declaration of Independence guarantees freedom but, when it comes to happiness, only the quest for it is underwritten. Still, perhaps it’s time to measure just how that quest is going.”

See, “The Happynomics of Life” (NY Times column by Roger Cohen, 3/14/2011).