Category Archives: inequality

Stalled upward social mobility in America [UPDATED 2/14/12]

Flickr photo by AtleBrunvoll

Rana Foroohar’s cover story in TIME (Nov. 2011) is entitled What Ever Happened to Upward Mobility? Her answer is that it has stalled in the US and fallen behind rates of upward mobility in the US, Sweden or Denmark.  According to Foroohar (and based on a Pew study), a male born in the 1970s into the bottom fifth of the wealth distribution had only a 17% chance of making it to the top wealth quintile.  And while 50% of young males in this low-wealth quintile remained stuck there in the US, it was only 30% in UK or 25% in Denmark and Sweden, so upward mobility was much higher in those nations.  [Swedish economist Markus Jantti led the research project that uncovered these numbers.]

Foroohar (after consulting experts from places like Goldman Sachs) says that China and other emerging countries are driving inequality by taking away good middle class US jobs.   Foroohar believes that the answer lies in more progressive tax rates (with fewer loopholes) and greater investments in public education (which is the engine of economic mobility).

Fareed Zakaria also has three pieces on this: “The Downward Path of Upward Mobility” (Wash. Post op-ed, 11/10/11), a CNN video entitled “Fix Education, Restore Social Mobility” (about how lack of investment in education causing stagnating upward mobility is at heart of Occupy Wall Street movement), and “When will we learn” (TIME, 11/14/11).

Bhaskar Mazumder, of the Chicago Fed, highlights research that he believes shows a decrease in US social mobility from 1980-1990 and then growing less rapidly from 1990-2000 (based on studies of brothers). Mazumder notes that mobility measures are by methodological approach “backward-looking” since they impose a several decade lag before one learns of corrosive influences in society for social mobility; he  notes  that “the gap in children’s academic performance between high- and low-income families has widened significantly over the last few decades. If this trend persists, it would point to reduced intergenerational economic mobility going forward.”

We have been doing work on the connection between income inequality and social inequality among youth (that exacerbates the test score gaps) and will report on that later, but suffice it say that we find a connection between the “blue inequality” (income inequality) and “red inequality” (the ability of college graduates to pass on advantages from a generation to another) that David Brooks writes about.

In November 2011, a variety of non-profit, corporate, academic and media leaders convened to discuss social mobility in the Opportunity Nation summit.  Opportunity Nation has released an Opportunity Index that enables you look state by state or county by county to see how that locality is doing in terms of economic opportunity. And you can see videos of some of the speakers here.  Rick Warren cited an eye-opening statistic: 25% of Anglo kids, 50% of Hispanic kids, & 75% of black kids are growing up today without a stable father in the home (these are out of wedlock births).  This work is picked up in Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and in Nick Kristoff’s “The White Underclass“.

And interestingly, even conservative media venues like the National Review and the FrumForum (here and here) are discussing the decline of social mobility as noted in “Harder for Americans to Rise From Lower Rungs“, citing Republican experts like John Bridgeland.  Even Presidential candidate Rick Santorum has admitted that social mobility up into the middle class is higher in Europe than in the US. Excerpt from Scott Winship’s piece in the National Review here:

The Economic Mobility Project/Brookings analyses break the parent and child generations into fifths on the basis of each generation’s income distribution. If being raised in the bottom fifth were not a disadvantage and socioeconomic outcomes were random, we would expect to see 20 percent of Americans who started in the bottom fifth remain there as adults, while 20 percent would end up in each of the other fifths. Instead, about 40 percent are unable to escape the bottom fifth. This trend holds true for other measures of mobility: About 40 percent of men will end up in low-skill work if their fathers had similar jobs, and about 40 percent will end up in the bottom fifth of family wealth (as opposed to income) if that’s where their parents were.

Is 40 percent a good or a bad number? On first reflection, it may seem impressive that 60 percent of those starting out in the bottom make it out. But most of them do not make it far out. Only a third make it to the top three fifths. Whether this is a level of upward mobility with which we should be satisfied is a question usefully approached by way of the following thought experiment: If you’re reading this essay, chances are pretty good that your household income puts you in one of the top two fifths, or that you can expect to be there at age 40. (We’re talking about roughly $90,000 for an entire household.) How would you feel about your child’s having only a 17 percent chance of achieving the equivalent status as an adult? That’s how many kids with parents in the bottom fifth around 1970 made it to the top two-fifths by the early 2000s. In fact, if the last generation is any guide, your child growing up in the top two-fifths today will have a 60 percent chance of being in the top two fifths as an adult. That’s the impact of picking the right parents — increasing the chances of ending up middle- to upper-middle class by a factor of three or four.

See somewhat related Social Capital blog piece on increased residential income segregation.

Read Paul Krugman’s excellent “We are the 99.9%” (NYT, 11/24/11)

Read Nick Kristof’s excellent piece “Occupy the Agenda” (NY Times, 11/19/11)

Listen to Steven Haider (Michigan State Univ. economist) on Michigan Public Radio (11/18/11) discussing the myth of upward mobility in America.

Other pieces on this topic:

TIME Magazine: “The Land of Opportunity” by Richard Stengel, 11/14/11

Washington Post-ABC News Poll: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/polls/postabcpoll_110311.html   [see questions 16-18]

December 2011 OECD report Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising on how inequality among OECD countries is at a record high over the past 30 years and demands action.

The reports that Zakaria uses to show that mobility is lower in US than in Europe are:
– OECD 2010 report: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/2/7/45002641.pdf
– German Institute for the Study of Labor report (2006): http://ftp.iza.org/dp1938.pdf

- Professor Miles Corak (economist at Univ. of Ottawa) compared rates of mobility in a review of over 50 studies spanning nine countries.

- See Scott Winship’s testimony to Senate Budget Committee (Feb. 9, 2012) on inequality and social mobility, and see Jared Bernstein’s and Heather Boushey’s as well.

Two of most startling charts of testimony were one by CBO showing how the income of the top 1% is the one cohort that has done well over the last 40 years in the US economy:

And one showing that, unlike in most countries where progressive taxation is used to curb the excessive inequalities of the market and ease the distribution somewhat, the tax and transfer system in the US actually make inequality WORSE.

Michael Gerson on economic mobility

Flickr photo by ant.photo

George W.’s speechwriter has an Op-Ed noting that we should focus more on economic mobility than economic inequality and we couldn’t agree more:

Excerpt:

“Still, the most important measure of U.S. economic success is not income equality but social mobility. Economic inequality can be justified in a fluid society, in which economic advancement is a realistic goal. Economic inequality in the absence of economic mobility amounts to a class system in which the circumstances of birth are the main economic blessing or curse….

“There remains a considerable amount of economic mobility, upward and downward, in the middle class. But nearer the bottom of the income scale, upward mobility is weak and stuck. As a result, according to the Economic Mobility Project, the U.S. economy is less fluid than the economies of Canada, France, Germany or the Scandinavian countries.”Individual advancement is closely tied to educational achievement and family structure. An economy that rewards skills and other forms of human capital is not a good place to be a dropout with a child out of wedlock.

“Conservatives are correct that tax increases on the wealthy to fund entitlement commitments that go mainly to the elderly would do precious little to address this problem.

“Liberals are right that a combination of rising economic inequality (even if the rise is gradual) with stalled economic mobility is an invitation to destructive social resentments. Americans will accept unequal economic outcomes in a fair system. They object when the results seem rigged. That way lies the Bastille.

“So the question comes to liberals and conservatives: If social mobility is the goal, what are the solutions? What can be done to improve the quality of teachers in failing schools, to confront the high school dropout crisis, to encourage college attendance and completion, to reduce teen pregnancy, to encourage stable marriages, to promote financial literacy, to spark entrepreneurship?

“Both Democrats and Republicans should have something to contribute to the development of this agenda. Neither party, however, currently has much to say. And this is not likely to change until the discussion turns from equality to mobility.”

Read Michael Gerson, “Economic inequality is the wrong issue” (Washington Post Op-Ed, 11/4/2011)

Growing inequality in the news; point of no return?

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) issued a report early this week that outlines factoids known to scholars of inequality for some time — that over the last 30 years the share of income captured by the top has grown at the expense of those in the middle or low-end of the income hierarchy.

After-tax incomes for the top 1% grew 265% over the roughly three decades from 1979-2007 while those with incomes in the bottom 20% of the distribution saw after-tax income rise a paltry 18% over roughly 30 years (or about half of 1% per year).

The top 1% now capture 17% of the nation’s income, more than double the 8% they captured back in 1979.  The bottom 80% of households (most of us) saw their share of income decline 2-3 percentage points over this period.  [CBO points out that part of this trend toward increasing inequality was the result of higher-income households capturing a higher share of wages in the market and part was government doing less than 3 decades ago to redistribute and even out this market-based inequality.]

While these factoids are known by some, what may be new is: 1) that general unrest and anger/frustration at this inequality is growing, as evidenced by the Occupy Wall Street protests; and 2) even mainstream believers of capitalism, like PIMCO bond-fund investment chief Mohamed El-Erian (also former manager of the Harvard endowment) or Harvard pre-eminent labor economist Larry Katz (former chief economist for the department of labor under Clinton) believe that we have drifted into economically deleterious levels.

Mohamed El-Erian, another pillar of the financial world … is sympathetic to aspects of the Occupy movement. He told me that the economic system needs to move toward “inclusive capitalism” and embrace broad-based job creation while curbing excessive inequality.

“You cannot be a good house in a rapidly deteriorating neighborhood,” he told me. “The credibility and the fair functioning of the neighborhood matter a great deal. Without that, the integrity of the capitalist system will weaken further.”

Lawrence Katz, a Harvard economist, adds that some inequality is necessary to create incentives in a capitalist economy but that “too much inequality can harm the efficient operation of the economy.” In particular, he says, excessive inequality can have two perverse consequences: first, the very wealthy lobby for favors, contracts and bailouts that distort markets; and, second, growing inequality undermines the ability of the poorest to invest in their own education.

“These factors mean that high inequality can generate further high inequality and eventually poor economic growth,” Professor Katz said. [quoted from "Crony Capitalism Comes Home" by Nick Kristof, NYT Op-Ed 10/27/11]

Americans far less trusting than per capita wealth would predict

Catherine Rampell has a couple of interesting charts describing the relationship of trust, income and equality (among countries).

The US is 10th most trusting of the 30 countries examined (with 48.7% saying that others can generally be trusted).  Norway and Denmark are the most trying with almost 90% saying that others can be trusted; Turkey and Mexico are the least trusting with only 20-25% of residents saying that others can be trusted.

Since wealthy countries generally are more trusting, it’s surprising that America is only ranked 10th.


The U.S. is the country in the top center of the graph, way above the black regression line with median equivalized income of $27,000 per person (y-axis) but trust just below 50% (x-axis).  If one moved the US over to the right until it hit the regression line it would have social trust levels of 90%, like Norway.  [better picture here.]

The reason for America’s low level of trust can be seen by looking at the levels of inequality in the US.  More equal countries tend to have higher levels of trust, and viewed through this lens, Americans are just as trusting as one would expect, down around the levels of trust and inequality of a Portugal or a Poland, which while far poorer than the US has similar levels of equality to the US.

The implicit conclusion seems to be that income equality trumps wealth when it comes to trust, which makes some sense as it may engender a “we’re-all-in-this-together” esprit de corps.  But the regression line, if anything, seems to better fit countries for the graph of trust against income per person than the level of trust maps onto levels of equality.  And notably, Denmark and Norway, have higher levels of trust than one would expect from their level of equality.

Food for thought…

See NY Times Economix, “Trust Me, We’re Rich” (Catherine Rampell, 4/18/11)

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.

Excerpt:

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.

Twitter, Facebook and YouTube’s role in Arab Spring (Middle East uprisings) [UPDATED 7/7/13]

Flickr photo of Tunisian protests by marcovdz

Democracy has finally come to parts of the mid-East and Northern Africa. What has been the role of social media and the Internet in these uprisings?

First the facts and then some discussion of the role of social media:

Background: The “Arab Spring” in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Mid-East heavily relied on the Internet, social media and technologies like Twitter, TwitPic, Facebook and YouTube in the early stages to accelerate social protest. There are even allegations that the CIA was blindsided about the Egypt uprising by failing to follow developments on Twitter. There is less evidence that social media played a strong a role in places like Yemen (where Internet penetration is low) or Libya (where the government controlled Internet means of distribution and cracked down more effectively).

In Syria, where the “Arab Fall” and “Second Arab Spring” is still underway and the fighting has intensified and spread to Damascus’ suburbs. The role of social media was originally more limited in Syria, out of fear that the government is monitoring online behavior and because the government learned from Egypt and Tunisia and cracked down heavily on social media, but there is some evidence that activists  was starting to figure out how to use social media more  when the Syrian government temporarily shut down the Internet on May 7, 2013.  The Free Syrian Army [Arabic FSA actual site is here] is threatening civil war in Syria and claims to represent 10,000 defected soldiers operating in small bands across Syria; FSA has posted a YouTube video and claimed responsibility on Facebook for the 11/16/11 assault on the Air Force Intelligence building.  Disappointingly, Twitter and Google have also agreed to help the Syrian government and other oppressive regimes by enforcing rules that censor tweets or blog posts in Syria by blocking them out within-country.  There have not been large-scale protests in Syria, making it hard to gauge the level of anti-government support, since large number of critics of the Assad regime may be refusing to demonstrate out of fear of being injured or killed.  Because of the media blackout, it is hard to assess the role of social media currently in Syria, but this Google Hangout hosted by the Syrian American Council in DC held a conference video with activists in and outside the country, discusses their use of social media like Facebook, Skype or YouTube.

Tunisia:

The first domino was Tunisia where the underlying source of the uprising lay in government corruption, inequality, censorship and joblessness (even among the well educated youth).   The protests began in December 2010 with a college-educated street vendor’s (Mohamed Bouazizi’s) self-immolation in the coastal town of Sidi Bouzid in despair at the corruption and joblessness.  He died from the burns, but his protest, despite Tunisia’s strict web censorship laws, was rapidly fanned by online Internet tools.

“Because the protests came together largely through informal online networks, their success has also raised questions about whether a new opposition movement has formed that could challenge whatever new government takes shape.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, a close ally from the president’s hometown, announced on state television that he was taking power as interim president. But that step violated the Tunisian Constitution, which provides for a succession by the head of Parliament, something that Mr. Ghannouchi tried to gloss over by describing Mr. Ben Ali as “temporarily” unable to serve.

Yet by late Friday night [1/7/11], Tunisian Facebook pages previously emblazoned with the revolt’s slogan, “Ben Ali, Out,” had made way for the name of the interim president. “Ghannouchi Out,” they declared…. And the protesters relied heavily on social media Web sites like Facebook and Twitter to circulate videos of each demonstration and issue calls for the next one.    [“President of Tunisia Flees“, NY Times, 1/14/11)

“By many accounts, the new arsenal of social networking helped accelerate Tunisia’s revolution, driving the country’s ruler of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, into ignominious exile and igniting a conflagration that has spread across the Arab world at breathtaking speed. It was an apt symbol that a dissident blogger with thousands of followers on Twitter, Slim Amamou, was catapulted in a matter of days from the interrogation chambers of Mr. Ben Ali’s regime to a new government post as minister for youth and sports. It was a marker of the uncertainty in Tunis that he had stepped down from the government by Thursday.” [New York Times 1/30/11 article]

“Other social media aspects of the revolution included Twitter updates with stories of state oppression, police brutality and unrest, and tweet feeds of imminent street protests….  Over 30,000 videos have now been placed on YouTube tagged “Sidi Bouzid.” [Online Social Media, 1/18/11 story]

Egypt:

Emboldened by the overthrow of Tunisia’s Ben Ali, the protests spread to Egypt on January 25, 2011 where opposition leaders declared it a “Day of Rage” on which protesters would take to the street against President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. The protesters included secularists, Islamists and Communists/ultra-left-wingers–a veritable who’s who of the Egyptian opposition.

While exact numbers of protesters could not be estimated, a flood of internet photographs and videos showed a massive presence in Cairo, Alexandria, and other Egyptian cities.  These protests lasted 18 days and Internet-savvy protesters used Twitpic, Facebook and YouTube to disseminate videos and photographs and called on Egyptians to protest.  Protesters provided minute-by-minute tweets concerning where to assemble in an effort to outwit police.

“More than 90,000 people signed up on a Facebook page for the Tuesday [Jan. 25] protests, framed by the organizers as a stand against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment. But the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful opposition movement, said it would not officially participate, though some of its members joined the protesters in Cairo.”  (NY Times, “Broad Protests Across Egypt Focus Fury on Mubarak“, 1/25/11)

The Egyptian government originally engaged in episodic censorship. One video posted to YouTube and then shared on Facebook claimed to show Egyptian riot police being assaulted and seriously injured by protesters. However, the video was taken offline for a Terms of Service violation. There were also reports of YouTube censorship of protest videos. “[D]uring protests on Tuesday [Jan. 25, 2011] and again on Wednesday [Jan. 26], many reported trouble accessing Facebook and Twitter, the social networking sites that helped organize and spread news of the protests.” [NY Times]

The Internet crackdown began in earnest on January 28 when the government, amidst extremely large-scale demonstrations moved to fully restrict the Internet and cellular forms of mobilizing demonstrators.  “Internet and cellphone connections had been disrupted or restricted in Cairo, Alexandria and other places, cutting off social-media Web sites that had been used to organize protests and complicating efforts by news media to report on events on the ground. Some reports said journalists had been singled out by police who used batons to beat and charge protesters. One cell phone operator, Vodafone, said on Friday that Egypt had told all mobile operators to suspend services in selected areas of the country The British company said it would comply with the order, Reuters reported.” [New York Times, "Clashes in Cairo Extend Arab World's Days of Unrest", 1/28/2011]

Tahrir Square protest in Egpyt, posted on Facebook page

Slate has a brief description of how, despite the Internet and cellphone limits, some one million protesters were mobilized for the 2/1/11 protest in Tahrir Square using old-school tactics:

“Three young men from the ElBaradei Association for Change, a group that had been working to mobilize people and have them sign a petition to reform constitutional amendments passed in 2005 and 2007 that prevented an independent candidate from running for president, decided to take matters into their own hands. They would go into other neighborhoods and convince people to come to the square. “We’re going to go out on the streets and start screaming, ‘Down with Mubarak,’ and asking people to join us. Once we get about 1,000 or 2,000, we will move toward downtown,” Tawfik Gamal told me, as we walked briskly toward the subway.

A little while after we set out, word came that other activists had the same idea, so Tawfik and his friends headed to a different neighborhood. I decided to stick with our original meeting point. As I waited in front of a major Cairo mosque in a wealthy neighborhood, I watched about 100 people walk by.

In front of the mosque, carrying home-made banners and bottles of soda, a small group of friends had congregated. They were the affluent upper-middle-class on the march. One of them is Ahmed El-Diwany. An IT manager at the American University in Cairo, he had moved back into his parents’ home to be closer to the protests. He’s not sure when Mubarak will fall, but he is sure that he will. “Mubarak is a Taurus, and so he is stubborn. He doesn’t like looking weak—and he’s a general. Put it all in a blender, and it’s a lethal combination,” he tells me, totally serious.” [Slate]

Mubarak’s unsubtle crackdown on the Internet and cellphones, not only imposed great cost on the economy, but had the ironic consequence of actually radicalizing many  rural Egyptians into opposing the Mubarak regime. In any event, Mubarak’s countermove occurred after the dissension genie had already escaped the bottle and the revolution successfully ousted Mubarak.

“[With the internet crackdown,] President Hosni Mubarak betrayed his own fear — that Facebook, Twitter, laptops and smartphones could empower his opponents, expose his weakness to the world and topple his regime.  There was reason for Mr. Mubarak to be shaken. ” [New York Times 1/30/11 article]

On February 10, amidst unrelenting protests, Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak had ceded power. Egyptians have now voted meaningfully for the first time ever, although doubts remain about whether the protesters’ gains are being eroded.  And on May 23, 2012, Egyptians, in a historic election, for the first time  voted for a replacement for Mubarak (one year after his departure).

The Second Revolution: The situation in Egypt in mid-2013 is highly unstable.  It appears that Egypt’s second revolution has ousted Mohammed Morsi, but the situation there remains highly unstable and there are assertions that Morsi is corralling the military to put down protest, even after he has agreed to step down.  There is evidence that Facebook was used much more prominently in the second revolution than the first.

Libya: In Libya, while the revolution was ultimately successful in ousting Muammar Gaddafi, social media played a minor role.  Libya’s government maintained strong control of the Internet infrastructure, and Gaddafi as an ego-maniacal autocrat responded only to insurgent militia, once they were aided by NATO.

Syria/Jordan/Yemen/others: Other middle-Eastern nations fear the shadow of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and fear that youth uprisings spurred by social networking mobilization or more traditional mobilization are taking hold.  On Monday, January 31, 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unsuccessfully announced efforts to try to get ahead of a possible revolution there (in a WSJ interview).  Jordan pre-emptively tried to avoid the Tunisian or Egyptian result with somewhat limited success. (AP) The Yemeni leader agreed not to run again or hand the reins to his son. [Here is a great graphic showing the spread of the Tunisian uprising to at least 18 other middle East countries (through April 11, 2011), with four other countries having overthrown their leader (Egypt, Libya, Ivory Coast and Yemen[?]) and another (Syria) at a tipping point.  And this is the current state of play by country.]

Although the role of social media is much lower in Syria’s protest actions than countries like Tunisia or Egypt, individuals have risked their lives to use cellphones and small cameras to film atrocities of President Bashar Al-Assad’s crackdown on the protesters and upload these images to Facebook or YouTube, fanning international pressure on Assad to back down.  Assad has also used propogandistic websites like Bashar al-Assad and used social media to assert that protest videos are fake and that he has hundreds of thousands of loyal supporters.  Although only 15% of Syrians are online, activist LeShaque claims that without social media, the Syrian revolution would have been successfully repressed at an earlier stage, and notes that the government complains more about the media than the protests.

What was the role of social media?

Social media must work hand-in-hand with an ability to mobilize citizens.  It is far too easy to simply “Friend” or “Like” a movement on Facebook and a retweet is never enough. The challenge is to put boots on the street, as protesters in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya know only too well.

Everyone agrees that social media add new arrows to the quivers of social activists.  These social media can be helpful in: a) mobilizing protesters rapidly; b) undermining a regime’s legitimacy; or c) increasing national and international exposure to a regime’s atrocities.   Any use of these social media is likely to be more successful in a country that has some form of democracy; so far, the exit of Tunisia’s Ben Ali is the only example we have of social media non-violently ousting an autocrat.

Malcolm Gladwell observes in “The Revolution Will Not be Tweeted” that successful social movements long pre-dated social media.  In an May 2011 interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN’s GPS (Global Public Square), he disputes the importance of social media in the mid-east uprisings and asserts that protesters could have organized in other ways, noting that East Germany overturned a government when only 13% had landline phones. Moreover, Arab Spring uprisings are occurring in places like Yemen with low rates of Internet penetration. Journalist Anthony Shadid comments on Syria that: “It’s not a Twitter or Facebook revolution. The revolution is in the streets, and it smells of blood.”

Advocates of the new technology point out that the fact that there were successful revolutions before the telephone, doesn’t mean that the telephone (or social media) might not enhance social protest or enable some protests to succeed where otherwise they would not have.

Malcolm Gladwell and Clay Shirky, “From Innovation to Revolution”, Foreign Affairs, Response, March/April 2011  have an interesting brief exchange of their differing thoughts on the role of social media in revolutions.  Zeynep Tufekci, Why the ‘how’ of social organizing matters and how Gladwell’s latest contrarian missive falls short and David Weinberger, Joho the Blog, “Gladwell proves too much” had quite thoughtful blog posts on this topic, criticizing Gladwell for his dismissal of the importance of social media.

Philip N. Howard, assoc. professor of communication at the Univ. of Washington, and other scholars have analyzed the millions of tweets, YouTube videos and blog posts and concluded that “social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring…[The evidence] suggests that social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising. People who shared interest in democracy built extensive social networks and organized political action. Social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom.”

Wael Abbas (a prominent Egyptian blogger), when questioned on the role of  social media in the Egyptian revolution, said: “Social media is a tool. But revolution is the decision of many people. Once we decided to have a revolution, once people decided to stay in the square, social media was a helpful tool to call for support, ask lawyers for help. I will not give social media all the credit, nor will I take away all the credit from social media.”  He noted that the revolution is not yet over: “We’re not beyond the revolution. We now have a military junta, and people are being shot by armed officers, defending their interests. The army is protecting American, Israeli, Saudi interests in the country. They are protecting their own interests: the military aid from the US. The army is building factories and roads, and they’re not paying taxes, electricity or water. The labor for these projects are soldiers acting as slave labor.”

Wael Ghonim, who anonymously founded the Facebook site Kullena Khaled Said (“We Are All Khaled Said”) in sympathy with a 28-year old brutalized by police and called for the critical Tahrir Square Jan. 25, 2011 day of protest, wrote Revolution 2.0 to chronicle the role of social media in Egypt’s uprising and the suspenseful tale of trying to stay ahead of the police.  Hear Wael, a 30-year old Google marketing executive, talk with Terri Gross of Fresh Air here about the power of social media.  [Interestingly, he made real efforts with his Facebook site to make this interactive and build individual investments and commitment in this, by asking those who affiliated electronically with the website to post videos of them carrying placards reading "We Are All Khaled Said" and answer electronic surveys about their thoughts, and by indicating that if 100,000 took to the streets to protest on Jan. 25, they couldn't be stopped.]

It’s very hard to prove whether a revolution would or would not have happened barring the existence of social media [countries rarely offer themselves up for experimentation], but there may be some learnable lessons about some important dimensions in understanding how successful social media may be.

1) The underlying strength of civil society: Clay Shirky has an interesting piece “The Political Power of Social Media” in the January/February 2011 Foreign Affairs journal where he acknowledges the key role of civil society:

“The more promising way to think about social media is as long-term tools that can strengthen civil society and the public sphere. In contrast to the instrumental view of Internet freedom, this can be called the environmental view. According to this conception, positive changes in the life of a country, including pro-democratic regime change, follow, rather than precede, the development of a strong public sphere. This is not to say that popular movements will not successfully use these tools to discipline or even oust their governments, but rather that U.S. attempts to direct such uses are likely to do more harm than good. Considered in this light, Internet freedom is a long game, to be conceived of and supported not as a separate agenda but merely as an important input to the more fundamental political freedoms.”

2) Whether government is a democracy or autocracy.  Thus far in the Middle East, Tunisia is the one example where a social-media-tinged uprising has successfully ousted an autocrat.  This doesn’t mean that social media can’t be useful in bringing democracy, but if an autocratic leader is willing to brutally suppress dissent (as in Syria) and if outside countries don’t intervene (as they did in Libya), social media may have less impact than one would expect in bringing democracy to the Middle East.

3) The degree of Internet penetration and whether government controls the Internet infrastructure: Obviously in countries with low internet penetration it is far more difficult to use the Internet to mobilize local masses, although it may still be a tool to garner international support. In Libya, where the state controlled the Internet and telephony, it was far easier to block use of these social media than in a country where telecommunications were privatized. In Egypt, the government secured Vodaphone’s cooperation in blocking mobile communications, but foreign companies in the future may be less cooperative.

4) Sophistication in Internet censorship or misinformation campaigns: We are in the early stages of social media and the cat-and-mouse interplay between protesters and repressive regimes.  In second-generation revolutions, the state is becoming more sophisticated about Internet controls, making it look like the Internet is active, but slowing speeds dramatically so  video is ineffective or blocking certain words from appearing on trending lists or in search queries.  Repressive governments have alas learned from Egypt’s inept full-frontal blocking of the Internet. Regarding the use of misinformation, Gaddafi’s attempt to claim that a protest rally video circulating was actually a pro-government rally looked foolish.  Would other more sophisticated misinformation campaigns succeed?  Will there be fake groups that form in an effort to flush out activists for persecution?  Will government become more active in the Internet to try to direct protesters to incorrect locations where police are waiting?

5) Unintended consequences from state action:  Related to point #4, we are also in the early days of understanding what types of government crackdowns succeed and which backfire and wind up bolstering the opposition (as Mubarak did in his shutting down of the Internet).    Until we have a better handle on those dynamics we will be unsure of what the net-net impact of social media will be.

6) How intertwined social media is in everyday life:  To the extent that a society uses social media mundanely but deeply in everyday commerce and social interaction, it will be much harder for countries to effectively dismantle these without huge economic and social costs.

Beyond any initial revolution, Thomas Friedman pointed out in the NY Times on April 13 that starting the revolution may be the easier part. “In the Arab world, almost all these countries are Yugoslavia-like assemblages of ethnic, religious and tribal groups put together by colonial powers — except Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, which have big homogeneous majorities. So removing the lid off these countries may potentially unleash civil war, not civil society.

Friedman concludes: “That is why, for now, the relatively peaceful Arab democracy revolutions are probably over. They [first] happened in the two countries where they were most able to happen because the whole society in Tunisia and Egypt could pull together as a family and oust the evil ‘dad’ — the dictator. From here forward, we have to hope for ‘Arab evolutions’ or we’re going to get Arab civil wars.”

++++

Other links:

Tunisia:

Philip Howard and Muzammil Hussain, “The Role of Digital Media”, Journal of Democracy 22(3):35-48(2011) has good background of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt in terms of social media.

- “Tunisia Protesters Use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to Organize And Report” (LA Times Blog, 1/14/11).

- See New Yorker, “Letter from Tunis: The Casbah Coalition” (4/4/11 by Steve Coll)

- See “The Use of Social Media Made Arab Spring Possible

Egypt:

- See earlier Social Capital Blog post on role of Facebook in earlier Egyptian uprising.

- As noted under the Tunisia section, Philip Howard and Muzammil Hussain, “The Role of Digital Media”, Journal of Democracy 22(3):35-48(2011) has good background of what happened in Egypt in terms of social media.

- Fast Company urged those interested in monitoring events to follow Egyptian journalist Mona el-Tahawy’s Twitter feed and the wall of the Egyptian opposition el-Shaheed’s Facebook account, which posted minute-by-minute updates from hundreds of Egyptian Facebook users including photos and news of the latest events. They also commended Blogsofwar’s Egypt Twitter aggregator for those who can read Arabic.

- See “How Social Media Accelerated the Uprising in Egypt“, Fast Company, 2/3/11.

- Read also “Facebook treads carefully after its vital role in Egypt’s anti-Mubarak protests” (Wash. Post, 2/2/2011).

- see, “Twitter’s Role in Arab Spring exaggerated, experts find” (The National, 5/1/12) [Citing Arab Media Outlook Study (2011-2015), commissioned by the Dubai Press Club.]

Syria:

See “Will Syria’s Revolution be Organized… on Facebook?“, Fast Company, 2/3/11.

Radwan Ziadeh explains why use of social media is much lower in Syria in “The Double-Edged Sword of Social Media” (7/11/2011)

Social Media and Syria’s Revolution” by Namo Abdulla (12/20/11)

- Syria Interview: Activist “LeShaque” on Social Media and the Syrian Revolution (1/15/2012)

Arab Spring generally:

- Clay Shirky did an interesting short interview for the Annenberg “Eye on the Middle East” program (Nov. 10, 2011) on the use of social media in the Arab Spring.

For a broader description of just how game-changing the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East may be, see Thomas Friedman’s “B.E., Before Egypt, A.E., After Egypt” (2/1/11 NYT Op-Ed) [likening the impact to Israel as being similar to the impact on the U.S. if Canada and Mexico were both going through revolutions at the moment]

- See also “Five Reasons why Arab regimes are falling” (Christian Science Monitor, February 8, 2011 Op-Ed by Moataz Fattah) citing the fact that countries like Egypt have not leveraged physical capital (i.e., oil) into social capital for its residents.

- See also, Rory O’Connor (Huffington Post, 1/26/12), “#january25 One Year Later: Social Media & Politics 3.0″

Libya:

- See “Libya: How authorities have blocked the story” (BBC, 2/25/2011)

- See Deborah Amos (NPR) talking about the role of social media: “Revolution in the Age of Social Media, Deborah Amos

- Doug Saunders has a very interesting Op-Ed in the Globe and Mail discussing social networks in Libya and Egypt in 2004 and 2011 and contrasting the difference.  Excerpt:

Certainly, the Libya I visited in 2004 was low on social capital. It was the only Arab country I’ve ever visited where men didn’t gather in large crowds at street-side cafés to smoke and talk politics. This was illegal, and dangerous. Next door in Egypt, life for many was (and remains) a lonely oscillation between home, mosque and workplace, with nothing to bind people in a way that could change the country or its society.

Or so it seemed. But on that visit seven years ago, I noticed something else: Everyone I met under 20, even in fairly poor communities, spent their spare time at the Internet café. In the freedom of those places, in detailed conversations, I found teenagers forming intimate communities online, discussing cars and rap lyrics and sex and especially restrictions on Internet freedoms in neighbouring countries (Libya’s Net was wide open then), and often coalescing in physical meet-ups. And that was Libya, one of the least free countries in the region.

Those teens are now around 24 – and half of all Egyptians and Libyans are 24 or under. In the past months, we have seen them form extraordinarily resilient and tightly linked voluntary communities using those Internet connections.

A fifth of Egyptians and more than a third of Tunisians have broadband at home, and the Internet cafés and cellphone web services mean that almost everyone under 24 has daily access.

Dictators and Islamists also use the Internet. But the young opponents keep showing that their social capital is more robust than we’d ever imagined: In the past seven weeks, we have seen Facebook-organized rallies drive out the old-regime prime ministers of Tunisia and Egypt and replace them with movement-associated figures. The towns and villages of Tunisia and Egypt, as I reported this week, are being transformed by local democracy committees, which have become an unstoppable force.

That’s not to say that the Arab world’s connected generation are going to have an easy time building a democratic society. But they certainly aren’t bowling alone.

Upward Mobility Gap

Flickr photo by Herve Demers

Doyle McManus (of the L.A. Times) has a nice piece citing Robert Putnam on some of our unpublished research evincing “canaries in the coalmine” that are likely to block upward mobility in the US in the decades ahead if unremedied.

Opportunity in America isn’t what it used to be either. Among children born into low-income households, more than two-thirds grow up to earn a below-average income, and only 6 percent make it all the way up the ladder into the affluent top one-fifth of income earners, according to a study by economists at Washington’s Brookings Institution…. Children born into poverty in Canada, Britain, Germany or France have a statistically better chance of reaching the top than poor kids do in the United States….

[In addition to the decline of public schools,] Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam argues that thanks partly to the rise of two-income households, intermarriage between rich and poor has declined, choking off another historical upward path for the underprivileged….”We’re becoming two societies, two Americas,” Putnam told me recently. “There’s a deepening class divide that shows up in many places. It’s not just a matter of income. Education is becoming the key discriminant in American life. Family structure is part of it too.”…

“Success in life increasingly depends on how smart you were in choosing your parents,” Putnam said. “And that flies in the face of the fundamental American bargain — that every kid ought to have access to the same opportunities.”…Most Americans accept inequality in the economy as long as the ladder of opportunity is accessible to anyone who wants to work hard. The best way for America to reclaim its self-image as a land of opportunity is to ensure that every kid has access to a decent education — now more than ever the first step onto the ladder. That’s why bipartisan education reform isn’t just about fixing schools; it’s about repairing the fabric of American society.

Read “The Upward Mobility Gap” (Doyle McManus, L.A. Times, 1/2/11)

See also some interesting recent articles in NY Times on how pay of superstars stifles everybody else, and another article that attempts to reconcile Americans’ dislike of equalizing income with declining mobility by showing how in America being middle class is more driven by aspirations than income.  And finally, research conducted at Harvard Business School that ironically shows that most Americans would prefer an income distribution more similar to Sweden’s (far more egalitarian than in the US) over the current American income distribution.

Paul Krugman in “A Tale of Two Moralities” (NY Times Op-Ed, January 15, 2011) writes: “…I’ll also have a lot to say about how far we really are from being a society of equal opportunity, in which success depends solely on one’s own efforts.”

Michael Gerson (Washington Post columnist) also had a very thoughtful column on this issue, indicating that this issue (upward mobility) should be the issue that Republicans should be discussing.  See “The economic debate that we should be having” (Dec. 14, 2010)  Gerson writes:

“…the main reasons for inequality are failing schools, depressed and dysfunctional communities and fragmented families. For the most part, inequality does not result from a lack of consumption by the poor but from a lack of social capital and opportunity.

This does not release conservatives from responsibility because the distribution of social capital and opportunity is dramatically unequal. Economic inequality can be justified as the reward for greater effort – so long as there is also social mobility. In the absence of mobility, capitalism becomes a caste system. And this is what America, in violation of its self-image, threatens to become. The United States has less upward economic mobility among lower-income families than Canada, Finland or Sweden. Americans who are born into the middle class have a roughly equal chance of ascending or descending the economic ladder. But Americans born poor are likely to stay on its lowest rungs.

Addressing the actual causes of inequality should be common ground for the center-left and center-right – and politically appealing to American voters, who are generally more concerned about opportunity than income equality. A mobility agenda might include measures to discourage teen pregnancy; increase the rewards for work; encourage wealth-building and entrepreneurship; reform preschool programs; improve infant and child health; increase teacher quality; and increase high school graduation rates and college attendance among the poor. Children of low-income parents who gain a college degree triple their chance of earning $85,000 a year or more. If America had the same fraction of single-parent families as it had in 1970, the child poverty rate would be about 30 percent lower.”