Category Archives: politics

The how of social capital

Flickr/drjausSocial capital is a powerful resource for individuals and communities.  For individuals embedded in dense social networks, these networks and the attendant norms of trust and reciprocity strongly shape individuals’ ability to land jobs, earn higher salaries, and be happier and healthier.  But, even for those not in the networks, having neighbors who know and trust one another affords benefits in some domains:  better performing local government, safer streets, faster economic growth and better performing schools, among other public goods.

For sure social capital can be used toward negative ends: Al Qaeda, the Crips and the Bloods, the Michigan Militia are all examples where group members can accomplish things that they could not accomplish individually (because of  group social capital).  That said, the literature supports that the vast majority of what social capital is used for is to produce positive ends, not negative ones.

But why?  What makes social capital so powerful?

Robert Putnam and I had always focused on information-flows as the key mechanism.  So these social networks:

  • enable individuals to access valuable information: how to get something done, hear of  job leads, learn how better to promote one’s health, find out what is happening in a community, etc.; or
  • help individuals find partners for joint economic transactions (e.g., to know with whom to partner  in business, to close a sale to a friend or a friend of a friend, to locate a neighbor with whom one can exchange tools or expertise); or
  • spread reputations of members (or neighbors or local merchants) which causes all people in these networks to behave in a more trustworthy manner and facilitates altruism.  There is always a short-term gain to be had from cheating someone, but if the social networks quickly spread the information that one cannot be trusted, this short-term gain is swamped by the lost future opportunity to do business with others; thus it becomes more rational to be honest and trustworthy in communities (physical or otherwise) with strong social networks. Individuals are also likely to be kinder and more altruistic toward others because they know that “what goes around comes around” in densely inter-connected networks and communities; and
  • facilitate collective action: it is easier to mobilize others around some shared goal like politics or zoning or improving trash pick-up if others in the  community already know and  trust you, rather than your having to build those social relationships from scratch.

But Connected (by Nick Christakis and James Fowler) raises a different frame for thinking about this issue: network effects or contagion.  Are there properties of the networks themselves that help spread practices, independent of the flow of information?  This is difficult to answer fully since much of their evidence comes from the Framingham Heart Study where  they know who people’s friends are but not what they are doing with each other or what they are saying to each other.

That said, some of their results can be explained by information flows (e.g., political influence, or getting flu shots), but some seem likely to be working through other channels and not through information-flows (e.g., happiness or loneliness cascades).

In these “network effects” or contagion, Fowler & Christakis typically find that the strongest “network” effects are directly with one’s friends (one degree of separation), but these effects also ripple out two more levels to  friends of one’s friends (two degrees) and friends of the friends of one’s friends (three degrees).  As one would expect, much like a stone dropped in a pond, the ripples get smaller as one moves out.  In fact they refer to the “Three Degrees of Influence” Rule that effects are typically only seen up to three degrees out and not further: in the spread of happiness, political views, weight gain, obesity, and smoking.  For example, in happiness, if one is happy, one degree out (controlling for other factors), one’s friends are 15% happier, at 2 degrees of separation they are 10% happier, and they are 6% happier at 3 degrees of separation.  For obesity, the average obese American is more likely to have obese friends, one, two and three degrees of separation out, but not further.  Quitting smoking has diminishing effects out to three degrees.  For political influence, they note a “get-out-the-vote” experiment that shows that knocking on a stranger’s door and urging the resident to support a recycling initiative had a 10% impact on his/her likelihood to vote for the initiative; what was noteworthy to Christakis and Fowler is that the door-knocking made the spouse (who was not at the door) 6% more likely to support the recycling initiative based on communication with his/her spouse.  They conjecture that if this 60% social pass-through rate of political appeals (6% for spouse vs. 10% for person answering door) applied to one’s friends and if everyone had 2 friends, then one person urging friends to vote a certain way would have a 10% impact on one’s friends, a 6% impact on one’s friends’ friends (2 degrees) and a 3.6% impact 3 degrees out.  Multiplying these political effects all the way through, one vote could create a 30x multiplier. [The example is eye-opening and suggests that voting and political persuasion may be less irrational than thought, but also is based on a huge number of assumptions and assumes no cross-competing messages from friends.]

In an experiment on altrusim (explained in this post) Christakis & Fowler found that $1.00 of altruism, ultimately produced $1.05 of multiplier effect ($.20 one ripple out with 3 others and $.05 of altruism two ripples out with 9 others).

Christakis and Fowler, in their book, talk about contagion effects in voting, suicide, loneliness, depression, happiness, violence, STDs, number of sexual partners, binge drinking, back pain, and getting flu shots, among others.  [One summary of many of their findings, which they note, is "You make me sick!"]

Why do these effects only reach out 3 degrees of influence?  Christakis & Fowler suggest 4 potential explanations.

1) intrinsic decay: C&F liken this to a game of telephone where as the information gets repeated, the content gets lost, or the passion and knowledge of the initiator gets dissipated.

2) Instability of ties: because of what is known as “triadic closure“, if A is friends with B and B is friends with C, it is likely that A will become friends with C.  Because of this, closer-in ties between people have more routes connecting them, and further out ties are more dependent on only one pathway connecting them.  For example, assume Abby and Fran were friends 3 degrees removed via Bert and via Charles. If any of these intervening friendships end (say Bert is no longer friends with Charles), Abby loses her tie to Fran.  Thus, these outer ties are much less stable and averaged across all the “3 degrees of influence” friendships, many more may have zero effect because the path of influence dies out as friends change.

3) cross-information:  as one gets further out away from you, say the friends of the friends of your friends, all of these folks are getting lots of cross-stimuli from lots of other sources (many of which may come from different clusters with different habits or values) and these cross-stimuli start to cancel each other out.

4) evolutionary biology: C&F note that humans evolved in small groups that had a maximum of three degrees of separation so it may be that we became more attuned to being influenced by folks who were in a position to alter our gene pool.

So what are the network influences independent of communication.  There seem like 6 possible channels, and often it is hard to separate one from the other, although some may make more sense for the spread of behaviors and others may make more sense for spread of attitudes or emotions:

1) homophily: “Homophily” is the practice of befriending others like you — “birds of a feather flock together.” Being friends with people who are different than you can be stressful.  This is why in mates and in friends we are likely to choose others with whom we have a lot in common — think of arguments you’ve had with friends about where to go for dinner or what is right or wrong with the world when those friends have very different tastes or politics.  For this reason, one reason for increased clustering over time of obese people or smokers or binge drinkers is that it is stressful to be in groups where one is the minority and either constantly noodging others to change their behavior or else your finding yourself frequently doing what your friends want to and what you do not (e.g., eat fast food, smoke, or listen to heavy metal rock music).  As a consequence, people may vote with their feet and form new ties or strengthen ties with others with whom they have more in common.

2) norms/reference groups/culture/peer pressure:   we often measure the reasonableness of our behavior against our friends.  For example, if our teen friends have all had 6 sexual partners in the last year, then repartnering seems far more normal than if one is friends with a group that is heavily monogamous.  Ditto with obesity or smoking or other possible traits or behaviors.

3) subconscious/imitation:  as suggested with “emotion” below, sometimes we mirror others’ behavior or emotions without even thinking about it.  C&F say it makes sense to think of people as subsconsciously reacting to those around them without being aware of any larger pattern.  They talk about processes by which a “wave” at a sporting event takes place, or fish swim in unison, or geese fly in a V-formation, or crickets become synchronized — all of these happen by individuals mirroring those around them.  And in the process, emergent properties of the group arise (much like a cake takes on the taste unlike any of its individual ingredients).

4) emotions: C&F note that emotions actually affect our physical being — our voices, our faces, our posture.  In experiments, people actually “catch emotions”: others become happier by spending time around happy people or sadder by hanging out with depressed individuals.  In experiments, smiling waiters get bigger tips.  It seems quite plausible that cascades like loneliness, happiness, depression, etc. could spread simply from emotional states, independent of any information flowing through these friendships.

5) social invitations for shared action: friends often invite friends to do things — that’s part of friendship. For behaviors, one of the ways they can spread through networks is that, for example, thin friends could invite friends to exercise more, or obese friends could encourage friends to get ice cream together, or smokers could encourage others to leave the dance for a cig.

Connected notes that it is often hard, for example, to tell imitation and norms apart, “When a man gives up his motorcycle after getting hitched, is he copying his wife’s behavior (she doesn’t have a motorcycle) or adopting a new norm (the infernal things are unsafe?)”

Connected also notes how behaviors or attitudes can spread several social links out, even without the intervening link changing.  They suggest that Amy could have a friend Maria who has a friend Heather.  (Amy and Heather don’t know one another.)  Heather gains weight.  Maria, who really likes Heather, becomes less judgmental of her weight and gradually less judgmental of  obesity in general.  Maria doesn’t change her behavior but when Amy stops exercising with Maria, Maria is less likely to pressure her to resume.  Thus Heather’s obesity changes Amy via Maria (by Maria no longer urging her to keep exercising), but Maria doesn’t change her behavior and Amy and Heather don’t know one another.

It’s interesting stuff to ponder and makes one think more expansively about the role and mechanisms of social capital.  It also evokes a conversation with a Saguaro Seminar participant back in 1998 concerning whether black kids and white kids doing sidewalk painting together on the steps of an art museum could promote inter-racial trust, even if the black kids and white kids didn’t know each other, didn’t talk to one another and never met again.  [My hunch is yes, depending on the strength of their pre-existing beliefs about inter-racial trust, but that talking could make the exchange far more powerful.] Another Saguaro participant wondered whether singing together in a chorus helps build social capital, even if one never has a conversation directly with another member of the chorus.  (In the latter example, in addition to being highly unlikely, you are at least getting some non-verbal information over time from the other choral members about their trustworthiness: do they come regularly and on time, do they respectfully listen to and follow the choralmeister?)

I welcome your thoughts.

For more on the network effects, read pp. 24-30, 25-43 and 112-115 in Connected.

An ardent plea to our better political angels

Lew Feldstein gave a terrific “Thanksgiving Breakfast” talk touching on themes of the common weal, politics, and the need to find common ground.  This talk was given November 22, 2011 to the New Horizons for New Hampshire (a Manchester non-profit that helps the homeless).  With his permission, I’m posting it.

148 years ago, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery  in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was four and a half months after the devastating battle, and it was a foggy, cold morning. Lincoln arrived about 10 a.m. Around noon, the sun came out as the crowds gathered on a hill overlooking the battlefield. 15,000 people.  A military band played, a local preacher offered a long prayer, and the headlining orator, Edward Everett, spoke for more than two hours. Everett described the Battle of Gettysburg in great detail, and he brought the audience to tears more than once. When Everett finished, Lincoln spoke .

The Gettysburg Address ran for just over two minutes, fewer than 300 words.   Only 10 sentences.

Among the first lines are these, familiar to us all:

‘Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

‘Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war….’

And so we are, now, in the late Fall of 2011.    Here,  in Manchester, soldiers may not be killing one another, bullets are not flying, but can any of us doubt that, at least metaphorically,  this country is at war, that armies are arrayed against one another,  that…as President Lincoln put it:  ‘we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated,  can long endure.’

‘We are’, as President Lincoln said, ‘met on a a great battle field of that war.’   As we meet today, a war that tests our county is being fought out across this land in its most disheartening, and discouraging form, by our elected reps in Washington, but also here, in Manchester, right now, and in every town and city, in every state in the nation,  as competing sides gird themselves for the coming elections.

As surely as tanks and cannons can destroy a nation, so can a nation  be destroyed from within, by the unwillingness or inability  to resolve structural problems that, left unresolved, will destroy  the economy and the nation with every bit as much destructive power and finality as bombs and bullets.   Obstinance, adherence to the certitude that I am right and you are wrong, the inability of our leaders to resolve differences, to find common ground, can all be fatal.

We don’t have to look any further than the daily news to see the impact on other nations of their failures to change their ways.

Or, to bring it home, today’s lead story: the failure of “the Super Committee.”

That we reach this point at this season, at Thanksgiving and the Holidays, is especially painful.   That I make this the subject of my Thanksgiving Breakfast talk may feel inappropriate, or uncomfortable, or just plain bad manners.

It is uncomfortable.

But to gather at this time, to mark the eve of  Thanksgiving and  not speak of this, not acknowledge it, would be far worse than uncomfortable.

It would be  criminal.

It is not enough for us, as citizens, to just listen to the news,  curse the enemies, wring our hands,  and then retreat to the cocoons of our daily lives.

We need to be heard.  We need to tell those we elect that they must change how they represent us.

What hubris!  What arrogance!  To believe that your side is so right,  that you have all the wisdom.

We say to them: Will you destroy this nation in the name of saving it?

It is not acceptable to lay all the blame and responsibility on the other side.

We must tell our leaders that they must move.

They must find common ground.

This morning is not the time nor the place to work thorough the competing sides, to assign rights and wrongs.

Thanksgiving starkly juxtaposes the threat that this ugly, unyielding, and unnecessary stalemate  poses to all that we have to be thankful for.

We can do it. We can get through this terrible logjam. We can find our way to a better future.

What could be better evidence of the promise of the American people, the innate goodness and willingness to row together , than this extraordinary institution, New Horizons, which brings 1,000 of us together this morning.

Here we are in the state that:

  • For the past five years has been rated “the most livable state,”
  • For the fourth straight year has been rated the best state in which to raise a child;
  • Has the lowest poverty rate in the country;
  • Has the least amount of income inequality;
  • Has the lowest tax burden; and
  • Has the highest average income.

And yet where one out of four Manchester children are growing up in poverty.

Where scores of families are without shelter every night.

And hundreds of our neighbors cannot feed themselves throughout the year.

As a community we have come together to meet these needs: to house, to  feed , to shelter, to care for our neighbors.

This community takes care of one another.  This is no mean feat in these times.  This is a city infused with high social capital — you know I would work this in — high trust in one another, strong norms of reciprocity,  where helping out is the most natural of things.

And thus it has always been in Manchester going back more than a century.  The city has changed, the business base has changed, the countries of origin of the immigrant and refugee groups that have moved through it have changed, but the strong ties of mutual support, the underlying social capital has remained, strong and enduring.

No small feat.

This trust, this social capital, is the core of why this city is special.  It speaks volumes about the city’s capacity to prosper in good times, and to work through the kinds of big ripping changes in the industrial base, as the very economy of this city has morphed.

I end with thanks, and a prayer.

Thanks  for all who step up to help their neighbors, who put aside differences of  politics and religion and race, even differences between Sox fans and this lonely Yankee fan [Feldstein speaking of himself],  to give of themselves for the common weal, who have built this great agency as testimony to what we can be, what we can do.

And the Prayer that we find common ground.

That our leaders  – on all sides – step away from their certitude, look inward to acknowledge the limits of man, to be far more modest about our individual wisdom, to see for what it is the weakness that compels blind adherence to a single point of view, and look outward to acknowledge that the public that elects them is  far more nuanced  – and far more conciliatory -  then the extremes held up by our elected reps, who through their acts and our own have driven our nation to this terrible impasse.

Please please find common  ground.

Abandon your certitude that only you are right, that only you know the answers.  Don’t destroy our nation.  But take us  together to a better place.

We have done it before.

Get us there again.”

What Big Sort?

Political scientists Mo Fiorina (Stanford) and Sam Abrams (Sarah Lawrence College) have done work analyzing and ultimately critiquing Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing’s popular Big Sort.

Synopsis of Big Sort: Bill Bishop claims that we are increasingly self-sorting ourselves into neighborhoods politically and only associating with like-minded political neighbors with all kinds of horrible consequences.   Much of Bishop and Cushing’s evidence about the corrosive effect comes from psycho-sociological experiments like Asch‘s where group pressure causes people to behave immorally (a la Lord of the Flies or the Stanford Prison Experiment), or to censure their own dissonant voice even when they originally believed those views to be  correct. [Note: Fiorina has made quite a name for himself on how the political elites in America have become ever more polarized and the masses have over time sorted themselves out more reliably into political parties but the masses views' have not become any more extreme, so obviously the Big Sort doesn't square with his other research that uses ongoing surveys like the General Social Survey, the American National Election Studies, etc.]  There is a wonderful cartoon that the New York Times did about the Big Sort.

While Bishop and Cushing try to look a wide variety of evidence, among them voting records, patent applications, IRS income data, advertisers’ data, etc., Fiorina asserts that the backbone of Bishop’s evidence compares two closely fought presidential elections — 1976 where a moderate Republican Gerald Ford took on a moderate southern Democrat Jimmy Carter vs. 2004 when a Texas born-again Republican George W. Bush took on a liberal northeastern Democrat John Kerry.   Bishop observes that there was an increase of 22 percentage points in the number of “landslide” counties from 1976-2004 (defined as a county that went for a candidate by more than a 60/40 margin).

Fiorina thinks that this comparison in and of itself is skewed since presidential campaigns are all about personalities and one can’t simply compare one against another and assume that one is witnessing changing behavior of voters.  Furthermore, he thinks because of the contestants in those contests, there are many reasons to expect more landslide results by county in 2004 when voters were faced with a starker choice.

Nonetheless, he and Sam Abrams have searched for a measure that proxies well for voter preference but measures against a more steady yardstick than votes.  They look at partisan political registration by county (which they say predicts voter choice according to other scholarly work).    Comparing counties in 1976 and 2004, even if one dramatically lowers the threshold of “landslide” counties to ones where a simple majority of registered residents are one political party (e.g., Republicans), there has been a drop in such counties from 75% of counties in 1976 to 40% in 2004.  This doesn’t show sorting at all.  For sure, there has been a significant increase over this same time in voters registering as independents, but that itself is an undermining of the “Big Sort” hypothesis, since independents’ vote choice is much more volatile according to Fiorina. Fiorina is doing another project on independents:  they are almost never just weak identifiers with a party, but either break with a party over one significant issue or have a much more esoteric alignment of political values.  He says that looking at independents over time one sees that there may be as low as 35% of Independent voters from one presidential election to the next consistently saying they are Independent, voting Democratic.

Fiorina also says that even if there were a “big sort” going on, and the data found increasing polarization at the neighborhood level (his data show nothing like this happening at the county level), he’s not convinced it would have a big impact on politics for three reasons:

  1. Neighborhoods aren’t such an important center, especially in the age of media and blogs and where 2/3 of Americans only know at most 25% of their neighbors’ names.
  2. Neighbors don’t talk to each other all that much: a Howard, Gibson and Stolle 2005 CID study found that 55% of Americans never talk about politics with neighbors and Putnam’s Bowling Alone showed how interactions with neighbors has sharply declined over last generation;
  3. Politics is simply not that important a topic of discussion or way in which we identify ourselves.  The three most important ways in which people identify themselves are family (51%), occupation (16%) and religion (10%).  Even if you go down to people’s third most important factor, politics only registers 2.7% of people listing that as the third most important factor.

Questions: one person asked Fiorina about the Bischoff-Reardon study showing increased income residential segregation over the last generation (at the census tract level); since income itself predicts being Republican, she wondered how those findings are consistent.  Fiorina hadn’t seen the study so didn’t want to comment.

Another asked how one knows whether Americans really are moderate or like to portray themselves that way. Fiorina said that any survey data is subject to such doubts but that highly volatile results, like the recent contrasting results in Ohio criticizing Obamacare while supporting the rights  of unions, with many voters voting yes on both are consistent these data.  Fiorina also noted that one has to look back to the late 1800s for 4 consecutive elections that show the level of political instability that exists today.  [2004: All Republican control of president and both houses of government; 2006 Republican president, democratic control of both houses of Congress; 2008 democratic control of President and both houses of government; 2010 democratic presidency, republican House and Democratic Senate.]  We’ve had four elections each with a distinctive result, and the next election, if current Intrade predictions pan out could show a 5th result and a flip from 2006, with a democratic President (Obama) re-elected and republican control of both houses of Congress.  See also David Brooks’ interesting related column “The Two Moons.”

Fiorina who is working on Americans Elect, believes that the way this could change is for things to get bad enough that a “younger, saner Ross Perot emerges” as a third party candidate (quoting David Brooks).  While this is not predictable, Fiorina cited Sid Verba who noted that before the Berlin Wall fell, no one saw this coming, and afterwards everyone could identify the reasons why this was inevitable.

He thinks Obama’s most promising re-election strategy is to assert that he’ll be the bulwark against likely control of both houses of Congress by the extremist Tea Party-led Republicans and a bulwark against the political extremism among political elites.

Fiorina believes that although trust of Congress is at all all-time low of 9%, turnout is not down because the political parties are providing a much stronger ground game and a much higher percentage of voters now indicate they’ve been contacted by the political parties.   [It may also be a function that more voters see an increasing difference between the two political parties and the media and others may make stronger appeals that the stakes are ever more consequential.]

Fiorina also commended the recent research by Jim Stimson and Chris Ellis  and a forthcoming book that indicates that most liberals truly are liberals whereas white conservatives are a blend of different things.  26% of conservatives are movement conservatives who really do have conservative values (what Ellis/Stimson call “constrained”); 34% are traditional-symbolic conservatives (like Mike Huckabee), many of whom are recruited through churches but don’t necessarily know the conservative party position or have consistent conservative beliefs (what Ellis/Stimson call “moral” conservatives); slightly less than a third are what Fiorina calls “clueless” conservatives (what Ellis/Stimson call “conflicted” conservatives), many of whom are younger, who actually hold liberal positions but think that the conservative label conveys greater respect (like a military official in uniform); and 10% of conservatives are libertarian (just wanting less government in general, whether it is for making marijuana legal and eliminating an army, or doing away with food stamps).  Fiorina agrees with the book that when one says that 40% of Americans are “conservative” it is misleading since a far smaller percentage of them uphold conservative positions across the board.

See also this earlier post about the “Big Sort.”

Social capital and disaster recovery

I recently heard a talk by Daniel Aldrich (Purdue).  He has been pursuing a handful of projects over the last 5-6 years looking at how local social capital (at the neighborhood or zip code or prefecture) predicts more resilient disaster recovery. Aldrich points out that people are far more likely to be hit by a disaster in their life than be the victim of a terrorist attack and asserts that the number of disasters is increasing in recent years.

Aldrich has studied 4 different disasters (1923 Tokyo earthquake; 1995 Kobe earthquake; 2005 Katrina disaster; 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami).  I think he is currently doing some work on the recovery from the recent Japanese tsunami (early thoughts by him here).  Aldrich measures social capital with local measures like: voting and participation in rallies (1923 Tokyo); non-profit organizations per capita (1995 Kobe); number of funerals attended in past year (Indian Tsunami); and voter turnout (Katrina). His outcome variables for economic recovery are things like population growth (1923 Tokyo; Kobe) in an area or amount of aid received (Indian Tsunami) or ability to keep FEMA trailers out of an area (Katrina).  [It wasn't clear to me that this last measure is a measure of disaster recovery as much as NIMBY-ism, a topic that Aldrich has also written about.]

At one level, Aldrich’s findings are not surprising since places with low social capital tend to wait for the state to repair devastation and places with high social capital take more immediate self-action to repair.  This is reflected in Emily Chamlee-Wright’s recent book “The Cultural and Political Economy of Recovery: Social Learning in a post-disaster environment” and Robert Putnam observed this about Italian recovery from earthquakes: in places with high social capital one was unaware there had been an earthquake there several years later, whereas in low social capital places, the results of an earthquake were apparent 30-40 years later and residents were still blaming government for not adequately responding.

Aldrich’s work is very interesting and will appear next year as a U. Chicago press book “Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery”.  [Brief presentation of his work here.] I would find his work even more interesting if he examined whether it is only the more political forms of social capital (like voting or protesting) that help in disaster recovery or whether it extends to “schmoozing” type variables at well (e.g., number of close friends, or knowing neighbors).   He might also be able to use volunteering data gathered by the CPS since 2002 to test that as a predictor or use datasets gathered by Rick Weil on social capital in New Orleans.  He also talks about the various types of social capital (bridging, bonding, linking) but his work doesn’t help sort out whether one type of social capital is more important than another for disaster recovery.  Also, given that social capital always rises after disasters and then most typically rapidly tails off, it would be useful if he tracked local social capital by neighborhood after a disaster since the shape of this drop-off in social capital need not be the same across communities; one might have more of a sustained burst of social capital than another.

His case study work does suggest that social capital is more important in disaster recovery than physical capital, physical infrastructure, or financial capital and more important than the conventional explanations that experts claim predict disaster recovery: amount of aid (positively predicting recovery); governance (stronger governance increases recovery); amount of devastation (less predicts greater recovery); wealth (positively predicting recovery); and population density (negatively predicting recovery).  He controls for these factors in his model and finds consistent and robust effects of social capital on post-disaster recovery.

Aldrich’s colleagues have also done some experiments of paying people to participate in focus groups, of giving people local “scrip” if they volunteer (which can be spent locally at farmers’ markets) and found that these built social capital and helped partially “inoculate” communities from the effects of disasters.  He didn’t present in any detail the methods or the results of these mini experiments.  He also recommends that post-disaster if we need to move survivors, we do them conscious of the clustering in their social networks,  so that they minimize the hit they take to their social capital.

Against this good news for social capital, there are three studies that find negative findings in the short-term, after disasters on outcomes like stress, health, etc. [I should note that Aldrich in his book addresses some negative outcomes of social capital in recoveries, for example, groups blocking certain castes from getting aid, or the Japanese promoting vicious attacks on Koreans after the 1923 Tokyo earthquake or ostracizing mercury victims in Minamata Bay from the late 1950s onward.] Basically the story of these other scholars is either that greater commitment to a community or greater social ties lead to worse ST outcomes, either because you feel it is really costly to leave or you are besieged by social and financial requests from other victims, which puts great strain on you unless you are wealthy.  The Rhodes et. al paper finds over longer term, people with more social capital do better, so this is a short-term finding only.  Weil and Lee, to my knowledge, have not looked at longer-term impacts.

See Jean Rhodes, Christian Chan, Christina Paxson, Cecelia Rouse, Mary C. Waters and Elizabeth Fussell. (2010) “The Impact of Hurricane Katrina on the Mental and Physical Health of Low-Income Parents in New Orleans.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 80(2):233-243. Not sure that their longer-term findings have been published.  See also manuscript from their project by Lowe, S. R., Chan, C. S., & Rhodes, J. E. “Pre-disaster social support protects against psychological distress: A longitudinal analysis of Hurricane Katrina survivors.”

Community Attachment and Negative Affective States in the Context of the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster” by Matthew Lee and Troy Blanchard (LSU @ Baton Rouge) American Behavioral Scientist 55(12).  October 3, 2011

Weil, Frederick, Shihadeh, Edward, and Lee, Matthew. “The Burdens of Social Capital: How Socially-Involved People Dealt with Stress after Hurricane Katrina” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, 2006.

See also earlier blog post on disaster recovery from 2011 Japanese tsunami.

Trust/Approval of federal government hits all-time low

Flickr photo by reskiebak

Approval ratings for Congress dropped into single digits this month for the first time since CBS News and the New York Times began asking the question more than three decades ago.

A New York Times/CBS poll conducted between October 21-24, 2011 showed just 9% percent of US respondents approving of the job of Congressional lawmakers. [The question read "Do you approve or disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job?'] This is a drop from 11% back in September and the first time approval ratings have been in single digits over the almost three and half decades that the question has been asked (since 1977). [84% in the recent October poll said they did not trust congressional lawmakers and 9% said they didn't know.]

Rates of approval peaked in the early 2000s when over 60% approved of the way Congress was handling its job and has dropped precipitously since then.

The same precipitous drop is true about trust of national government.  [Question: "How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right?"]  Trust of national government hit an all-time low in October 2011 of 10%.  Back in the early 2000s, about 55% of Americans said they trusted the government in Washington.

One can see the time series for Congressional approval and trust of the federal government since 1977 here.

For sure, a heavy component in these declines in trust are macro assessments about the economy and the country.  That said, at least in the short-term, the precipitous decline in trust of government presents a strong headwind for those who aspire to mobilize government to do something either about record high levels of inequality or to help stimulate the US out of the deepest recession it has experienced in the last century.   I am also working on some scholarship with Chaeyoon Lim (not yet published) that suggests that partisanship may be greater in times of greater economic woes, so this may also be playing a role in the declining trust.

See earlier comments of Bob Putnam from 18 months ago on these declines in governmental trust.

2010 voter turnout up, but not for youth and blacks (UPDATED)

Flickr photo by Dean Terry

Preliminary evidence suggests that voting turnout among all Americans was up in the November 2010 election.  Compared with the last non-presidential election (2006), both voting turnout experts (Curtis Gans and Michael McDonald) agree that turnout among eligible voters rose 1.1-1.2 percentage points (based on preliminary estimates that will obviously change as all ballots are counted and certified). Regardless of whether one likes the outcome in 2010, it is civic good news that more Americans got involved.

Preliminary evidence suggests electoral turnout rose in at least nine states, and significantly in Texas, Florida and Minnesota.  Ohio and Pennsylvania, among other states, seems to have experienced a turnout decline.  [Curtis Gans projects voting turnout at 42 percent of registered voters; Michael McDonald believes that 41.5% of voting-eligible Americans turned out to vote.]  Note: McDonald has now lowered his turnout estimate 1.2 percentage points to 40.3% (VEP Highest Office Turnout, as of 11/8/10).

But the bad news is what voices are being heard or not heard. Voting turnout rates were down among young voters (18-29) and blacks made up a lower percentage of voters in 2010 than in 2008 when Obama’s candidacy excited African-Americans to vote.  For example, blacks made up 12% of voters in 2008 and appeared to make up just 10% of voters in 2010 (based on exit polls).  This drop, if it holds up in more authoritative numbers like the Current Population Survey would  negate this encouraging finding reported in 2008 that the black-white voting gap had disappeared.    [Exit polls suggest that Hispanics maintained their share of the electorate, rising from 7% in 2008 to 8% in 2010, although one would have to compare this rise against their expanding voting-eligible numbers to truly understand whether their political voice was diluted, and if so, how much.]  It wasn’t a simple story of the richest folks’ accounting for more of the votes, since those earning $100,000 or more accounted for 26% of the votes in both 2008 and 2010, but due to the elimination of restrictions on corporate campaign contributions in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United case, the wealthy disproportionately had chances to influence election outcomes even before voters got to their polling places.

[For information on 2008 turnout, click here.]

Impact of early voting

Early voting turnout as % of votes cast; Source: http://elections.gmu.edu/CPS_2008.html

Citizens voting before Election day continues to increase as the above graph shows from Current Population Survey data.  [The CPS didn't ask about early voting in the early 1980s.]

Early voting is lower in the off-presidential years, but party experts speculate that a third or more of voters could vote early in the 2010 election, as high or higher than the 2008 presidential election.

“This year, the District and 32 states, including Maryland, allow some form of early voting….Increasingly, states are making it easier for people to vote early, allowing “no excuse” mail-in ballots and automatically sending ballots to voters who voted by mail in the past…. In some states that make early voting especially easy – such as Nevada, where voting booths can be found in health clubs, libraries, supermarkets and shopping malls – it could be much higher. In the last election, 60 percent of Nevadans voted early.” (Washington Post, “Democrats hope early voters will give them an edge“, 10/20/10)  [For a graphic of which states allow voting when, see the Early Voting Center.]

For sure this changes election strategy, pushing candidates not to hold as much of their advertising until the final days of the campaign, to reconsider their approach about last minute negative campaigning, and to invest more resources up front in a GOTEV (get out the early vote) operation.  And in some states, voters may be locking in their votes before they even hear candidates debate, undermining some of the deliberation in our electoral process.

The Post’s headline focuses on the hope for Democrats but signs seem more mixed.  For sure Democrats are trying to rebuild the grassroots machine that helped lift Obama to victory in 2008.  In some states, like Iowa, early voting turnout is up both among Democrats and GOP in 2010.

Democrats hope early voting will change the tide in Senate races in Nevada, Colorado and Washington.   But Politico reports that “In [Nevada's] Reno’s Washoe County and Las Vegas’ Clark County, Republican turnout was disproportionately high over the first three voting days, according to local election officials. The two counties together make up 86 percent of the state’s voter population.”

Republicans also seem to be early voters in North Carolina. For example, the “largest group of early voters in North Carolina is made up of white Republican men, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Democracy North Carolina, a campaign watchdog group.” Even though “[d]uring the 2008 Democratic sweep, black Democratic women led all groups during the 17 days of early voting.”

Michael McDonald, voting guru at GMU, summarizes the state of play as “This is the big test election to see if voter mobilization really has an effect on turnout….And at least according to the very earliest early-voting numbers, people who thought the Democrats were going to roll over and play dead, that’s not what’s happening.”

Stay tuned…