Monthly Archives: May 2007

The Gilded Age redux

In American Cities and the Great Divide (NYT, 5/22/07, Bob Herbert) describes how we’ve returned to a Gilded Age and cites an illustration where a high school student couldn’t imagine a dinner for 4 in NYC costing $500. The student asked incredulously, ‘How Much Can You Eat?’

Herbert points out that we’ve returned to a Gilded Age where for some the city is “paved for gold” and for others it is paved in “ash.”  Herbert observes that “One of the city’s five counties, the Bronx, is the poorest urban county in the nation. The number of families in the city’s homeless shelters is the highest it has been in a quarter of a century. Twenty-five percent of all families with children in New York City — that’s 1.5 million New Yorkers — are trying to make it on incomes that are below the poverty threshold established by the federal government.”   This in contrast to the NYC wealthy where: “…8 million residents of New York City, and roughly 700,000 are worth a million dollars or more. The average price of a Manhattan apartment is $1.3 million.” and “The annual earnings of the average hedge fund manager is $363 million.”

In The widening gap between rich and poor: Which might have something to do with the rising rate of incivility in 2007 America” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 5/23/07, Dan Simpson), Simpson tried to understand why their is complacency about these gaps.  Simpson describes the economic machines that are voraciously driven to get the poor having more credit cards and more shaky mortgages, but in many cases are insulated from the results when they turn financially sour — for example, the mortgage company has repackaged the mortgage and sold it off to another entity that has been compensated for the risk of non-repayment. Simpson laments that no one in the mortgage or real estate business really focuses on our common goal of home ownership, and regardless of defaults, they have made out well on the building, selling, and financing of millions of homes.

For sure some of our decline in caring about the other is wrapped up hand in hand with our declines in social capital.  And the link between levels of social capital and  equality is well established.  [This is true across countries, across U.S. States and across periods of time, as chronicled in Bowling Alone.]  This is because our level of trust in others (a close correlate of social capital) and our level of bridging social ties with others of different economic means determines whether we see the poor’s economic problems as OUR problem or THEIRS.

Simpson observed that “[t]here are still enough remnants remaining of the so-called Protestant ethic at the core of American society for some to say that if people are in trouble, it is because they deserve to be in trouble. The absolutely feckless way that some people — even employed people — get themselves mired in debt beyond their ability ever to dig themselves out serves as illustration.”

Simpson thinks that the ‘cheery’ financial news is a chimera:  the unemployment rate ignores those that have long given up on finding work, the stock market is buoyed by market traders seeking short-term gains, the inflation rate under-measures actual increases in goods.

He concludes that there may be a relation between the yawning gap between rich and poor and the increasingly incivility, such as “methamphetamine and other drug abuse, identity theft, home ‘invasions,’ the burning of churches, petty and grand thievery, extreme religiosity, gambling and child and elderly abuse that defies belief. Some of it looks like urban Victorian England. But so do our rich resemble the lords of those days in their economic distance from the poor.”  And Simpson quotes Officer Krupke (West Side Story) who observed ‘they are depraved because they are deprived.’

Back to the Future of Playgrounds

A New York Times op-ed (Danger: Playground Ahead) by Allison Arieff (5/29/07) points out that playgrounds were originally invented to train future citizens in a social democracy, but to reduce liability issues have offered children less and less opportunity to shape their experience.

Her Op-Ed features a handful of artists/architects to reimagine playgrounds and also describes the Imagination Playground that was recently designed that lets children build things, tear them down and start again, so that each visitor encounteres a different experience.

Playgrouds were also used in the Progressive Era to help build stronger social ties among recent immigrants and between them and the longer-term natives.   The Op-Ed serves as a reminder that we may not be doing enough to maximize the social opportunitiy inherent in traditional playgrounds or more updated forms.

‘Shoeless Joe’ Eat Your Heart Out

A friend recently told me about the Homeless World Cup.  It’s probably not related to social capital, although the inspiring idea is to form national soccer teams of homeless and have them compete for the World Championships.  This year’s finals are in Copenhagen in July-August (2007). 

One wonders whether this can give Homeless a renewed sense of purpose and pride and help shorten the social distance that exists in lots of urban areas.

And there is something about programs like this (e.g., Special Olympics, or Dancing Dreams where young ballerinas with cerebral palsey performed) that shows the power of people demonstrating their abilities beyond others’ expectations and in the process breaking down stereotypes.

Much of getting people to engage in collection action is increasing the perception that the other is an US, not a THEM, and programs like this help us realize our common dreams and humanity.

Ethics Legislation runs into wall

Despite the Democrats making ethics reform in Congress a major issue, even passing weakened legislation is running into trouble as this NYT story details. [For example, Democrats have already abandoned a promise to double the current one-year lobbying ban when Representatives leave office.] Congresspersons are opposed to requirements that lobbyists disclose bundled contributions from different contributors — a practice that many lobbyists have used to curry political influence.

Perhaps relatedly, the Democrats voted down any censuring against their colleague Rep. John Murtha, who was alleged to have exchanged votes on legislation in exchange for earmarks. [Murtha is alleged to have threatened Republican Rep. Mike Rogers when  he exposed one of Murtha’s earmarks. Murtha’s alleged threat was as follows: “I hope you don’t have any earmarks in the defense appropriation bill, because they are gone and you will not get any earmarks now and forever.”  The NYT points out that Republicans were just as skilled at using earmarks to discipline those who voted against them or as a reward for party loyalty.

We hope that the Democrats can live up to their promises since ethics reform is an important brick in restoring Americans’ faith in Congress, and this cycle of campaign promises with little follow through (in both political parties) undermines voters’ confidence in government. 

A NYT Editorial (“The Hollow Promise Reform Act”, 5/23/07) castigates the Democrats.    They note: “For all the promises, the bundling disclosure mandate is in deep trouble as opposition mounts from Blue Dog, Hispanic and black caucus Democrats intent on protecting their re-election campaigns. The pity is that the proposal they are fighting doesn’t even stop this ethically indefensible practice — it merely puts the details on the record. ”  The NYT editorial also observes that the smarter moderates among the Dems “better keep their eyes on the people’s agenda, not the lobbyists’ A.T.M.’s. A crucial vote over the lobby bill’s debating rule is about to determine whether reform dies at the hands of greedy incumbents. They might remember that next year’s voters will check for enactment of last year’s promises.”

Not surprisingly, trust in government is only roughly a third of what it was a generation ago, when there were more political moderates interested in finding common ground,  less focused on scoring political points, and willing to rank important principles higher than their re-election.

National Name Tag Day?

Joseph Porcelli, founder of Neighbors For Neighbors in Boston, borrowing an idea from Seinfeld, is trying to start an epidemic of name tag usage as a way of getting people to meet their neighbors and others who live in their city.   [Elaine in Seinfeld once proposed: ‘Wow! You know what I would do if I was running for mayor. One of my campaign themes would be that everybody should wear name tags all the time to make the city friendlier.’]

It’s been a tough road initially as this Fox25 piece details, but it’s been getting some press. More information about the effort available here including Bostoners blogging about their experience.  It’s even gotten picked up by as far-flung venues as the Miami Herald.

Just imagine a whole stadium full of people at a Pats game or a Eminem concert with “HELLO! My Name is _____.”  

And for sure it might be a godsend in offices if you work with colleagues who can never remember your name… ;-)

Clam Dip as barometer for Gore ’08

Maureen Dowd’s NYT column today (5/23/07) dicusses the coquettish tease of whether Gore is running in 2008.  She notes “He is so fixed on not seeming like a presidential flirt that he risks coming across as a bit of a righteous tease or a high-minded scold, which is exactly what his book is, a high-minded scolding. He upbraided Diane about the graphics for his segment, complaining about buzzwords and saying, ”That’s not what this is about.” But Dowd notes that the TV screen blared ”The Race to ’08,” and featured a crawl that asked ”Will he run for the White House?”

Diane Sawyer on GMA noted that Donna Brazile, Gore’s former campaign manager, had said, ‘If he drops 25 to 30 pounds, he’s running.’ Diane asked pointedly: “Lost any weight?”

James Traub of The New York Times Magazine according to Dowd said that, “as he followed the ex-vice president around, the Goracle was ‘eating like a maniac: I watched him inhale the clam dip at a reception like a man who doesn’t know when his next meal will be coming.””

 Asked about his weight, Gore laughingly said on GMA: ”I think, you know, millions of Americans are in the same struggle I am on that one. ”

So sounds like we’ll have to use Clam Dip consumption as a barometer for whether Gore is running in 2008.  For the moment the answer appears to be no; that is unless he’s planning a William Taft type of candidacy.

I’m sure there is some connection between living life with a smaller ecological footprint and not pigging out on food, but as you know, with apologies to Emerson, ‘a foolish consistency is the hobgobblin of little minds.’

 Your thoughts?

P.S. In a recent cover story photo of Al Gore (I assume this is a recent photo, although it could have been airbrushed) he looks a bit less double-chinned.  [The Story is called “The Last Temptation of Al Gore”, but I assume they are not talking about that clam dip.]  However the contrast between the accompanying pictures tell the story:  here’s Al as thinner V.P. candidate with Clinton in ’92; or even this one from the Inconvenient Truth Road Show.  In contrast, here’s Al today or this one.

Social capital marketing (word of mouth)

Cordelia Fine and Paul Harrison  writing for the Australian in “Word of mouth marketing can leave behind a sour taste” (5/16/07) note that companies use of the “just like you” personality in marketing reflects their understanding of social capital, since they trick us into thinking that a friend just like us really is recommending a product.

Sometimes they are. Some companies actually get friends to sell the product.  MCI’s Friends and Family program encouraged people using MCI to convince their friends and familiy to join so they’d have cheaper calls to these new MCI members. “One baby-care company offers a modest product voucher as an incentive for so-called ambassadors, who act as middlemen for targeted marketing to their friends (whose contact details they helpfully provide to the company).” (Fine/Harrison)  They also note that … gives discounts to those who bring in new customers.

Some companies take an ever fuller approach, getting citizens to become their marketers and salesforce and sell through home parties.  In the U.S., Amway or Tupperware are prime examples.     Fine and Harrison write: “Marketers are well aware that friends implicitly trust each other to return favours. As the clever minds behind ‘party plan selling’ so profitably realised, reciprocity between friends is a reliable tool. When a friend invites you to a Tupperware party, you sit on her sofa, drink her tea and eat her cake. Place yourself under this obligation and you are all but guaranteed to leave poorer than you arrived.” We believe these friends’ recommendations because we assume (incorrectly in the case of Amway distributors, for instance) that their recommendations are motivated more by our interests than their self-interest.

Other companies recruit “buzz agents” to test free samples and to recommend (“buzz”) products to their friends. Almost half of Fortune 500 companies use agents and Fine/Harrison note that they “‘build social capital by being in the know and always having something to talk about’, as one US company puts it.”  In some cases they apparently know no bounds. A buzz agent tried to hype an eye gel called No Puffery at her grandfather’s wake [according to Rob Walker, “Hidden (in plain sight) Persuaders” in The New York Times].  A relative at the wake noted how well the bereaved granddaughter was looking, and the buzz agent launched into buzz mode: “No Puffery helped to keep me looking calm instead of puffy-eyed and horrible, as I felt.”

Malcom Gladwell in The Tipping Point notes that companies often intentionally try to recruit buzz agents or learn the taste of those who are central to social networks and are trend setters so they can influence others’ behavior, either through social communication or through friends and others wanting to emulate these influencers’ behaviors.

Buzz agents, home marketers (like Amway reps) and the like are distinct from viral marketing which does involve social capital (i.e., it spreads through social networks) but it is not exploitative.  In other words, if I love a band on MySpace and tell my friends about it through e-mail, or if I see a funny video on JibJab and e-mail it to my friends, the popularity spreads easily because of social networks, but the sender of the e-mail does not stand to profit from the referral (other than getting credit from the recipient for being ‘in the know’ if he/she likes the band or finds the video funny).

Moreover, many social networking sites (many found here) are premised on the notion that harnessing these social networks can be highly effective, whether it to find a mate or date, to land a job, or to seal a business deal.

Fine and Harrison note that using friendships to sell products cany be a virus that kills the underlying relationship when friends realize that it was their ‘friend’s’ self-interest that motivated their recommendations.

Your thoughts?

Great visualization tools

First, if you haven’t seen it, there is a fascinating presentation by Hans Rousling (at TED conference) of data on issues like child mortality, life expectacy, GDP, Internet use, etc.  His interactive software is available at Gapminder and here.  You can chart variables by nation over time like military budget, phone usage, doctors per capita, urban population,  percentage of women in the paid workforce, etc.

Secondly, IBM has some interesting new Alphaworks tools that let you visualize dominant themes.  Click here for a visualization using tag clouds of the House of Commons debate about Iraq War [IBM calls this Many Eyes].  Larger words are more commonly mentioned words.  You can select in the radio box whether to sort by 1 word or two word phrases.  You can use Many Eyes to upload a large amount of text and find and visualize dominant themes.

Central voting centers to increase turnout

A Fort Wayne Journal Gazette article “Voting centers could prevent election disaster” (5/16/07) highlights the success of a Wayne County experiment in having fewer centralized voting centers that are open for several days in the run-up to the election.  It increases the chance that highly skilled personnel can be found to manage the process, rather than relying on much lower quality poll workers that typically must be recruited.  (This problem was one motivation that led to the Carter-Baker Commission (Jimmy Carter/James Baker) arguing for weekend voting, in the assumption that better poll workers could be recruited when voting did not happen on a typical workday.  The official name of the Commission was the Commission on Federal Election Reform.  CFER also endorsed Voting Centers as their recommendation #4.3.) The Wayne County pilot replaced 31 precinct polling places with just four centralized voting centers.  The article notes:

Finding enough inspectors, judges and poll clerks to adequately monitor the state’s 5,648 active precincts has been a challenge for years. The $110 stipend paid to inspectors and $70 given other poll workers is little incentive for a job that requires training and a 14-hour workday. And grass-roots folk just aren’t as eager to work the polls as they once were. As political scientist Robert Putnam reported at the end of the 20th century, “By almost every measure, Americans’ direct engagement in politics and government has fallen steadily and sharply over the last generation.”

Richmond got slightly higher voting rates than typical: 16% of registered voters turned out which was over a 50% jump for the 2003 election where 11% turned out.  Moreover, Wayne County needed 80% fewer poll workers than typical.   The program was modeled after a Larimer County, CO similar program that has gotten a 96.4% turnout in their 2004 general election with a combination of centralized voting centers. absentee ballots and early voting.

Surveiling ourselves

There’s an interesting article in the Utne Reader describing how citizens unwittingly reveal lots of information about themselves, in Invading Our Own Privacy. Tell-all blogs, digital surveillance, online profiling: Who needs Big Brother? (May/June 2007,  David Schimke)

The article points out that “On February 22, reported that Fox Interactive Media, a division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which owns MySpace, had hired a high-tech ad firm to mine user profiles, blog posts, and bulletins to ‘allow for highly refined audience segmentation and contextual microtargeting . . . which might put it in more direct competition with the likes of Yahoo, AOL, and MSN.'”

The article also mentions a Chronicle of Higher Education (Jan. 12, 2007) piece that notes that “two professors at Drake University’s law school, worried that their students’ casual approach to digital correspondence could hinder their careers, started a class stressing online discretion. The lesson, according to one student, is simple: ‘If you are not comfortable with shouting your comments from a street corner, you probably shouldn’t convey them via electronic print.'”

Finally, the article also refers to a New York article “Say Anything” (2/21/07) on the digital exhibitionism of youth today, willing to reveal lots of personal information about themselves on blogs, through e-mails, etc.