Category Archives: government

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.

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Japan’s catastrophy, social capital and order

Fukushima Daiichi Plant – Flickr photo by digitalglobe-imagery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dancing in Bankside London-Flickr photo by ChrisJL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postal service considering shutting many post offices: community implications

P.O. Boxes - Flickr photo by bryanpearson

“Now, with the red ink showing no sign of stopping, the postal service is hoping to ramp up a cost-cutting program that is already eliciting yelps of pain around the country. Beginning in March, the agency [the US Postal Service] will start the process of closing as many as 2,000 post offices, on top of the 491 it said it would close starting at the end of last year. In addition, it is reviewing another 16,000 — half of the nation’s existing post offices — that are operating at a deficit, and lobbying Congress to allow it to change the law so it can close the most unprofitable among them. The law currently allows the postal service to close post offices only for maintenance problems, lease expirations or other reasons that don’t include profitability.

The news is crushing in many remote communities where the post office is often the heart of the town and the closest link to the rest of the country. Shuttering them, critics say, also puts an enormous burden on people, particularly on the elderly, who find it difficult to travel out of town.”  [From Wall Street Journal, “Postal Service Eyes Closing Thousands of Post Offices” (January 24, 2011)]

As the article notes, post offices are often the social hubs of smaller communities and shuttering them has strong negative implications for social capital (chances for neighbors to see one another, renew ties, share stories, and help each other out).  It was a discussion of such a scenario that prompted the Saguaro Seminar to think about Social Capital Impact Assessment.

It makes one wish there could be a creative competition for how to turn around the fate of these post offices:  to enliven them and make them financially sustainable rather than closing them perhaps by leasing out some of the space.  For example, what if one could combine picking up one’s mail or delivering packages with some other really important function like a convenience store or a combination Starbucks and post office.  Other critics of the P.O. closings note that it is the excessive cost structure of the postal service that is to blame.

Impact of civics education on voting

Flickr photo by Eric Langhorst

Jennifer Bachner (Harvard Government department PhD student) has a recent paper From Classroom to Voting Booth: The Effect of High School Civic Education on Turnout on the impact of civics education on voting.  Moreover, the paper suggests that civics education may help to level the political playing field since the gains in voting are greatest among those who have not been socialized by their families to vote.  33 States now require such civics classes (American Government/Civics) and many more school districts offer such classes.   Almost 80% of US high school graduates have taken a minimum of 0.5 credits in such classes, up from 62% in 1982.

Her research uses the NELS data (National Educational Longitudinal Surveys) of 1998 and 2002 and tracks voting in the national 1992-2006 elections.  She controls for baseline interest in politics and involvement in extra-curriculars, parents’ level of political socialization of their child (discussion of politics and whether they subscribe to a newpaper), the quality of the school in which the child attends, and the child’s race and gender, and parents’ native language and level of education.

Abstract follows:

A healthy democracy requires a citizenry that participates in political life. While interventions such as removing barriers to registration and mobilizing partisans have received frequent scholarly attention, formal civic education has been largely ignored.  Using longitudinal data and a matching analysis, this paper shows that students who complete a year of coursework in American Government/Civics are 3-6 percentage points more likely to vote in an election following high school than those without exposure to civic education.  Further, this effect is magnified among students whose parents are not highly politicized.  Among students who report not discussing politics with their parents, additional coursework is associated with a 7-11 percentage point increase in the probability of voting.  This result suggests that civic education compensates for a relative lack of political socialization at home, and thereby enhances participatory equality.

Note: She finds consistent results, regardless of whether she uses matched or unmatched data;  she uses matching to ensure that those who get the civics classes and those who don’t look as similar as possible to each other on their propensity to get involved politically.

Economy dangling by the thin thread of trust

from leonardosam, Flickr

from leonardosam, Flickr

These are unprecedented times for our economy (at least since the Great Depression). No one would have predicted several years ago that we’d see the federal government forced to take over the two largest mortgage holders (Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae), the largest worldwide insurer (AIG), and 3 of the 5 largest investment banks forced either to sell at bargain-basement prices, declare bankruptcy or get government assistance (Merrill Lynch; Lehman Brothers; Bear Stearns, respectively).

Underlying the well-working of the whole economic system both at the micro and macro level is trust. Other scholars have written about this before, most notably James Coleman in his 1988 discussion of Jewish diamond merchants in New York (“Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital“); the merchants’ interconnecting networks and interpersonal trust allowed them to freely lend diamonds to each other for examination and ensure that the bags were honestly returned.  The social networks helped ensure that any short-term gains to be made through dishonesty would be swamped by being shunned in the future when one’s poor reputation spread through these networks.

But at the macro level, our economy also depends on trust:  Trust that the banking systems will continue to work. Trust that the U.S. government will be in a position to pay back all the money it borrows for Treasuries. Trust that stocks will go up or are a good place to park retirement assets. Trust that one’s money market fund that has nominally had an unguaranteed $1 per share price will continue to be so valuedTrust that funding will be available in the future at reasonable rates.

When trust starts to dry up, these well-oiled financial systems can become remarkably rusty and liquidity and access to capital can dry up amazingly fast.  At the same time on Tuesday that AIG was trying to get billions pumped into their operations, they had a remarkably hard tapping credit;  the benchmark inter-bank LIBOR rate (used to peg many variable rate mortgages) literally nearly doubled in one day.

One of the spectacular ways in which one sees trust underlying our economy is in bank failures. While some bank runs are driven by fraudulent activity by the bank that suddenly cause everyone to question whether their assets’ security, normally we live with the fiction that our assets are there for us.  In reality of course, our bank deposits aren’t sitting in the bank, but the bank has lent out our money to make more money and to be able to pay us interest, meet their expenses and make a profit. The banks keep some small reserves to cover the expected levels of daily withdrawals, but these are desperately inadequate when we all decide to do this at the same time and the banks can’t get our cash back fast enough from borrowers. As “It’s A Wonderful Life” styled it, ‘Don’t Look Now, but there’s Something Funny Going on at the Bank, George.’


There was an interesting commentary on bank panics by Jane Kamensky (Brandeis) and this one (LA Times Op-Ed) and a talk show where she discusses the importance of trust to banks.

The FDIC tried to help create trust after the Great Depression by insuring our deposits up to $100,000, hoping that this would avoid runs on banks, although we are learning that this too depends on trust. There is some mounting evidence that the amounts FDIC maintains are not really adequate for a big financial meltdown. The FDIC used up one sixth of their total reserves just paying out to IndyMac depositors when that bank went under this summer. While the FDIC can raise premiums that banks pay for this insurance, at some point they run the risk that these higher payments will in turn make more banks unprofitable and force them to liquidate as well.

The economy is becoming like the veritable sausage axiom, don’t pay too much attention examining how it’s produced.

[For good background on what is going on with the economic woes, see “Diamond and Kashyap on the Recent Financial Upheavals”, these NY Times posts, or “Worst Crisis Since ’30s with No End Yet In Sight” (WSJ), likening crisis to doctors treating a patient in intensive care.]

Note: HybridVigor has an interesting post that concludes from the financial meltdown in 2008 that “Markets depend on trust, but self-interested egoists don’t engender trust.”  More specifically, “When it comes to social trust, free markets are freeloaders. Free markets are most efficient when a high degree of social capital exists, but the “flaw” Greenspan alludes to is simply the friction between egotism and trust. It turns out that trust, not egotism, is what keeps a market in check. But markets today encourage risky, self-centric, and flamboyant behavior. The Laws of Relation predict that relationships set up in this way result in everyone being worse off.”

Note also that David Brooks has a related article 4-5 months after this post called “An Economy of Faith and Trust” (1/16/09)