Tag Archives: david brooks

The school for social capital?

The New American Academy, serving poor non-white  youth in Crown Heights, Brooklyn aims to reinvent education, but it may well be a strong contender for  building social capital as well.

Joel Klein, Former Chancellor,New York City Department of Education has written:

“The New American Academy [NAA] is an innovative, potentially very powerful way to provide education to children. It is both brilliant and scalable and holds out the hope of changing K-12 education in major ways.

This is a big idea, something we desperately need if we are going to significantly change the educational outcomes for our children.”

Educationally, NAA started in 2010 as a public school with kindergarten and first graders.  Each year they will add another grade until they reach fifth grade.  They assign 4 teachers to 60 students who they remain with from grades K-5. The teachers are compensated and promoted based on performance their 60-student flock as well as on peer and supervisory review.  OneMaster teacher (paid $120,000 annually) helps supervise the overall direction among 3 less senior teachers who rotate among 3-4 tables.

The school was founded by a  Shimon Waronker, “who grew up speaking Spanish in South America, became a U.S. Army intelligence officer, became an increasingly observant Jew, studied at yeshiva, joined the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, became a public schoolteacher and then studied at the New York City Leadership Academy, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the former New York Schools chancellor, Joel Klein, founded to train promising school principal candidates.” While a doctoral student in Harvard’s Urban Superintendents Program, he conceived the NAA educational approach based on the elite Phillips Exeter Academy and in 2009 won Harvardʼs Phi Delta Kappa Award for Innovation in Education.

Waronker, a Hasidic Jew, who sports a long bears and wears a black  suit,  black hat and a velvet kippa, seems an improbable leader for a non-white inner city school.  But he gained credibility after reviving the failing extremely violent Jordan Mott School  in the depressed South Bronx and overcoming parental wariness ultimately to gain the trust of parents and students.

In principle, the school seems unusually well-designed to promote social capital building among the students and teachers.  There is a high mix of teamwork, the students get a lot of practice in honing civic skills (like making presentations) and sit around larger tables participating in teacher-led group discussions.

“The teachers are not solitary. They are constantly interacting as an ensemble. Students can see them working together and learning from each other. The students are controlled less by uniform rules than by the constant informal nudges from the teachers all around.” [David Brooks]

“He has a grand theory to transform American education…. The American education model, he says, was actually copied from the 18th-century Prussian model designed to create docile subjects and factory workers. He wants schools to operate more like the networked collaborative world of today.” [Brooks]

Brooks says NAA “does a tremendous job of nurturing relationships. Since people learn from people they love, education is fundamentally about the relationship between a teacher and student. By insisting on constant informal contact and by preserving that contact year after year, The New American Academy has the potential to create richer, mentorlike or even familylike relationships for students who are not rich in those things.”

The school is important for at least two reasons.  Much social capital research and socialization research demonstrates that “as the twig is bent, so grows the tree”.  These early years are a critical time to teach the soft non-cognitive skills that are increasingly valuable in today’s society like teamwork, building relationships, negotiating differences, etc.  So this early experience in building social capital, if successful, could be an important model.

Second, we are increasingly discovering in our own research that working class kids (white and non-white) are increasingly falling through society’s cracks and are falling further and further behind their counterparts from more affluent and educated backgrounds.  While it is still to be proven, NAA seems to offer promise for what schools could do to start to close these gaps among kids who happened to be born on the wrong side of the tracks.

I look forward to the research that compares the educational and social outcomes of kids attending NAA against their matched counterparts who don’t.

Read David Brooks’ “The Relationship School” in the NYT (3/23/12)

Read “60 First Graders, 4 Teachers, One Loud Way to Learn” (NYT, 1/11/2011) [Slide show here.]

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.”

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.

Using evolution to improve neighborhoods: The Neighborhood Project

David Sloan Wilson is undertaking an interesting project to try to learn the rules for evolving cooperation while improving his community (Binghamton, NY), a city of 47,000 in upstate New York that has fallen on hard times with the industrial flight of corporate mainstays. A March 2011 Gallup poll found Binghamton to be one of the five least liked cities in the US.  His effort is change all that is called the Binghamton Neighborhood Project (BNP).  It raises all the usual interesting questions about being dispassionate and objective in one’s research, and not attempting to alter the very metrics one is measuring.

BNP has done interesting mapping work (relevant to those of you that are interested in doing the same thing in your areas). For example, students dropped lost letters in different parts of the community and measured the percentage that reached their destination.  They charted the density of Halloween and Christmas decorations as an indicator of community pride, participation, and goodwill.  And they mapped their data in interesting ways, using krig maps to show pro-social peaks as well, peaks.  [See: Wilson, D. S., O’Brien, D. T., & Sesma, A. (2009). Human Prosociality from an Evolutionary Perspective: Variation and Correlations on a City-wide Scale. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30: 190-200.]  [See great sample of 3-D visualization of crime data for San Francisco here.]

Efforts include: a design your own park effort, a Regents Academy for at-risk youth where students are incentivized for good behavior and cooperation, the Binghamton Religion and Spirituality Project to survey and map Binghamton’s religious diversity.

The Design Your Own Park initiative seeks to transform abandoned lots into community playgrounds. Groups submit ideas and the community votes on the idea the most like.  The United Way of Broom County helps secure funding for the transformation and community groups agree to maintain the park.  The goal is to foster parks throughout the city and there are 5 park projects underway including a BMX bike park and a dog park.

At Binghamton’s Regents Academy, a higher percentage of at-risk students took and passed state tests than in other Binghamton schools, but no formal assessment has been done of the school.  Moreover, at least as of June, the regime of rewards was still changing weekly and the principal, Miriam Purdy, while believing in the importance of the incentives, did not believe that the incentive program is about evolution.

The Religion and Spirituality Project is motivated by Wilson’s belief that religion can play a central role in producing community cohesion and giving residents a sense of life meaning.

Wilson believes that community residents (using his biological training) can behave either like water striders (which pursue their goals single mindedly, ignoring others) or wasps (which work together subconsciously for their collective good).  Pro-social groups can outcompete those lacking social cohesion, so he believes there is an evolutionary element to encouraging prosocial behavior.  He believes the seven key elements to more effective collective efforts are: 1) a strong sense of group identity; 2) proportional costs and benefits for all residents; 3) consensus decision-making; 4) monitoring those who are anti-social; 5) providing graduated sanctions (ranging from minor slaps on the wrist to more serious sanctions for chronic infringers); 6) fast, fair conflict resolution system; and 7) autonomy/authority, nested within polycentric governance (which links these localized efforts together).  Above and beyond these factors, he believes that residents need lots of practice at cooperating, and often our affluence buys us out of community, in the same way that David Brooks refers to the Haimish line.

Listen to NPR story ‘Can Evolution Breed Better Communities?

Interesting Nature story (9 June 2011) on this called “Darwin’s City

Read “The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time”; excerpt available here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks’ The Social Animal: humans as social machines (UPDATED)

Flickr photo by wallyg

Here’s an excerpt from David Brooks’ “Social Animal“; [book here] it’s a research-based, slightly tongue-in-cheek, look at a possible dystopian future, where, for example, on a date, Harold and Erica were doing mate suitability calculations — like “weighing earnings-to-looks ratios, calculating social-capital balances”:

There’s a debate in our culture about what really makes us happy, which is summarized by, on the one hand, the book “On the Road” and, on the other, the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The former celebrates the life of freedom and adventure. The latter celebrates roots and connections. Research over the past thirty years makes it clear that what the inner mind really wants is connection. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was right. Joining a group that meets just once a month produces the same increase in happiness as doubling your income. According to research by Daniel Kahneman, Alan B. Krueger, and others, the daily activities most closely associated with happiness are social—having sex, socializing after work, and having dinner with friends. Many of the professions that correlate most closely with happiness are also social—a corporate manager, a hairdresser…

[Quoting a fictional scientist in the story…] ‘I’ve come to think that flourishing consists of putting yourself in situations in which you lose self-consciousness and become fused with other people, experiences, or tasks. It happens sometimes when you are lost in a hard challenge, or when an artist or a craftsman becomes one with the brush or the tool. It happens sometimes while you’re playing sports, or listening to music or lost in a story, or to some people when they feel enveloped by God’s love. And it happens most when we connect with other people. I’ve come to think that happiness isn’t really produced by conscious accomplishments. Happiness is a measure of how thickly the unconscious parts of our minds are intertwined with other people and with activities. Happiness is determined by how much information and affection flows through us covertly every day and year.’

Read article “Social Animal: How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life” (New Yorker, Annals of Psychology, by David Brooks, January 17, 2011)

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

See also David Brooks’ Op-Ed in today’s NYT “Amy Chua is a Wimp” (January 18, 2011) where he chides Chua, the Chinese mother driving her children relentlessly to succeed, for being too soft on her children, by neglecting the arduous task of developing critical social skills in her kids.

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement. Most people work in groups. We do this because groups are much more efficient at solving problems than individuals (swimmers are often motivated to have their best times as part of relay teams, not in individual events). Moreover, the performance of a group does not correlate well with the average I.Q. of the group or even with the I.Q.’s of the smartest members.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon have found that groups have a high collective intelligence when members of a group are good at reading each others’ emotions — when they take turns speaking, when the inputs from each member are managed fluidly, when they detect each others’ inclinations and strengths.

Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together….

Chua would do better to see the classroom as a cognitive break from the truly arduous tests of childhood. Where do they learn how to manage people? Where do they learn to construct and manipulate metaphors? Where do they learn to perceive details of a scene the way a hunter reads a landscape? Where do they learn how to detect their own shortcomings? Where do they learn how to put themselves in others’ minds and anticipate others’ reactions?

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)