July 01, 2006

WEEKEND SPECIAL: DENNY DIMWIT ON CIVIL SOCIETY


Goat Rope is pleased to feature another learned discourse by bantam rooster and noted free market economist Dr. Denton "Denny" Dimwit. Dr. Dimwit is director of the Goat Rope Farm Entrepreneurship Center.

It is our fondest hope that by providing space for opposing and non-human viewpoints, we are promoting a climate of profound mutual respect, utmost civility, and deep listening.

THE DIMWIT DISPATCH

Crudamakazookie! It looks like the flakes who write for this blog during the week haven't been taking their anti-stupid pills. I know where you can find some good ones--check the goat pen!

And what's all this goofy stuff on the public sphere and civil society? I don't like the sound of that. All those people jabbering at each other would just gum up the efficiency of the market.

I say shut up and go to the mall! And if you can't afford to do that, then at least have the decency to get locked up in a private prison so you can contribute to the economy.

And as far as all that social capital junk goes, there's only one kind that I'm interested in, baby. Check out the picture. The little handsome guy is me. Pretty sharp, huh? And see what's standing to my right? That's right, it's one BIG hen. Yeah man! She's with me, Jack, got it? Yowza!

That's the beauty of the market.

That's the truth. You bet your cloaca.


GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

June 29, 2006

LONELY AMERICA: REBUILDING SOCIAL CAPITAL



Caption: It can be done! These critters have got the bridging social capital thing going on.

This is the final post in a series that began Monday about America’s declining stock of social capital. Social capital can be defined as all the formal and informal ways people interact. The series was prompted by a new study that found more Americans feeling isolated.

If this is Friday, it must be time to wrap this up. Here are some conclusions:

1. Social capital can be used for good or evil purposes, but you can’t anything positive done without it. One vital component of social capital is civil society, which consists of all the voluntary organizations that are neither government agencies nor businesses. Think book clubs, volunteer fire departments, union halls, athletic clubs, community groups, support groups for wretched goat herders, etc.

Totalitarian regimes usually consolidate power by destroying civil society. That would be bad. Unrestrained market forces, especially globalization on steroids, can also erode it. That’s not good either.

2. Civil society can play a vital mediating link in helping people come together and deal with various personal and public problems. The organizations in civil society can and in the past have positively influenced the behavior of corporations and governments.

Many groups that want to create social change have often focused exclusively on gaining political power when they might have done better by spending time building a base for the changes they support in civil society.

Groups that gain political power without first creating a base in the broader society often wind up either losing power or resorting to repression to keep it. On the other hand, groups that build a base there can make their influence felt regardless of who holds political office. To do that, however, it’s necessary to develop bridging social capital (see previous posts) which builds connections between diverse groups.

3. Not only has social capital (and hence civil society) declined in recent decades, but we are also facing a shrinking public sphere as mass media and mega money make public life a spectator sport and as more aspects of public life are privatized. That’s not good either.

This has been a major theme of the work of German social theorist Jurgen Habermas. Several years ago, possibly as an effort to purify his past evil karma, El Cabrero spent a lot of time trying to read his stuff. Here’s the standing on one leg version of what I got out of it:

There are two ways society is going to change our lives. One way will happen if we do nothing and let impersonal forces jam things down our throats. The other way is for people to get together and rationally discuss the issues and try to make informed decisions together, the more the merrier.

Of the two possibilities, the second looks better to me.

That’s about it.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

June 28, 2006

LONELY AMERICA: SOCIAL CAPITAL AND MONEY CAPITAL



Caption: This baby peacock needs friends.

This post is part of a series of reflections on America’s declining stock of social capital. Social capital can be defined as the various formal and informal ways in which people interact. A recent study that found a growing sense of isolation among Americans prompted this series.

A post-Cold War joke goes something like this. Two former communist true believers meet in the former Soviet Union. The first one says, “It’s terrible—everything they told us about communism was a lie!” The second one replies, “And you know what’s worse? Everything they told us about capitalism is true!”

There are some points behind the joke relevant to this discussion. One is that totalitarian political systems such as Stalinism mistrust and repress civil society (defined as voluntary associations outside of business or government) and attempt to monopolize or destroy social capital. That’s hardly news. The other is that unrestrained capitalism can also erode social capital, although usually in a more subtle way.

For politically divergent social thinkers in the 1800s, a central problem was how this dynamic economic system disrupted communities and long-standing human relationships.

For the conservative sociologist Emile Durkheim, a major feature of modern life was the paradox that industrial societies become more interdependent even while people feel more disconnected. This led to anomie, a sense of normlessness or rootlessness.

German sociology pioneer Max Weber worried that the means/ends rationality of business and government bureaucracies would make the world more impersonal. He feared that human life would be increasingly trapped in this “iron cage.”

Marx believed that alienation was a basic feature of life under capitalism as virtually every aspect of life became a commodity and all values were reduced to exchange value (living before TV commercials, he didn’t know the half of it). In the Manifesto of 1848, he wrote that capitalism “has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’”

The relationship between economy and social capital is more complex than that, however. The United States economy has been capitalist from the beginning, but voluntary associations seemed to rise and decline at various periods.

We do know that any successful campaigns to counter the worst abuses of cut-throat capitalism such as slavery and child labor or promote good government would have been impossible without voluntary associations.

Alexis de Tocqueville famously commented on American voluntary associations in the early 1800s in his Democracy in America

In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used or applied to a greater multitude of objects than in America. Besides the permanent associations which are established by law under the names of townships, cities, and counties, a vast number of others are formed and maintained by the agency of private individuals…

If some public pleasure is concerned, an association is formed to give more splendor and regularity to the entertainment. Societies are formed to resist evils that are exclusively of a moral nature, as to diminish the vice of intemperance. In the United States associations are established to promote the public safety, commerce, industry, morality, and religion. There is no end which the human will despairs of attaining through the combined power of individuals united into a society.


(Of course, while this was written, African-American slaves were forbidden the freedom to form their own voluntary associations.)

Voluntary associations flourished in the late 1800s and early 1900s as populist, progressive, labor, and other social movements grew. These were instrumental in making reforms that removed or reduced some of the injustices of the time. The civil rights movement would have been impossible without the rich social capital of the African American community, particularly the churches.

Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone (see yesterday’s post), is willing to speculate that economic globalization may be partly responsible for today’s decline in social capital:

The replacement of local banks, shops, and other locally based firms by far-flung multinational empires often means a decline in civic commitment on the part of business leaders. As Wal-Mart replaces the corner hardware store, Bank of America takes over the First National Bank, and local owners are succeeded by impersonal markets, the incentives for business elites to contribute to community life atrophy… the connection between civic disengagement and corporate disengagement is worth exploring.


The bottom line is this: strong networks of social capital make it possible for ordinary people to challenge the abuses of powerful impersonal systems such as transnational corporations or government bureaucracies. We need it now more than ever.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

LONELY AMERICA: THE BASICS OF SOCIAL CAPITAL



Caption: This is a loney (and probably single) box turtle.

This is the third in a series of posts on America’s declining stock of social capital, which can be defined as all the different formal and informal ways people relate to each other.

Among the modern researchers of social capital, Robert Putnam, author of the influential book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, is the best known.

His book (over 400 pages not counting appendices, notes and index) exhaustively and convincingly sums up the benefits of social capital and the damage to individuals and communities when it declines. Two websites to check for those who are interested are bowlingalone.com and bettertogether.org.

El Cabrero first heard of Putnam’s work in the early 1990s and was frankly skeptical. But after a few years of working on issue based campaigns to influence public policy, it started to make a lot more sense. Getting better at building and using social capital for positive goals is one of the better answers to the question What is to be Done?

Finally, I waded through the book, notes and all. Verdict: dude is on to something.

Only an idiot would try to summarize all that in a few paragraphs. Here goes:

A great deal of scientific evidence indicates that the richer communities and individuals are in social capital, the better equipped they are to deal with personal and social problems. Rich networks of social capital can vastly improve access to information, resources, opportunities, allies, and favors.

Conversely, individuals and communities poor in social capital can be extremely vulnerable to negative forces. Unfortunately, by several measures, social capital has been declining in the United States over several decades (although Putnam thinks the downward trend is leveling out).

In Bowling Alone, Putnam identifies several factors that contributed to the decline of social capital in the US. First comes pressures of time and money (10%); second, the sprawling and suburbanization (another 10%); Third comes the effect of electronic entertainment (25%)—especially TV—and especially not reading the Goat Rope (El Cabrero’s contribution); and fourth, generational change, “the slow, steady, and ineluctable replacement of the long civic generation by their less involved children and grandchildren,” which may account for as much as half of the decline.

(Minor critique: El Cabrero thinks Putnam overly downplays economic factors. Television, after all, is not just an invention but an industry. So is sprawl. And the civic generation was able to participate so actively in part because many of its members enjoyed good jobs, benefits, and secure pensions.)


Putnam identifies two main kinds of social capital, bonding and bridging. Bonding social capital refers to tightly knit but fairly exclusive networks. Examples might include some immigrant communities, small towns in Appalachia, political sects or isolated movements or even the country club set of wealthy families.

Bridging social capital refers to the kinds of networks that cross ordinary divides and brings diverse people together. Both kinds have their place and can serve good or bad ends, but the latter is more effective for many kinds of problem solving. It’s also a better way to gain access to new information.

Building social capital has to be a major part of any positive change. As a means to an end, diverse connections of friendships, partnerships, coalitions, and alliances are key ingredients to personal or public problem solving. It’s also not a bad end in itself. Strong social capital builds trust and reinforces norms of reciprocity which can also promote more productive ways of dealing with controversial issues and conflicts.

(Suggestion: one reason why so many "progressive" groups are ineffective is because they focus on bonding rather than bridging social capital).

It is not clear from Putnam’s research whether the benefits of social capital occur when one interacts with a variety of animals, but El Cabrero is skeptical.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

June 26, 2006

LONELY AMERICA: SOCIAL CAPITAL AND THE GOOD LIFE (OLD SCHOOL)



Caption: This is a lonely goat. Not a very pretty sight.

This is the second post about America’s declining stock of social capital, which can be defined as all the different formal and informal ways people and groups connect with each other. These reflections were prompted by a recent article (see yesterday’s post) about a new study that found more Americans were feeling isolated.

Aristotle is Goat Rope’s official philosopher in residence. This is partly because, being an ancient Greek, he knew a thing or two about goats. Also, he had some good things to say about the good life in public and private (if you can forgive him for being born 2,400 years ago and having some of the baggage that came with that).

Aristotle viewed happiness as the goal of life since we seek it for its own sake. But happiness for him wasn’t mere pleasure but an active life in which people developed to their full potential in public and private life. He coined the phrase about humans being political animals and said that to live alone, one must be either a beast or a god.

Since we are not gods and are in no danger of becoming them, when friendship and social capital decline in private and public life, we are in danger of becoming more bestial.

In this area as in some others, Aristotle holds up pretty well. In his Ethics, social capital, which he simply called friendship, was the basis for a happy life for people at all ages and social positions,

for it is a kind of virtue, or implies virtue, and it is also most necessary for living. Nobody would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other good things. Indeed those who hold wealth and office and power are thought to stand in special need of friends...In poverty too and all the other misfortunes of life people regard their friends as their only refuge. Friends are indeed a help both to the young, in keeping them from mistakes; and to the old, in caring for them and doing for them what through frailty they cannot do for themselves; and to those in the prime of life, by enabling them to carry out fine achievements...


He argued that the same was true of public life: “Friendship also seems to be the bond that holds communities together, and lawgivers seem to attach more importance to it than to justice; because concord seems to be something like friendship, and concord is their primary object—that and eliminating faction, which is enmity.”

If you were trying to summarize what modern research shows about social capital, you could do a lot worse that that. But that will keep till next time.


GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

June 25, 2006

LONELY AMERICA: THE HIGH COST OF LOW SOCIAL CAPITAL



Caption: This is a lonely man.

A recent Knight Ridder feature told of a new study that shows that more Americans feel isolated than in the past. According to the article:

The latest research found that men and women of every race, age and education level reported fewer intimate friends than the same survey turned up in 1985. Their remaining confidants were more likely to be members of their nuclear family than in 1985, according to the study, but intimacy within families was down too. The findings are reported in the June issue of the American Sociological Review.

Weakening bonds of friendship, which other studies affirm, have far-reaching effects. Among them: fewer people to turn to for help in crises such as Hurricane Katrina, fewer watchdogs to deter neighborhood crime, fewer visitors for hospital patients and fewer participants in community groups. The decline, which was greatest in estimates of the number of friends outside the family, also puts added pressure on spouses, families and counselors.


Something major--and not good--is going on here that goes beyond the lonely feelings of individuals.

In his classic The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills talked about the distinction and overlap between personal troubles and social issues. Personal troubles "occur within the character of the individual and within the range of his immediate relations with others." Potentially, these troubles can be understood and resolved at the individual level.

Social issues, on the other hand, "have to do with matters that transcend these local environments of the individual and the range of his inner life. They have to do with the organization of many such milieux into the institutions of an historical society as a whole, with the ways in which various milieux overlap and interpenetrate to form the larger structure of social and historical life."

For example, if one person or a few people lack health care, it's obviously a personal trouble for the people involved. But when 46 million Americans lack health care, we have a social issue here that goes beyond the problems of a few individuals.

In the current case, we are clearly talking about a social issue.

A disturbing trend noted by social scientists in recent years has been America's declining stock of social capital, which can be defined as all the different formal and informal ways people and groups connect with each other. These include community organizations, clubs, sports teams, religious groups, unions, political groups, coalitions, social networks and friendships.

Causes of the decline in social capital vary. According to the article, "One explanation for friendship's decline is that adults are working longer hours and socializing less. That includes women, who as homemakers tended to have strong community networks. In addition, commutes are longer and TV viewing and computer use are up."

In the last several decades, there has been a growing tendency to what has been called civic privatism as the public sphere shrinks and as civil society (defined as the network of groups and associations not engaged in government or business) erodes. It's not unrelated to the whole issue of privatization (see last week's post on "Deflating the Public Sphere")

This is not a healthy sign. Individuals and groups with strong social networks and connections are better able to deal with both personal issues and social problems. When social capital declines, it negatively impacts both individuals and the larger community.

In the next post or two, Goat Rope is going to look at the issue of social capital, what the research shows about the problem of declining connections between people and possible solutions.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED