In preparing for a workshop on trust and the economy early next week, I picked up Robert Puttnam’s famous Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which I read in 2000 and not since. It isn’t too hard to supplement Puttnam’s tale of declining mutual cohesion and understanding with the additional evidence of executive/financial greed during the mid-2000s boom and its aftermath.
Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
Of course, social capital has an ugly side, as Dalibor Rohac points out in an article in The Umlaut (which seems a very promising new magazine). It depends on the scope and aims of the group of people among whom there is social cohesion. In the presence of a tightly cohesive ‘in’ group, such as a mafia family, or predatory political party, or circle of corporate executives rewarding each other generously, it is just as well not to be a member of the ‘out’ group.
Still, economic policy requires ample social capital to the extent that it requires trade-offs between groups or over time between generations. People in general need to believe that even if a policy does nothing for them – or harms their interests – now, it will be worthwhile in the end. Puttnam concluded: “Over the last three decades a variety of social, economic and technological changes have rendered obsolete a significant stock of America’s social capital.” We need, he said, a new era of civic investment.
This challenge of building new institutions is a bit of an obsession of mine – it was my theme at FutureFest recently. If our stock of social capital has become obsolete, there’s nothing for it but to invest in new kinds of social institution. On optimistic days, I think there’s plenty of that going on, but it isn’t clear.
Update: Moments after posting, I read this excellent Scotsman article by John McTernan about trust in politics (lack of) and the ‘small battalions’ of party workers.