Invisible wealth

Rebecca Solnit is one of my favourite writers. Her previous books include Wanderlust,¬†A Field Guide to Getting Lost and Motion Studies about Eadweard Muybridge. As this (rather lukewarm) Observer review of her new book, The Faraway Nearby, notes, she ought to be far better known in the UK. I’ve nearly finished the book, best described as a memoir of illness, I suppose. I particularly liked this:

“Kindness sown among the meek is harvested in crisis, in fairy tales and sometimes in actuality. I know a man who lost a fortune suddenly and was penniless with a legal battle to fight and children to support. He found that he had another kind of wealth in the ties of affection and respect he had built up, wealth he would never otherwise have seen. Lawyers took on his case pro bono, the grocery store extended credit, the schools gave scholarships and he got by on wealth that was invisible before the money dried up.”

It’s what we economists would prosaically label ‘social capital’.

Her writing is probably an acquired taste – I can understand why some readers would find it too, well, Californian. If you’ve not tried, though, I’d strongly recommend giving it a go, especially if you like the genre constituted by authors like W.G.Sebald (in The Rings of Saturn) and the Iain Sinclair of his John Clare book, Edge of the Orison.

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Social vs financial capital

This morning’s email brought notification of this new working paper, Social Capital and Attitudes Toward Money. On a quick first read, its finding is rather interesting – in a sample of 634 Russians aged 20-59, there’s a clear negative correlation between civic identification and concern to get more money. To quote the summary:

Attitudes toward money as a means of influence and protection and the desire to accumulate it reflect a personal sense of dependency on money and lead to constant concern about it. A greater social capital, by providing social support that serves as an alternative source of security, influence, and protection, may reduce this dependence on money. An important finding of our research has been that the component of social capital that correlated most frequently and strongly with monetary attitudes, was civic identity.

This is a small sample in a distinctive country, but it reminded me of one of my all-time favourite social science books, Eric Klinenberg’s Heatwave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. He compared ‘excess deaths’ (ie. above the level you would normally expect) in different neighbourhoods of Chicago in a heatwave, controlling for income levels and other poverty indicators. Similar neighbourhoods that differed only in their ethnic composition had different rates: there were significantly more ‘excess deaths’ in African-American than in Hispanic neighbourhoods, due to the stronger family and community support in the latter.

(I’ve not read Klinenberg’s latest, the best-selling¬†Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone – the reviews were a bit sniffy about it. But I probably should, given how good Heatwave is.)