24 September 2011

An insightful and interesting talk by Dr Robert Putnam

The author of Bowling Alone, and one of the founding members of the communitarian political-philosophical movement in the United States, came to speak at Pitt at GSPIA’s invitation yesterday. And he didn’t aim small in terms of his topic: the relationship between social interconnectedness and economic equality.

His thesis is thus. There is a strong correlation between economic equality and social connectedness – that was the easy part to demonstrate. He plotted the levels of social trust against the GINI coefficient across the globe (the most trusting nations – and also the most equal – were the typical Northern European offenders: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Belarus; the least trusting nations were those like Brazil and Egypt with massive inequality problems), across the United States (almost straight down the OLS regression line, with Vermont topping the charts on both measures and Mississippi trailing in last place) and across Italian provinces (again, the data went straight along the regression line). The not-so-easy part was the direction of the causation. Though most laypeople (as well as most scholars) would answer if asked what the causal relationship was between the growing economic inequality and the social disconnect / hyper-individualism we see now in American society, we would tend to think that the causal relationship was one way: economic inequality causes social disconnect – with the causal explanation being something along the lines of poor people growing poorer growing envious of rich people getting richer, and rich people growing suspicious and untrusting of everyone they see as not sharing their interests. Dr Putnam argues that this is not, in fact, the case – rather, it is social disconnect which causes economic inequality.

Indeed, he showed the data, plotting over time the levels of social engagement and of income equality in the United States. Intriguingly enough, we see social capital peaking in the 1960’s, and falling off (first gradually, then more and more drastically) around the same time that Dr King was shot. Income equality, however, reached its peak in the Carter years, before plummeting with Reaganomics 15 years later. The level of correlation was, in fact, quite stunning. Dr Putnam built up a convincing case that those generations (particularly the WWII generation) which were most closely connected with each other tended to push harder for public policies which would benefit everyone equally – civil rights, Social Security, the Great Society… and those generations which were not closely connected with each other tended to be more concerned with individual welfare and individual profit.

He made some very, very decent points here, though I think he could have done a little better fleshing them out. He describes WWII as having been a major force in creating networks of social trust among people of all races and classes – pretty much everyone in the country knew someone who had been at war. Dr Putnam gladly acknowledged (when I raised this question at the end) that this was not the case either with Vietnam, or with our most recent post-conscription military adventures. At the same time, though, he also saw that supporting a national conscription or a national service policy would be rather a non-starter among my own age group.

The end of the talk was something of a clarion call, though – he described in a series of vignettes and statistical references the sort of society that we were rapidly becoming. The ‘good news’ was that middle-class families are staying together more (as in, divorcing less), spending more time with their kids, staying in one place more and getting involved in religious and community organisations more. Their children also were benefitting from this arrangement: middle-class high school students were more likely to have a sturdy network of friends and acquaintances, were more likely to build off of those networks through their secondary education years, and were more likely to succeed economically based on who they knew. The ‘bad news’ was that the American working class is, to increasing degrees, the American middle class’s Dorian Grey portrait: a working-class high school student is much more likely to be isolated growing up, to not have a secure living space, to have stressed and detached parents (and very likely a single or divorced parent), to not have a close and functional network of friends, and to not have access to the kinds of social capital that could alleviate economic stress. Even worse, this economic stress has every likelihood (due to the modern economy’s excessive demands on a worker’s time and its unstable, disruptive influence on family life) of perpetuating this isolation, creating a vicious cycle from which escape is made ever more difficult.

We are becoming, in other words, the world of another Sybil. However, unlike in Benjamin Disraeli’s novella, the divide is not between a wealthy nation and a poor nation; it is between a wealthy nation and what is increasingly looking nothing like a nation at all. The effects, though, are very likely to reach us all unless we begin bridging that gap.

Definitely food for thought. Not to mention action.

When the links to the video of this talk are made available on the GSPIA / Centre for Metropolitan Studies website, I shall certainly post them.


  1. Great post. The increasing divide between the lifestyles of the middle class and the working class is very worrisome and will probably prove to be a huge obstacle to change.

    Also, even though economics is a big factor, I think that social liberals deserve a large part of the blame here. I don’t know if you visit websites like Alternet or Salon.com, but I am always amazed by how much space they devote to glorifying divorce and sexual liberation when it is clear that the these liberationist movements have produced unfortunate results for the working class. Indeed, the fact that even middle class progressives are rejecting them in their own lives shows that these liberationist movements have failed.

    I might be biased here, but I am convinced that any new movement designed to uplift the working class will have to be at least mildly socially conservative, i.e. more like the Old Left and less like the New Left, with more emphasis on community and less on personal liberation.

  2. Hi John!

    I'm not actually a regular visitor at web hubs like Alternet and Salon, though I do visit the Guardian (one of the British periodicals which actually on occasion pretends to care about working class concerns), and it does tend to be much the same tale. Even there, the middle class has largely ended its love affair with open relationships and easy divorce and returned to a more Victorian morality (with similarly salutary results), but it hasn't quite outgrown their prophets.

    I don't know if you follow Dr Russell Arben Fox at all - he runs an excellent blog, and he had one post last year that touched more than a bit on these issues.


    Naturally, I don't think the solution to our Two Nations problem is going to be found in Victorian-style moralising - at least, not as long as these neoliberal structures exist which (all the while proclaiming the social / sexual 'freedom' those within them enjoy) keep the working class stressed and alienated from each other as well as from their work... but we will ultimately need to adapt to a more ascetic, more socially-conservative lifestyle.

    Better IMHO (and in Dr Putnam's opinion, if I was reading him right) if we choose to do so than allow our economic hubris to force us to.