Monthly Archives: March 2017

Make America Bowl Again

American civil society has really gone downhill since the 1950s. People used to belong to unions, fraternal societies, PTAs, bowling leagues. Now, self-absorbed and disconnected, they instead go bowling alone. Robert Putnam argues that these metrics of social capital – group membership, trust – even informal sociability – are deeply important to the civic health of a society. He presents a reasonable case that there is some correlation between group membership and civic health, finding that the latter correlates to a wide range of educational outcomes (Putnam, 2002) and that, more broadly, “the quality of public life and the performance of social institutions…are indeed powerfully influenced by norms and networks of civic engagement” (Putnam, 1995). This is a deeply important topic and Putnam is right to give it careful attention, yet his analysis continually glosses over questions of what qualifies as civic health and who gets to participate in the creation of social capital.

Perhaps most notably, Putnam’s definition of civic health places a heavy emphasis on social and institutional trust. As Putnam argues, social trust is a deeply beneficial good which is strongly correlated with civic engagement. Intuitively, this correlation makes sense – there’s no reason to participate in a process if you don’t trust the outcome, and you probably don’t want to spend your social time with people you don’t trust. Furthermore, potential eroders of social capital may be ameliorated by trust: both adults in a two-parent household cannot possibly be fully civically engaged if they do not periodically entrust someone with caring for their children.

Putnam, however, brings his faith in ‘trust’ as a positive social determinant too far. He takes for granted that social trust is intrinsically good, that it always serves to build better societies. A Burkean, however, would quickly find a critical flaw in this argument. As Cass Sunstein explains, Edmund Burke, the great conservative traditionalist, objects to “passionate movements that start political or social life from the ground up,” arguing that the “spirit of innovation” is the result of “a selfish temper and confined views” (Sunstein, 2009). In other words, Burke trusts past wisdom at expense of current knowledge. While Putnam values trust in current social institutions, Burke warns that these institutions may become corrupt. Trust in a good government may be good; but trust in a bad government can be devastating. Consider also Shanker Satyanath’s work on the rise of the Nazi party in pre-war Germany. It wasn’t a weak civil society which allowed fascism to flourish, rather it was the very traits Putnam praises. Indeed, as Satyanath et al. argue, it was “Germany’s vibrant ‘civic society,’ its dense network of social clubs and associations” which “facilitated the rise of Hitler by bringing more people into contact with his party’s message” (Satyanath, Voigtlaender, & Voth, 2013).

Furthermore, despite his protestations to the contrary, Putnam’s grim picture of the United States as a once-great civic utopia is deeply misaligned with realities of race, class, and gender. While tracing the tragic decline of civic engagement, Putnam pays little attention to inequities in access to engagement. He should be deeply alarmed to find that people without college experience – nearly half the population, in which people of color are strongly over-represented – are virtually shut out from civic life (Godsay, Kawashima-Ginsberg, Kiesa, & and Levine, 2012), a disparity which likely indicates structural barriers rather than apathy or narcissism. This oversight may affect Putnam’s analysis in two dimensions. First, standard survey measures of “civic engagement” do not always capture the many ways in which poor people support their communities (Godsay et al., 2012). While Putnam sees a decline in positive responses to the General Social Survey question of “How often do you spend a social evening with a neighbor?” (Putnam, 1995), Godsay et al. find that acts of “neighboring,” such as sheltering and feeding other community members, were common among non-college youth. Such civic acts may not register as “social evenings,” and therefore may artificially deflate survey responses. But perhaps the most striking finding of Godsay et al. is that non-college youth did engage in civic life when given the opportunity (Godsay et al., 2012). It was not the case, as Putnam fears, that “deep-seated technological trends are radically ‘privatizing’ or ‘individualizing’ our use of leisure time” (Putnam, 1995). Indeed, the greatest barrier to the civic engagement of this segment of the population was something Putnam hadn’t even considered: they had never even been given opportunities to engage.

Putnam takes for granted that engagement in civil society is a right which all residents have the full capability to exercise. ‘Capability’ here can be understood in Martha Nussbaum’s sense of ‘substantial freedoms;’ capabilities “are not just abilities residing inside a person but also the freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social, and economic environment” (Nussbaum, 2011). A person may have the ability to eat, but they don’t have the capability unless they have food. Similarly, civic scholars may agree that all people have the ability to engage as productive and valued members of civil society – but all people do not have this capability until they are all equally welcomed, encouraged, and celebrated for their contributions. In other words, what Putnam sees as a decline in civil society may have more to do with the broader context; rather than a problem of apathy, the increasing professionalization of civil society may undermine some citizen’s capabilities – may rob them of the knowledge that they, too, can contribute to the shared task of governing. This effect can be seen in people’s doubt of their own civic ability. In one survey, for example, Michael Neblo finds that 42% of Americans felt they “didn’t know enough to participate” in a deliberative session (Neblo, 2015).

None of this is to say that Putnam doesn’t make good points. Whether due to poor survey measures, disparities in civic capabilities, or even changes in mobility, family structure, or technology we should all be concerned with continually building a strong civil society. But Putnam is too quick to bemoan the past, to turn back the clock to a time when women stayed in the home and we all ate at segregated lunch counters. The Elks Lodge may have once been a great bastion of society, but now it’s a dingy reminder of a time when white men smoked cigars and congratulated themselves for saving the world. Perhaps, like Burke, we should put some trust in the wisdom of the past, but we would be blind to follow Putnam in putting that trust in the present. We shouldn’t be shaming people for not participating in survey-ready forms of engagement; we should be reminding them that governance is a shared activity; that we have a right and responsibility to engage; and that resistance is a worthy civic undertaking. But most of all, we need to convince people – perhaps, even, to convince ourselves – that our perspectives, actions, and voices matter. Our engagement matters.


Godsay, S., Kawashima-Ginsberg, K., Kiesa, A., & and Levine, P. (2012). “That’s not democracy,” How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life.

Neblo, M. A. (2015). Deliberative Democracy Between Theory and Practice: Cambridge University Press.

Nussbaum, M. C. (2011). Creating capabilities: Harvard University Press.

Putnam, R. D. (1995). Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Journal of democracy, 6(1), 65-78.

Putnam, R. D. (2002). Community-based social capital and educational performance. Making good citizens: Education and civil society.

Satyanath, S., Voigtlaender, N., & Voth, H.-J. (2013). Bowling for fascism: social capital and the rise of the Nazi Party. Retrieved from

Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Going to extremes: How like minds unite and divide: Oxford University Press.

 

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Aggregated Injustice

I ran across a colorfully titled Mother Jones article which documents “a brief history of men getting credit for women’s accomplishments.” As promised by the subtitle, the article is written to do just that, presenting a series of poignant vignettes from the Paleolithic era to the present.

The entries range from enraging:

1843: Mathematician Ada Lovelace shows how Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine (a theoretical computer) could be induced to perform complex math. Her contribution, considered the first software, was dismissed by many male historians: “It is no exaggeration to say that she was a manic-­depressive with the most amazing delusions.”

To frustratingly understandable:

1840s: …Mary Ann Evans later writes Middlemarch as George Eliot, probably to avoid “being treated as ‘just’ a female writer,” one expert notes.

The piece also captures the uniquely terrible discrimination faced by African American women:

1888: Ellen Eglin sells the rights to the clothes wringer she invented to an agent. The invention brings “great financial success” to the buyer, who paid her $18. “If it was known that a negro woman patented the invention, white ladies would not buy the wringer,” she explains.

But while this article does an excellent job of encapsulating the gender discrimination which has gone on since nearly the dawn of time, it doesn’t quite capture the aggregated effects of such discrimination.

Consider Michael Spence’s economic model of gender-based pay disparity: imagine an employee pool in which people have two observable characteristics: sex and education. An employer assigns each employee to a higher or lower wage by inferring the unobserved characteristic of productivity. Assume also that gender and productivity are perfectly uncorrelated.

Intuitively, this should mean that gender and pay will also be uncorrelated, however Spence’s game-theoretic model reveals that after initial rounds of hiring, the employer will begin to associate higher levels of education with higher levels of productivity. More precisely, because an employer’s opinions are conditioned on gender as well as education, “if at some point in time men and women are not investing in education in the same ways, then the returns to education for men and women will be different in the next round.”

In other words, Spence finds that there are numerous system equilibria and, given differing initial investments in education, the pay schedules for men and women will settle into different equilibrium states.

While the correlation between education and productivity presents a simple toy model, the “signaling” generated by actual success would presumably create an even stronger effect.

That is, men taking credit for women’s inventions, insights, and effort is not just damaging to the person whose ideas are stolen – it is damaging more broadly to people who are identified as women. It weakens women’s equilibrium for signaling success – an effect, again, felt even more strongly by women of color.

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Economics and Deliberation

I have been doing some initial work around epistemic networks – conceptual networks which model the way an individual reasons. Considered in this way, deliberation is more than a dyadic exchange between individuals, it is a networked exchange of ideas. The core idea here is that the structure of such networks could have implications for deliberation – potentially affecting whether someone makes a good deliberator or whether two or more people are able to deliberate at all.

I’ve found a lot of interesting overlaps between this work and concepts I am learning in my Network Economics course. To be clear, ‘economics’ is about a lot more than money – some of us would even argue that it isn’t about money at all.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines economics as dealing with “the production, distribution, consumption, and transfer of wealth,” but – critically – the word ‘wealth’ is left undefined here. At it’s broadest, then, economics is fundamentally about how people create and share things which they value.

Hayek argues that the brilliance of the free market is that a market’s equilibrium price is a simple, one-dimensional heuristic which elegantly captures complex interactions between different people’s resources and desires. While one may disagree with his argument on a number of grounds – meeting this market ideal, for example, relies on all participants having perfect knowledge – the very basis of his argument highlights that people have different needs and values. Price, or more generally money, is simply a convenient stand-in for more complex dynamics.

A key problem here is that not all values are remotely comparable. Perhaps price serves as a reasonable moderator for the supply and demand of products, but then how does one leverage this heuristic for things which are ‘priceless;’ for things which ‘money can’t buy?’ Clearly there are other levers of value which aren’t captured in this simple heuristic.

Perhaps, then, to consider deliberation in economics terms, it is worth first asking what worth is produced, distributed, consumed, or transferred through the process of deliberation.

In considering deliberation, one could consider the value individual participants might derive: you learn new things, you meet new people, you obtain pleasure from participating in the democratic process. All of these examples are real products of value which deliberators receive, yet it all sounds a little hand-ravingly optimistic. “People will be good citizens because they’ll enjoy being good citizens” doesn’t strike me as a particularly compelling argument.

One can also argue that a person derives more concretely utilitarian benefits from participating in public deliberation. If you have an opinion on what the community should do about your neighborhood park, there is a direct value in stating that view and rallying others to agreement. This, again, is a real value which deliberation can provide, but it starts to feel a little grimly utilitarian: deliberation as a pathway for manipulation isn’t exactly what I’m going for either.

I could also appeal to the collective benefit of deliberation. Indeed, one the most striking things about deliberation is that it creates a value which was not there before and which could not have come into existence otherwise. Deliberation is a space for “co-creation” for working together in ways which lead to emergent solutions. This is perhaps the highest benefit of deliberation – as diverse perspectives and experiences allow a group to develop better solutions to collective problems than the could have otherwise devised.

Yet, this too, is perhaps not enough value to indicate why a person should participate in deliberation. Given solely this collective framework, it is arguable best to free ride and let others undertake the hard work of find solutions.

Ultimately, I think, the true value of deliberation comes from some combination of the above. It leads to better solutions and outcomes, creating a public good, but it also leads to individual value. And that value isn’t simply the joy of meeting someone new or the utility derived from getting your way.

Deliberation fundamentally changes you.

It changes the way you think and the way you reason in subtle but powerful ways. I sometimes think of learning as a process of sand accumulating on a beach – each new wave brings something with it, but not everything really sticks; some just washes back out to sea. Each new wave also changes the detailed contours of the beach; in ways that are effected by past contours and with repercussions that will last through future contours.

Living is a process of becoming; a processes of continually becoming who you are. Deliberation helps us solve problems and has the potential for tremendous public good; but ultimately the true value derived from deliberation is that we co-create ourselves. We learn who were are in an emergent, evolving way; and that learning isn’t an individualistic, solely-guided experience – it is a process that is fundamentally shaped by the people and context around you.

Without deliberation, without the process of learning, growing and co-creating with others, we would be nothing – just hollow shells, emptily fulfilling utilitarian functions. The value in deliberation is that we truly come to be.

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