Decline of American Social Institutions
The unequal distribution of social capital may be more important than the unequal distribution of income.
When I’m teaching about instability and conflict around the world, I invariably turn to social institutions. Either their dearth made the conditions ripe for collapse and strife, establishing or reconstructing them poses the key obstacle for third parties in postconflict situations, or, quite frequently, both. Dave Schuler remarks that,
When the Soviet Union collapsed the only institutions left standing in the ruins were the military/KGB, the Orthodox church, and organized crime. The Soviet government had fostered the first and however hard it tried it couldn’t stamp out the other two. We should hardly be surprised when the society that emerged in today’s Russia is founded on those institutions.
This observation was sparked by an excellent column by Michael Gershon, which in turn was sparked by the life’s work of Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame.
Putnam’s recent work — to be summarized in a forthcoming book called “Our Kids” — focuses on how the consequences of institutional decline are felt disproportionately among the working class, leaving vast numbers of youths disconnected from the promise of American life.
Upper- and middle-class parents are investing relatively more time and resources in the social development of their children than are working-class parents, at a time when such investments have never been more economically strategic. This widening gap can be measured in parental play and reading time with young children; later, in the engagement of older children in extracurricular activities. Suburban minivans are occupied in taxiing children to tutoring, sports, clubs, youth groups and volunteer activities. By these measures, children from working-class backgrounds are falling behind.
The problem is that early social connectedness is a strong predictor of later success in life — test scores, college attendance and income. So what Putnam calls the “youth class gap” is a source of deep (and perhaps deepening) social division.
Much of modern liberalism — recently inspired and incited by Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” — is focused on growing income inequality. And surely, at some eventual point along an unbroken trend of increasing returns to capital and diminishing returns to wages, the rich and poor will cease to be fellow citizens in any meaningful sense. But what is most striking about a disproportionate emphasis on income inequality is how distorting and distracting it is.
If income inequality is the main economic problem, it could be solved tomorrow, through confiscation and redistribution. If the main problem is the unequal generation of social capital in institutions such as families, schools and communities, the solutions get more difficult. One task can be accomplished by a tax collector; the other is the work of a civilization.
It’s not clear to me how any of this is fixable. Dave is rightly skeptical of turning around the trend:
We used to be a country notable for the breadth and depth of our social institutions. I don’t know that there’s any way to return home.
Nor do I.
Modern life has allowed us to form all manner of connections with great people whom we’d never otherwise encounter. I’ve never actually met Dave, for example, and yet am able to benefit from his widom and generosity on a regular basis. Similarly, I can and do read things from smart people all around the country—indeed, the world—that expand my horizons and force me to comfront my preconceptions. That’s been a great boon.
Frankly, however, the tendency has been in the opposite direction. The abundance of choices, while awesome in its way, is not without cost. Gone are the days when people in San Francisco, California and Jackson, Mississippi were all watching one of three national nightly newscasts or quite likely watching the same sitcom at 8 pm on a Tuesday. And while that means we they might instead be watching some fantastic program instead of mass appeal schlock, it also means that there are fewer unifing institutions. We can all live in bubbles of our own construction.
We’ve reached the point where, for example, most of us would prefer to watch the ballgame at home on our large screen, high definition televisions from the comfort of our living rooms than go to the stadium. Not only is the viewing experience better but we get to skip the crowds and traffic. But it also means that we don’t experience the games communally. And, for that matter, we’ve all but priced the average Joe out of going to the games, anyway.