The Slow Death of Social Capital

In 2007, liberal social theorist Robert Putnam made a discovery so startling that he sat on his research for an unusually long time, thinking he must have overlooked some mitigating factor he had not yet considered.

But, alas, the evidence was overwhelming and he was forced into his thesis that became the most significant postscript to his famous Bowling Alone study, probably the most famous piece of social science of the past 20 years.

Here’s how a Boston Globe (the Boston Globe!) started an article on Putnam’s findings in 2007:

IT HAS BECOME increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

“The extent of the effect is shocking,” says Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist…


His findings on the downsides of diversity have also posed a challenge for Putnam, a liberal academic whose own values put him squarely in the pro-diversity camp. Suddenly finding himself the bearer of bad news, Putnam has struggled with how to present his work. He gathered the initial raw data in 2000 and issued a press release the following year outlining the results. He then spent several years testing other possible explanations.

The opposite of Whoa. Per ‘dark enlightenment’ rule #1, the more incontrovertible a piece of ‘race realism’ science is, the more the MSM will ignore it and the more vociferous will be the charges of ‘Witch!’ by the Left.

A new study on ‘social capital’ has come out:

These days, only one-third of Americans say most people can be trusted. Half felt that way in 1972, when the General Social Survey first asked the question.

Forty years later, a record high of nearly two-thirds say “you can’t be too careful” in dealing with people.

An AP-GfK poll conducted last month found that Americans are suspicious of each other in everyday encounters. Less than one-third expressed a lot of trust in clerks who swipe their credit cards, drivers on the road, or people they meet when traveling.

We were at 50% in 1972? I’d love to know what we are at in, say, 1961… before all the wonderful ‘social change’ and Great Society crap we brought to fruition.

The above article is brief in its discussion of Putnam’s findings, noting only:

Putnam says Americans have abandoned their bowling leagues and Elks lodges to stay home and watch TV. Less socializing and fewer community meetings make people less trustful than the “long civic generation” that came of age during the Depression and World War II.

The article then moves on to standard liberal fare positing generalized societal distrust as a consequence of rising economic inequality, racism against blacks, yada yada.

In fact, much like in Africa, where distrust and corruption is high, it’s gotta be due to racism:

African-Americans consistently have expressed far less faith in “most people” than the white majority does. Racism, discrimination and a high rate of poverty destroy trust.

Nearly 8 in 10 African-Americans, in the 2012 survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago with principal funding from the National Science Foundation, felt that “you can’t be too careful.” That figure has held remarkably steady across the 25 GSS surveys since 1972.

The decline in the nation’s overall trust quotient was driven by changing attitudes among whites.

The last sentence is the money quote. And there’s no followup.

So, what’s the impact when ‘social capital’ (the lubricant of ‘social trust’) declines?

Does it matter that Americans are suspicious of one another? Yes, say worried political and social scientists.

What’s known as “social trust” brings good things.

A society where it’s easier to compromise or make a deal. Where people are willing to work with those who are different from them for the common good. Where trust appears to promote economic growth.

Distrust, on the other hand, seems to encourage corruption. At the least, it diverts energy to counting change, drawing up 100-page legal contracts and building gated communities.

Where does trust still exist?

There are still trusters around to set an example.

Pennsylvania farmer Dennis Hess is one. He runs an unattended farm stand on the honor system.

Customers pick out their produce, tally their bills and drop the money into a slot, making change from an unlocked cashbox. Both regulars and tourists en route to nearby Lititz, Pa., stop for asparagus in spring, corn in summer and, as the weather turns cold, long-neck pumpkins for Thanksgiving pies.

The article doesn’t mention it, but Lititz, PA is 92.4% white. This just might be a significant factor.

I grew up in a similar, white, agricultural-oriented town, which had (and has) such stands.

This is something you will never see in Detroit or the barrio.

Is there anything we can do to stymie this decline in social capital?

[S]ome studies suggest it’s too late for most Americans alive today to become more trusting. That research says the basis for a person’s lifetime trust levels is set by his or her mid-twenties and unlikely to change, other than in some unifying crucible such as a world war.

People do get a little more trusting as they age. But beginning with the baby boomers, each generation has started off adulthood less trusting than those who came before them.

Hmmm, given that social capital is higher the more ethnocentric a society is, I can’t think of anything we could do here in the United States… not a single thing.

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