Bowling together

It feels wrong on a day of Ashes cricket to be writing of bowling in the American sense of the word, but sadly this title is a reference to ten-pin bowling not that of the wonderful Broad and absent Anderson, and the whole squad (and yes, some of the Australians are quite good at it too).

It is nearly 20 years since Harvard Professor Robert Putnam punished his seminal work Bowling Alone. This highlighted the significant decline in social capital in the US between 1965 and 1995, coinciding with a marked increase in inequality (unfairness, as this blog prefers). No longer were US citizens bowling in leagues, they were bowling more, but bowling alone. The fall in membership of almost every other social organisation — the social and community links that constitute what is meant by social capital — mirrored the decline that he used to give his work its title. 

At the time of the book’s publication, people from many other countries talked about these trends as a peculiarly US phenomenon. Most now accept that these same effects — declines in social capital and increases in inequality — are near-universal. We are all more isolated, and unfairness has increased.

I understand that Putnam is preparing a 20th anniversary edition of the book, which will include some reflections on the Internet and its impacts. Not all of these are bad and isolating in Putnam’s view; indeed, he sees some signs of new communities being created through the web, as well as the negatives of occasional egotistical narcissism. 

He is also preparing a new work, as yet unnamed as far as I know, considering not just the 30 years from the mid-1960s but comparing data from around 1900 through towards the current day. I had the fortune to hear Putnam talk about this work earlier this week at a Tortoise gathering dedicated to him. He considers again factors of social capital and inequality, and also political partisanship and cultural individualism, using a remarkable number of datapoints across each of these areas. Again and again these datapoints reveal  the same pattern, with a remarkable degree of consistency. 

The simple message is that political partisanship peaked in the 1950s, social capital around 1960 and cultural individualism (using the simple test — at least simple with the benefit of the remarkable datapools and analysis of Google Ngrams — of the frequency of ‘we’ compared with that of ‘I’ in all publications) in about 1970. The decline from these points is well known, indeed it was the core of Bowling Alone and much of what has been published in this area since (though Putnam uncovers further declines beyond his original 1995 end-point). Over the same period, inequality has risen at a remarkable rate.

The most notable thing about Putnam’s data though is what comes before 1960: it turns out that this was a peak in all the datasets, and that each factor had been increasing steadily from around 1890 (or, in the case of inequality, decreasing). We are in many cases at or around the levels last seen in 1890 (in some cases we have fallen below them); the period leading to this point was known as the gilded era in the US and was the peak of robber baron capitalism and all the unfairness that came with it.

Some may be surprised to hear that Putnam is sure that rising inequality is not the cause of the other declines. Rather, his data shows that increases in inequality are a lagging indicator of the other trends that he identifies. Thus, if we are to answer our current challenges of fairness we need to consider ways of addressing the other declines.

Putnam is eager to talk about these. He notes that the gilded age ended through social and political choice, and perhaps the fear of civil unrest (not least in the economic depression known as the Panic of 1893 — though the depression lasted until 1897). The US’s gilded age ended with the so-called Progressive Era and more generalised reforms.

The lessons that Putnam draws from that era, and what he believes lies behind the turning point in the data he identifies are:

  • genuine grassroots mobilisation is required
  • problems should be solved locally and boldly (allowing a thousand flowers to bloom), and effective solutions then shared nationally [and if culturally appropriate perhaps internationally]
  • bridges (across class, race and organisation etc) are essential
  • charismatic national leaders are only important after the grassroots process has begun

He gives the example of US public schools, which did not exist until the progressive era. In a handful of towns and cities across the midwest communities came together to ensure that every child should have around 4 years of free secondary education. This revolutionary step proved a great success and was then adopted nationally. Among other things, this supply-side revolution pump-primed the US economy by ensuring a relatively well-educated workforce — which played a key role in the economic success of the American century that followed.

There is work to be done.