Friday, May 15, 2015

Review of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert

Most people will tell you that Bowling Alone is about how Americans are "increasingly disconnected from one another and how social structures—whether they be PTA, church, or political parties—have disintegrated," but fail to repeat the key reason: television.

As we know, broadcast television was an incredibly harmful invention and is used for evil purposes: state propaganda ("news"), sports watching (panem et circenses), pushing the police state (procedurals and "terrorism" shows); all programming and pacification of the dull masses.

Well, maybe television isn't the reason Americans are disconnected from one another. People certainly spend more time watching odious television and less time civically engaged, but this may be a symptom and not a cause.

Since Bowling Alone came out in 2000 (and it was based on a 1995 essay), Professor Putnam has done more research. In 2006, he said,

"[I]n the presence of diversity, we hunker down. We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it's not just that we don't trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don't trust people who do look like us."
This is an uncomfortable research finding, and indeed he waited six years to publish the data because it was so at odds with what he wanted to find.

That explanation is very compelling, yet there is another hypothesis that would help explain why so many of the civic disengagement examples that Putnam cites in the book are from very rural places. He does't address this one, either, because it would require engaging with Charles Murray and his book The Bell Curve.

The real thesis of The Bell Curve is that cognitive sorting based on IQ tests, and concentration of abstract reasoning jobs in major cities, has led to a brain drain in the rest of the U.S. This is documented in Hollowing Out The Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, which is basically about how the smartest rural young people take the SAT, go away to college, and never come back. One essayist calls this "educating for civic suicide".

A correspondent commented last fall on the implications of rural brain drain:
"People with high intelligence trust strangers who come to them with win-win deals because they have the capacity to understand the mutual benefits. However if one is unable to understand the deal or the mutual benefits of interaction, then suspicion and mistrust of strangers is natural."
He says that dull rural Americans reflexively disregard proposals made by an outsider, even ones that are deliberately calculated to be win-win.

Read the Fragmented Future essay for more thoughts on what the U.S. economy in 2050 will be like. My money is on lower output per capita and more difficulty making money as a minority investor.



CP said...

"The transformation of economics into a technical rather than empirical field discouraged hard thinking about co-operation. It was much simpler to create mathematical models based on the assumption that rational individual self-interest drove human behavior, even though that perspective could hardly explain such vast events as the First World War, that abattoir of asabiya.

In the 1990s, the importance of civil society was widely talked up as crucial in transitioning post-Soviet states away from totalitarianism, but the free-market economists’ prescription of “shock therapy” prevailed disastrously in Russia, as gangsters looted the nations’ assets.


"[I]n Francis Fukuyama’s 1995 book Trust: The Social Virtues & the Creation of Prosperity. Fukuyama raised the hot-potato issue that Americans, Northwestern Europeans, and Japanese tend to work together well to create huge corporations, while the companies of other advanced countries, such as Italy and Taiwan, can seldom grow beyond family firms. (As Luigi Barzini remarked in The Italians, only a fool would be a minority shareholder in Sicily, so nobody is one.)"

Unknown said...

how the smartest rural young people take the SAT, go away to college, and never come back.

The Internet has the potential to reverse this. E.g., you have written about how living in NYC and being around lots of other investors traditionally provided a huge edge, but that's no longer the case now that financial information is widely available online.

I'm hopeful that smart people will realize this and return to rural areas rather than crowd into blue-state cities with exorbitant cost of living. It hasn't happened yet, though.

CP said...

"Why can’t we telecommute?"

"The problem is that human beings are illogical in their behavior. These human animals have a strong preference for people they see in person. Certain type of communication works a lot better when humans are in the same room. And there are also the career consequences for the person who is telecommuting; none of the higher-level people in the company have the opportunity to come to like the mysterious outsider, so he or she is a lot less likely to get promoted and more likely to be the first person laid off when they have to cut costs."

CP said...

Great point from that LoB link above:

"At 5:01 p.m., telecommuting magically converts from being forbidden to being mandatory.

Having everyone sit in the office during the day helps nontechnical managers look busy ferrying around 'status updates,' but after 5 the BMWs and Mercedes roll out onto the freeway, so there’s no one of sufficient status left for them to grandstand for. 'Finish it up at home. Shoot me an email.'"

CP said...

About 20 years ago, the buzzphrase "The Information Superhighway" became all the rage. Soon, it was prophesied, ambitious people wouldn't have to move to expensive places like Silicon Valley or Route 128 outside Boston to get ahead in the cyberspace business. They could just log in from anywhere!

Now, the technology developed spectacularly, but the geographical prophecy turned out backward. Rather than two, three many Silicon Valleys, even Route 128 withered, leaving Silicon Valley as all conquering.

AllanF said...

"He says that dull rural Americans reflexively disregard proposals made by an outsider, even ones that are deliberately calculated to be win-win."

Putnam said that? Whether he did or didn't, I can't tell if Putnam is incredibly arrogant or incredibly naive. Regardless, his type is a disaster where ever they go. He's part of the Useful Idiot class that politicians use for cover when they screw over the middle (screwing over the dull doesn't require his type of high-minded rhetoric and justification).

As for the quote, whoever said it seems to be missing his own point. By definition "the dull" aren't going to be able to understand any subtler points showing some city-slicker with an MBA is offering a win-win proposal. All they have to go on is instinct and experience, and both of those show unequivocally that a rich, smart guy trying to be your friend is going to screw you over good. And Hard. Payday loans, title loans, tax-refund loans, manufactured-home loans, fast food, soda... and that's just from Warren Buffett.