So I just read Robert Putnam’s “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century.” (links to related material are available on this site at the social capital decline page). Before I comment, let me give a personal note, which will explain the angle from which I’m looking at this.
I can get along with almost anyone, quite happily. Naturally, there’s a special edge to conversations with attractive young women (of all races), but for almost anyone, there are interesting details of their lives to explore. In the extensive travels of my younger days (“seeing the world,” as the saying goes), I interacted with tour guides in southern China, the daughters of illiterate peasants; Chinese girls selling paintings on Tiananmen Square; huge crowds of Chechens, mostly vacationing teachers, in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria in the Russian North Caucasus; a Buryat or Mongoloid ethnic in Sibera; Tuvans; Malawian peasants; Malawian government bureaucrats, and teachers; Rhodesian exiles scattered around Malawi; backpackers in Europe who came from Australia, Poland, Britain, Ireland, Canada, Japan, Korea, Germany; talkative Italian old men on the streets of Rome; vendors all over the place; taxi drivers all over the place; students of English; grad students of many fields; the congregation of a certain black Baptist church in Northeast DC; college students of all majors; former prisoners of conscience sitting next to me on a bus in Tajikistan; singer-songwriters at a festival in Dombai in the Russian North Caucasus… the list goes on and on.
I can get along with almost anyone, quite happily. But I can even more happily immerse myself in writing or reading books. A few years ago, I discovered audiobooks. It was just after my divorce, so I was glad to be distracted from my own thoughts at the time, but the habit stuck, and I soon noticed that my long-standing dislike of eating alone had been reversed. On a certain day, I suppose it must have been in early 2007, a girl from Harvard, quite attractive, was to meet me for lunch. I was working at the World Bank, and she wanted advice on how to get a job there. During the morning, I found I was resenting it. Why? Because I was in the middle of a brilliant novel, which I would have been able to “read” (listen to) during my lunch break, but for her. Then it hit me. Wait a minute, I thought. Am I actually resenting the chance to go to lunch with a cute girl? Well, yes, I was. It sounds rather brutal, but in the past six or seven years, the conclusion is undeniable that few people can compete with an audiobook for entertaining, enlightening, and edifying me. There are some: many friends, all far away alas, for ten minutes of whose company I’d go ten hours without any entertainment at all. Bluntly put, everyone else is (at least as a conversational companion) an inferior substitute for having the best thoughts of mankind fed into my ears via wires. I was grateful for their company in my younger days only because the iPod hadn’t been invented yet. (That’s not the insult it may seem to be, because I am not denying their inherent value, which is very great. But the value of my casual interaction with them is limited.)
These experiences color my reading of Robert Putnam’s work. For Robert Putnam, “social capital” is good. When I eat lunch with someone, he’d nod his head in approval, especially if that person is as different from me as possible. When I eat lunch alone with an audiobook, he would shake his head with dismay. He could doubtless understand the logic of “revealed preference,” i.e., if I could have invited people to lunch but chose to eat alone instead, I must be happier that way. But I suspect he wouldn’t believe it. And it’s true, of course, that revealed preference can’t be applied straightforwardly to social capital issues, which always involve the interests and choices of multiple people. A decline in social capital might reflect that (a) we’ve found something to do that we like better than interacting with each other, or that (b) we’ve gotten worse at solving the coordination problems involved in interacting with each other. An economist would say that (a) is unambiguously good, while I think Robert Putnam, a bit paternalistically, would object; but even an economist would agree that (b) is bad. Putnam is aware of some potential downsides of social capital– gangs, for example– but I don’t think he adequate appreciates the scarcity of time. Continue reading “Robert Putnam, social capital, and immigration” »