Wednesday, May 30, 2012

No bowling alone

A few more comments on Brink Lindsey's book, The Age of Abundance, which has been a fruitful mine of insights.

How much have community and social ties declined? There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about Robert Putnam's book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which argues that social engagement has declined in the US.

Lindsey does not believe that. He cites research which the fundamental flaw in the “bowling alone” thesis—namely, confusing the fortunes of particular organizations with the overall state of American sociability and civic-mindedness. Only such myopia could explain the failure to appreciate the phenomenal profusion of new affinity groups and communities.

The Shiners and the Elks may be in decline. But, instead, a huge variety of new social groups and interests has sprung up. There is little evidence to show that Americans are less inclined to join groups in general, he says.

“New species of social life,” wrote the theorist of plenitude Grant McCracken, “form everywhere in the culture of commotion: around a football team (e.g., Raiders fans), a rock group (e.g., Deadheads), a TV series (e.g., Trekkers), a leisure activity (e.g., line dancing), an economic downturn (e.g., slackers), an economic upturn (e.g., preppies), a means of transport (e.g., Hell’s Angels), a modernist aesthetic (e.g., space-age bachelor-pad music), a sports activity (e.g., Ultimate Frisbee), a movie (e.g., Rocky Horror Picture Show), and a communications technology (e.g., geeks).”

It may be true that American society is not as unified as before, nor does it share so much in the same culture. It has fragmented into many more little subcultures. There has been a vast expansion of social experimentation.

Some of those subcultures may not be admirable (eg slackers). But others do provide enjoyment and purpose to thousands or millions of people.

And systems evolve in any case by generating variation and selection pressures. Some subcultures will grow into common elements of shared culture.

At the same time, the same process of new associations and fragmentation has also led to a breaking up of traditional hierarchical structures and elites, Lindsey argues. Decisions are made less often in smoke-filled rooms by a few experts. Major corporations can no longer easily control their markets, he says.

The parallels between economic and political developments were striking. In both realms, relatively closed and insider-dominated systems were upended by the progress of mass affluence. Concentrations of power dissipated; competition intensified; bold entrepreneurship took advantage of the absence of hemming restraints.

It still might be hard to get people to vote on election day, but the Sierra Club and NRA and AARP are all doing fine. And any CEO of a major corporation who is not terrified his markets will be contested away isn't sane.

So what should we make of this? I think Lindsey's argument about the growth of new social groups is persuasive - although there are obvious qualifications. Many communities of common interest are not the same as actual communities of those who live near each other. Indeed, they can still draw vitality away from those communities. And we tend to rely on geography for at least some needs, if only honest local government and provision of infrastructure. And perhaps we do need some elements of common culture.

Throughout this blog, I have also been arguing we need less of an emphasis on formal income and more of an emphasis on assets and purpose.

There is no doubt that all sorts of purposes bubble up, and people find new ways to pursue interests.

The question is how much we help that to happen through setting the right incentives and rules. And it still matters how much those new activities actually encourage people to stretch themselves and do things which have - if only as a side-benefit - a positive impact on others.

After all, exciting as these things may be, few people can actually make a living out of being Raiders fans, or line-dancing enthusiasts, or Trekkers, or Rocky Horror fans. (Some geeks may admittedly make a living out of C++ skills). Not all particular interests are equally useful or valid.

The multiplicity of interests does not mean you cannot have a core of admired virtues or qualities, either. You can have any number of particular interests that people pursue, but still emphasize some of the core virtues like courage or hope.

So what this underlines for me is that, once again, there is a gap between the interests people naturally pursue - and which generate much of the value in the culture - and our economic infrastructure and signaling. We've allowed our incentives to drift out of alignment with what people actually want and enjoy.


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