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American squalor

2024-01-28

Regulations themselves aren’t the problem, though. Germany, like much of northern Europe, is a high-regulation society, but it’s also high-trust, compared to the US. Here, nice and fully functional things are built without fear of misuse. For Americans, who have both a high-regulation and low-trust society, this is all rather depressing; it’s the combination that means we can’t have nice things.

I like to live here, but the reality is we are rapidly falling behind the rest of the world in liveability, especially when you adjust for our wealth. Our cities are being frozen in time by an absurd, centralised regulatory mindset, which sees human flourishing as dirty and unsafe, and seems determined to wring out the last drops of any soul from our urban spaces. A mindset that manifests as one useless La Sombrita at a time.

By Chris Arnade.

Trust and American Church attendance

2023-09-09

So many gems in this piece by Ryan Burge, Church Attendance Used to Drive Up Trust, It Doesn't Anymore.

Trust is one of my favorite topics because I think it is one of those invisible things that makes all the difference. A high trust team can move faster and do things a low trust team can't do. Similarly, a high trust society can move quickly and do things a low trust society cannot do. Increasingly over the past 50 years, America is becoming a low trust society.

Some things that surprised me in the article:

The epic decline in trust among Republicans

burge_trust.png

As Burge points out, this isn't as simple of a story as it might seem. Trust and educational attainment are positively correlated and educational attainment is increasingly a driver of partisanship. However, the Republican coalition is filled with people that are less likely to believe that other people can be trusted than it was 50 years ago.

Increasing distrust among people with low levels of educational attainment

Quoting directly from Burge:

The main culprit for that growing divide is that those with low levels of education how grown more distrustful: 60% in the 1970s up to 77% in the 2010s. I think this should be ringing alarm bell for American democracy. There are lots of folks out there with low levels of education who are deeply distrustful of their fellow man.

Religious attendance is now negatively correlated with trust

burge_religious_attendance_trust.png

One of the things that stood out most to me while reading Bowling Alone was the role that churches and other religious institutions played in preparing people to participate in civic life. [0] They were the training grounds of democracy where someone learns to lead at a small level, experiences what it's like, and then decides that they have the capability to take the next step. I know this is true for me; the very first times I led teams at work, I thought back to leading groups at my church in high school, what created credibility, and what destroyed it.

Burge hypothesizes that it might be due sorting, you're less likely to meet people that are unlike you and therefore are less likely become more trusting. I'm not sure if I agree with it, but I don't have a better hypothesis yet. But I do know that seeing this change is sad for me.

0: I can't link to this because I haven't imported blogposts from my old blog yet... shame on me!

Where trust comes from

2023-07-21

I found this video to be a helpful distillation of concepts I'd heard before with a couple things that were new to me.

I'd known that trust is a combination of credibility, reliability, intimacy, and self interest, but I hadn't heard the sub components before:

Credibility

  • The words we use
  • The skills / credentials we bring
  • How other people experience our expertise

Reliability

  • Actions we take
  • Our predictability
  • Will others find us dependable

Intimacy

  • Empathy
  • Discretion

Self interest (destroys trust)

  • Do you seem to be prioritizing yourself over the group / others

Book notes: Bowling Alone

2022-10-10

Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam, is a classic book about trust and society. As a part of my obsession with trust, I felt like I had to read it. The book, which was published in 2000, is about the decline of social trust in the United States. I didn’t find it to be dated — if anything, I think the additional distance from the publish date helped the book. From the vantage point of 2022, I felt like the book previewed some of the challenges that lay ahead of American society when the book was written and was detailed enough to help me hypothesize about how trends since 2000 may or may not have continued since then. It’s a classic for a reason!

The main idea of the book is that social trust — the invisible quality that makes us feel a bond with our fellow human — has been decaying in the United States. This much I (and I suspect many others) knew about the book even without reading it because it gets cited a lot.

This is a big deal because social trust makes it possible for society to function efficiently. Business and government work better in high trust societies. Additionally, according to Putnam, trust and participation seems to be closely linked to personal health and happiness.1

So what leads people to have trust in their community and society? The book isn’t as explicit here as I wish it would be, but far as I can tell, though, the critical factors are:

  • Having relationships with people in the community; spending informal time together, having both close friends and friendly faces in the crowd; in everyday life, this looks like things like game nights, card games, social dinners, church attendance, and yes, bowling leagues

  • Feeling agency over how the community is organized; in particular, joining in a group activity with other people to solve a community problem seems to be a particularly powerful contributor to trust; in everyday life, this looks like things like club membership, running for office, serving in a volunteer group 

Trust in the United States has been falling pretty steadily since the late 1960s.

Data from Bowling Alone, thanks to Engaging Citizens and Building Social Capital: The Exceptional Civic Story of Portland Oregon and the Role of Information Technology. Steve Johnson, Ph.D for the visualization.

Putnam makes a convincing case that this is not just people changing the way they answer a survey question, but a general decline in social capital. Across almost every dimension he studies — church membership, bowling leagues, running for office, formal involvement in volunteer groups (like the Lions club), sports leagues, volunteering at local charities, dinner parties, you name it — Americans are less involved and less trusting by the end of the 1990s than they were in 1960s.

Moreover, this pattern holds across different groups. People with more education are more likely to be involved and trusting than people with less education, but both cohorts are less involved and less trusting than they were 30 years ago. Same with race, gender, and income. It really is striking how many different cuts of data tell basically the same story — a decline in trust and participation starting in the late 1960s.

I want to pause on this for a minute, because I think it’s an underrated point. America in 1998 was not producing social capital at the same rate it was in the 1960. While America in 1960 had many flaws, black people and women of the 1960 reported higher levels of social trust than did their counterparts of the 1998. This isn’t to say that we should seek to go back to the way society was in 1960, but it is worth understanding – after all, wouldn’t we expect a more equal society to have higher levels of social trust? Putnam suggests that it was the social cohesion of the 1960s that allowed America to make the steps it made towards racial and gender equality – the implication being that lower levels of trust are causing us to miss out on further progress.2

The one exception to this trend of declining participation are social activities that can be done alone. So as an example, people don’t join a local volunteer group, they write a check to an issue based organization; they don’t join a bible study, they are spiritual at home. Individual activities, however, don’t create trust.

So where is all this trust going? The book makes the case that there are four factors worth considering:

  1. Generational replacement. The generation that lived through World War II seems to have had particularly high social trust that they learned as a part of their formative years. This social trust habit hasn’t been passed down (or hasn’t been activated?). This is by far the largest contributing factor.

  2. Time spent watching TV.3 Or said differently, as our entertainment options at home have gotten better, we’re less likely to venture out into the real world and do the sorts of things that lead to trust. For individuals, the time spent watching TV is the “single most consistent predictor” the author discovered.

  3. Commuting. At least during the period when the book was being written, time spent commuting was going up. Almost by default, commuting in a car happens alone and is time that can’t be spent on other things. Additionally, it’s not just commuting workers who pay this penalty; in communities with long commute times, even retirees are less involved.4

  4. Financial pressures are causing us to spend more time working and leave us with less time to spend on leisure. Before reading the book, I would’ve guessed that this would be the dominant story, but it doesn’t appear to be. There does seem to be some pull away from community engagement due to work, but it very much appears to be on the margin.

So where do we go from here?

First, from the vantage point of 2022, I have a hard time not seeing a lot of the trends outlined by Putnam getting worse. Based on what Putnam said about the impact of TV on participation, it’s hard to imagine that social media and online gaming have made the situation better. Add to this the pandemic, which broke the habits of engagement for many people, and it’s easy to see how people might start to feel like the world is spiraling out of control for them. I would predict this to continue in the near term!

The one silver lining I see is that I feel like the pandemic and shift to remote work has made it significantly easier to create social capital online. In an additional chapter from the 2020 version of the book, Putnam discusses the potential impact of the internet on social capital and posits that it will be good for organizing, but bad for creating relationships that lead to meaningful change. Based on my experience, I think that this was true before 2020, but sometime during the pandemic, it shifted. Since about mid-2020, I’ve seen a significant uptick in the number of professional relationships I have with people I’ve never met in person (even outside of my current company); a handful of these people have become legitimate friends. This feels like something I’ll have to learn how to cultivate through the rest of my career.

Second, reading this book has made me feel more strongly that we should be nudging young adults towards civic service and potentially even have mandatory/highly encouraged civic service programs. Based on the generational replacement chapter, it seems likely to me that one’s habits towards trust and civic participation are set somewhere between the ages of 18-28, so nudging people towards service during this time in their life should pay dividends for years to come.

Third, it became clear to me while reading this book that I needed to have a personal social capital plan in the same way that I have an exercise routine and other personal health habits. Finding both informal ways and formal ways to be a part of the community matter for individual happiness as well as community outcomes and I should be intentional in how I invest in it. Ideally civic leaders would latch onto this message and start to reinforce it within the communities they lead.

Finally… at some point while reading this book and looking at all of the charts where things go sideways starting between 1968 and 1974, I started to think of this chart of productivity in the United States.

Could there be a relationship between declining trust and declining productivity? At least at an intellectual level, this makes sense: if more trust allows two people or four people to be more productive together, why wouldn’t more trust allow a society to be more productive?

Interestingly, whilte Putnam does discuss the importance of trust to economic productivity and he shows a lot of charts, he never shows this one. Even more interesting, while I’ve seen a lot of musings about the causes of the Great Stagnation, I’ve never seen anyone put forward declining social trust as an explanation; it doesn’t mean it’s not out there, but I’m surprised that I haven’t run into it. I’d like to do more reading here!

1:  An alternate version of this book is the self help version – Bowling Alone: Why the key to health and happiness is cultivating friendships and community involvement
2: wonder if this means that some of the nostalgia for an earlier American age is in fact driven by a longing to return to a higher trust society? Another interesting question is whether more social conformity / segregation is needed to create higher levels of social capital; I’m not sure I agree but would love to see data.
3: This is where I hear a voice in the back of my head saying “after the defeat of Carthage, the Romans became complacent and decadent…”
4: It’s interesting to imagine how more flexible work arrangements could change this.