Paul Krugman has an interesting blog post on the extent to which there might be contagion from one area of social capital (or lack thereof) to another. He’s responding to the claim CEOs made to him that they only started arcing up their pay demands when they saw sportspeople doing it. And we can all understand the micro-foundations for rises in superstar sportspeople – local sub-urban live audiences morphing into TV audiences at the city, national or global level.
One of the things that’s gradually been happening over the same period is a kind of leeching away of general social solidarity. The most striking aspect of this is a stat I heard on Radio National’s All in the Mind. Asked of the importance of “being very well off financially”
The latest data from 2013 for entering university students here in the US, 82% say that that is an important life goal. And back in the late ’60s and early ’70s only about 45% said that was an important life goal.
I expect the figure would have been a lot lower in earlier decades (though we are dealing with college students as the sample population, so perhaps not). This isn’t direct evidence of a loss of social capital, as these are private preferences. Still it seems awfully suggestive to me. Two quick points. Firstly there’s a lot of evidecne that people’s life happiness is a function of their meeting their expectations. So this is pretty bad news for our ability to turn any given aggregate economic product into improvements in aggregate happiness. Most people are not going to be “very well off” which we can safely assume is a largely positional aspiration. Secondly people having a sense that society makes sense and makes credible demands on them to ‘do the right thing’ is a huge public good economically and – as suggested above – in terms of individual’s wellbeing.
I put it this way in an earlier post:
Would you rather be a craftsman or a bullshit artist – will you go into – say – engineering, teaching, nursing, musicianship on the one hand or PR, head hunting, corporate strategy, marketing, media, events management on the other? Well if you feel born into any of the craftsman roles, you’ll prefer the former professions. You may not make as much money, but you’ll be happier doing something you were born for. But surely the more common situation is the person who could go either way, but who is more likely to reach their human potential and achieve life satisfaction plying a craft. But in the world we’re in, they won’t just make less money being the craftsman, they’ll be bossed around by people who have little understanding of their job or sympathy with them (or be the subject of professional forces that have been built by similar people – like ‘research quality frameworks’ for academics for instance). They’ll be restructured, reengineered, performance managed – taken advantage of. And so lots of the good ones leave.
The picture I’m painting here is one in which this leaching away of social capital harms both the purely economic performance of a society and its conduciveness to the successful pursuit of happiness. I know kids who’d love to be teachers, police, nurses. They’re not bad snobs. But they know a certain amount of acquired snobbery is strongly in their interests.They know that entering a low-income, low-status career leads to a lifetime of being poorly thought of, being treated badly, and perhaps more importantly of all, being regarded as a ‘loser’ – a term the recent popularity of which says a great deal.
The other thing this reminds me to say is that I find the argument that it’s neoliberal policies what dun it – what led to rising inequality – pretty unconvincing. They’ve had some impact, but I think it’s the neoliberal zeitgeist far more than just neoliberal government policies what dun it – though the zeitgeist also drove the policies. Why are jobs much less secure? Well you can say because the law has changed, or firms are more ‘competitive’ with one another today, but I think the main reason is that it’s just much more OK within business culture to sack people. (That’s far from all bad by the way, but it comes with large costs to the fabric of our culture, to the sense in which looking after people is radiated throughout the society as a generalised social sense.)
When I was a kid my parents didn’t enrol us for scholarships to private schools because, even though they were ‘merit’ scholarships and not predicated on an inability to pay my parents thought they should not be taken. I’d be happy to live in such a world, and happy to contribute. But the way things are, that seems kind of quaint. I’d feel like a mug to do it when almost no-one does that. So I pursue a more ‘neoliberal’ approach to the common good which is to take the money and also to make more deliberate contributions to the common good via philanthropic giving of money and my time. But it’s not the same of course. As Adam Smith might have written if he’d written the Theory of Moral Sentiments according to modern lingo, culture is a generative commons.