The Strange Disappearance of Cooperation in America

Posted on June 21, 2013 by

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Tomorrow I head for “Sci Foo” at the Googleplex. I proposed a discussion session there, “Are We Becoming Less Cooperative? If So, Why?” and I’d like to use today’s blog to help me formulate my ideas for this session. So here it goes.

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The title of this blog is a paraphrase of a 1995 article by Robert Putnam, “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America.” Robert Putnam is a political scientist at Harvard who over the last 20 years has been documenting the decline of ‘social capital’ in America.

Putnam has argued, in particular, that last several decades saw lower levels of trust in government, lower levels of civic participation, lower connectedness among ordinary Americans, and lower social cooperation.

This is a puzzling development, because from its inception the American society was characterized, to an unusual degree, by the density of associational ties and an abundance of social capital. Almost 200 years ago that discerning observer of social life, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote about the exceptional ability of Americans to form voluntary associations and, more generally, to cooperate in solving problems that required concerted collective action. This capacity for cooperation apparently lasted into the post-World War II era, but several indicators suggest that during the last 3-4 decades it has been unraveling.

Robert Putnam points to such indicators as the participation rate in voluntary organizations (Masonic lodges, Parent-Teacher Associations, sports clubs and bowling leagues…):

associationsIf between 1900 and 1960 the general trend for the mean membership rate was to increase, during the 1970s this trend reversed itself. Participation has been declining ever since. Another indicator is the level of generalized trust, including trust in such institutions as the state:

trust

Putnam’s thesis has been quite controversial. But during the two decades since he first proposed it various measures of social capital continued to decline, strengthening his case. In some cases there were substantial up and down fluctuations, as with trust in government (the graph above). Yet note how each trough is lower than the preceding one, and peaks reach nowhere near the level of confidence last observed during the 1960s.

While Putnam’s focus was primarily on the associational life of ordinary Americans, the changes that he documented about unraveling social cooperation have affected American social life at all levels, including state and federal governance and relations between economic classes (e.g., employers and employees).

One important factor, closely related to social cooperation, is the degree of economic inequality. Both general theories of social evolution and empirical studies suggest that inequality is corrosive of cooperation. As Emmanuel Saez, Thomas Piketty, and coworkers have demonstrated using sophisticated analyses of income tax returns, income inequality declined during most of the twentieth century, but it turned a corner in the 1970s and has been increasing ever since:

saez

Furthermore, as I have shown in my own research, such cycles in economic inequality are actually recurrent features in the history of complex societies. More details are available in my Aeon article and in The Double Helix of Inequality and Well-Being.

In these articles I argue that general well-being (and high levels of social cooperation) tends to move in the opposite direction from inequality.  During the ‘disintegrative phases’ inequality is high while well-being and cooperation are low. During the ‘integrative phases’ inequality is low, while well-being and cooperation are high. This antagonistic association produces a characteristic ‘double helix’ pattern in the data on well-being and inequality:

infograph

The cyclic pattern of cooperation versus discord is reflected in the ‘polarization index’ developed by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal:

polarizationThis graph shows that there were two periods of unusually low polarization and high cooperation among the elites: the 1820s (also known as the ‘Era of Good Feelings’) and the 1950s. In contrast, the Gilded Age (1870-1900) and the last three decades since 1980 (which many commentators have dubbed ‘The Second Gilded Age’) were both periods of growing economic inequality and declining cooperation among the political elites.

You may think that political polarization is not so bad. What’s wrong with different political parties holding strong opinions about how this country should be governed? The problem is, the clash of ideas inevitably leads to the clash of personalities. As political positions become separated by a deep ideological gulf the capacity for compromise disappears and political leaders become increasingly intransigent. The end result is political gridlock, something that became abundantly clear in the last few years, but has been developing over the last few decades. Take a look at this graph, showing the proportion of legislation that was either filibustered in the Senate, or threatened with a filibuster:

filibustersSource: Sinclair, Barbara. 2006. Party wars: polarization and the politics of national policy making. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

The change is from 7 to 70 percent! Or the confirmation rates for judicial nominations:

judicial

Did they decrease from nearly 100 percent in the 1960s to around 40 percent today because the judges today are more corrupt and incompetent? Or is it a reflection of an increasing political gridlock – the failure of cooperation among the governing elites?

To anybody who reads political news regularly there can be no doubt that cooperation among the American political elites has been unraveling. This is clear from the quantitative proxies I plotted above, and it is also evident from simply hearing what our political leaders say about each other.

In addition to the collapse of cooperation among the political elites and growing divisions between the elites and general population, we also see the relations between employers and employees becoming less cooperative and more antagonistic. I have addressed this issue in my blog A Proxy for Non-Market Forces (Why Real Wages Stopped Growing III).

What we have then, is a ‘strange disappearance’ of cooperation at all levels within the American society: from the neighborhood bowling leagues to the national-level economic and political institutes. What’s worse, it is disappearing from our lexicon:

cooperation_ngramIn our search of explanations (which is the first and necessary step before proposing remedies) we need to look for fundamental factors that affect social cooperation. Yes, Americans watch more TV, but is this really why they bowl together less? Yes, news media is reducing everything to five-second sound bites, but is this why we have the political gridlock? Social cooperation waxes and wanes in most complex societies, following a long cycle. This is a generic pattern in not only our own society but also in ancient and medieval empires. Where there recurrent empirical patterns, there must be general explanations. This means that things are not hopeless – we can figure out why cooperation is declining, and how to fix this problem.

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Note added on 7.VII.2013: see next The Strange Disappearance of Cooperation in America II

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Notes on the margin: after Sci Foo I go to the Evolution meetings in Snowbird, Utah. As I will be away from home for a week, I am taking a short break from blogging. 

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