30 March 2013

What’s good and bad for us

I’d expected to receive an email saying Andrew Leigh’s presentation at Politics in the Pub had been cancelled. After all, he’s just been promoted to the Ministry, as Parliamentary Secretary assisting the PM, just a few days before in the debacle which was the most recent Labor leadership spill. But I received no email and the event was on and he turned up. I bought a beer and perused the crowd. I like Politics in the Pub. It was busy. There was lots of humour and good will. I wondered if this is a respite from the chill winds outside for the centre-left. I got talking to a guy next to me who turned out to be a Christian Brother. Lucky I did, because this was one recommendation later by Andrew Leigh. He was talking of his new book, Disconnected, which investigates social capital and engagement in the community in Australia. It’s familiar territory. I thought of Robert Putnam and it turns out that Andrew had worked with Putnam for some time. Andrew’s a local Federal MP and was an economist at ANU, so this is localised for Australia and with an awareness of Canberra and it showed.

Andrew started by noting that social capital is a relatively new concept for economics. He described it by providing various measures and then surveyed the decreases in these measures in Australia over the period from a peak around 1960. Nothing surprised me much: membership of associations, car use, involvement in politics, valid voting, church attendance. Here I was interested that he said even atheists should care about dropping church attendance, because “church goers are nicer” (quoted from Putnam). I guess this crosses the Pacific, although we have very different experiences of religion. Then workplace social capital, union membership, knowledge of neighbours, rise in living alone, involvement in sport. He did observe that suicide and murder have dropped and that people still watch sport although they don’t participate (I thought of the commercialisation of sport). But Andrew is not a luddite. He recognises the value of our ICT, cars, TVs, ATMs, etc. The issue is how to manage them for our benefit. He also noted a few social changes that have reduced community. Women are overrepresented in social capital, but they have now gone out to work so have less time for community building. He ran a mile from suggesting we return to the past but noted the cost of everyone busily being involved in paid work. He also noted that ethnic diversity, at least initially, lowers trust (but then recovers). Think Catholic/Protestant in Australia’s past. Putnam’s answer is that we “hunker down”, go private. We are working longer hours and this is often welcomed by the worker. (I found this an interesting claim: that not all longer work hours are at the instigation of the employer).

Then he got to Canberra, noting that it’s consistently highest in Australian measures of social capital: organised sport, share of volunteers, donations, lower litter in Clean Up Australia surveys. He noted we are marginally more educated, wealthier, better planned but also that we spend less time in the car than people in other cities (8 days pa vs Sydney 13 days pa vs Australian average 11 days pa these are days as 24 hours!). Also, that despite Sydneysiders’ pride in the Opera House, Canberrans are more likely to have gone to the theatre or opera in the past year. He noted psychological studies of email and that Silicon Valley companies now limit email to certain times per day. Also that studies of kids now show virtually all time out of school, eating and sleeping is spent in front of a screen. The answers? Not too much offered. Try new things, eg, say hello to someone or listen to a new radio station. Recognise the value of donating money. Government can’t do it for us. Renewed social capital requires a “cultural renaissance” and it starts with you and me. Well, I’ve discovered buses and I talked to the bloke next to me and we have street parties, so I’m on the way.

There were questions and comments and some jokes. Donate to the Australia Institute – it’s as good as sex. Someone noted that cultural institutions are growing, viz, in Tassie. A few people were optimistic that social entrepreneurs and “glamourteers” (volunteers in cultural institutions) are taking a new, more individualistic path. This sounds like a ‘60s “the personal is political” message which has some truth in it, but can be naïve in practice. Someone asked why we need social capital and someone else about relationships to neo-liberalism. In each Andrew revealed his economics orientation (fair enough), noting that markets work better with trust (I thought: what about corporate oligopolies) and justifying actions by personal benefits (know your neighbours so they will ring the cops when someone’s taking your TV; friends bring you soup when you’re sick) and identifying Adam Smith as in Theory of moral sentiments as his favourite economist.

I felt it worthy and his heart was in the right place, although I found nothing particularly new. In fact, it was a few questioners that had me pondering more, especially the optimistic few. I side with the “we’ll all be doomed” set while preferring with community over individualism and valuing the very tools (dare I say “progress”) that causes us many of these problems. Maybe it’s needed so we can work together to fix the bigger problems, but I still feel uncomfortable discussing community while the climate changes. Is this Rome burning?

BTW, Andrew’s next book is due out mid-year and it’s on Inequality, which he noted has taken risen since the 1960s, mirroring social capital’s fall. Now that’s a revealing pair! He’ll be back at Politics in the Pub to present that one, too.

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