Half Past the Month

May 12, 2019

“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” — Edmund Burke

A FAVORITE HOOSIER, Kurt Vonnegut, wrote in a letter to a fan of his book, “Palm Sunday,” an autobiographic collage, that there is one thing he had learned for sure: A person must sincerely and loyally belong to something larger than himself.

He cited as examples the self-help outfits meeting in twos and threes, but sometimes dozens, without budgets, around coffee pots in church basements, discussing the way to get free of the various tyrannies of addiction. Vonnegut idly wondered whether such groups might have saved more lives than penicillin.

This comes to mind reading a white paper by South Bend’s Dr. Maryann O. Keating in the current issue of The Indiana Policy Review. Dr. Keating, an economist, drives toward a conclusion similar to Vonnegut’s, only more expansive. Her work on social capital suggests that belonging to a group is critical not only to our mental well-being but how constructively we interact publicly and even how capable we are in selecting political representation.

In recent election campaigns, for example, volunteers have told me how struck they were by the voter ignorance they encountered going door to door. That is, they did not expect to meet so many residents inadvertently supporting candidates with positions opposite their own.

The pluperfect model for this disconnect may be Keating’s South Bend neighbor, Pete Buttigieg, the popular mayor seeking the U.S. presidency. He has convinced the national press and a large part of the Democrat Party that he turned his Rust Belt city around.

Sure enough, unemployment has fallen there, but it still is twice the state average. The region added 15,000 jobs if you let Buttigieg define “jobs,” and the population grew 1 percent.

Mostly, though, Buttigieg, as so many mayors around the state, is proud of the heavily subsidized renovation of his downtown. There is a new facade on the old Studebaker Building, and you can ride newly cut bike trails to cross paths with guests strolling from three new hotels heading to one of a dozen new restaurants.

“Put simply, South Bend is back,” the mayor says.

But not so fast. What Buttigieg doesn’t list in his state-of-the-city accomplishments is telling, and that is so even when you give him a pass on a crime rate that rivals Chicago. He doesn’t mention his city’s relatively low stock of social capital.

Keating defines that as the set of “informal values, norms of behavior and skills shared among members of a group permitting cooperation (hopefully for the better) regardless of socio-economic characteristics.” This social capital, says Keating, is formed in the public square, “that space between family and government.”

It is there in a myriad of social groupings that we learn to work civilly toward common goals — or at least learn to live and let live. She is talking about a street corner, a park, a sidewalk, a bulletin board, a blog, a break-room at work, a play-ground, a quad on a university campus or an actual public square where people step up on soap boxes and say their piece.

And Keating has a warning about all of that:

“Individuals, according to Edmund Burke and other social philosophers, benefit from belonging to a platoon, a link between family and society. Individuals develop personally, professionally and socially within a network of intermediary organizations. Our lives and the lives of others are enriched by this participation. Isolation, freely chosen, is fine but, in general, the lives of those lacking social ties, regardless of income, are somewhat grim and impoverished.”

Keating, before Buttigieg announced his national political ambition, had designed a social-capital index comparing Indiana cities on four factors: per-capita religious, business, political, professional, labor and recreational organizations; percentage voting in elections; percentage responding to the U.S. Census; and number of nonprofit organizations.

South Bend’s St. Joseph County ranked miserably, 76th of 92 counties.

This cannot be dismissed as incidental. The ranking is not detached from the political culture; for government, when misled, can encroach on that public square, that place where we learn how to be good private citizens, where we build social capital. Keating lists four examples:

• Private social intermediaries, which include schools, hospitals, service agencies, fraternal and particular-interest organizations may be banned and declared illegal by government.
• A government can fail to provide constitutional rights, police protection and other public works, for unless government maintains a safe environment with legal protections, a civil society offering positive externalities cannot thrive.
• Government can be biased in its treatment of these private organizations, attempting to micro-manage certain ones. In these cases, the organizations forfeit traditional sponsors and voluntary donations of time and treasure.
• Government regulations can increase costs for smaller private organizations to the extent that only large bureaucratic ones survive. When a government agency proposes rules and regulations that become as binding as law, the organization must allow for a costly process of public and judicial review or disband.

So, has South Bend been rejuvenated in this regard? Did Buttigieg attend to these social-capital concerns along with his well-publicized campaigns to dress up the downtown? For that matter, has the mayor of your city?

It would be interesting if some mayor somewhere in Indiana systematically reviewed the activities and priorities of municipal government for anything diminishing the public square and the development of social capital. Success might rival that of the regional development offices cropping up across the state handing out rebates and tax credits.

“Although development is easily thwarted by bad policy,” Keating warns, “those who believe that planners and development agencies are capable of directing local economies are deceived.”

Improving a community’s social capital, although it cannot be done overnight with a stroke of the pen on a bond document or a TIF agreement, can attract talented and skilled workers and can impress potential investor. That is not to mention improving the morale and the sense of well-being of the current citizenry, another index on which South Bend scores low.

At any rate, too few of us have the network of sources and knowledgeable friends to square political promise with reality. Those public-private partnerships of which our political class is so proud, boosted as “civic investments,” fail to add much.

The bright and shiny buildings, because of their complex quasi-governmental funding and twisted incentives, end up costing three times their market value. And evidence of their failure doesn’t surface until long after the political players have fled to higher ground or left for warmer climates.

Again, we are losing the private, independent groups, the benefits of belonging, that could have kept us informed, helped us avoid bad political decisions — groups such as a political party that slates primary candidates, the readership of a locally owned newspaper, unreformed Boy Scout troops, Bible studies and coffee klatches with access to a range of trusted friends and their practical, common-sense, real-life advice.

In sum, we are running civically blind.

There are those who thought that the Internet and its unlimited applications and platforms would have fixed all this by now, would have facilitated a sense of belonging, loosened the restrictions on the public square. It hasn’t, at least not yet, and considering techno-censorship and the fantasy of cyber groups and games it may have made things worse.

“And so it goes,” as Vonnegut famously observed. — tcl


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