Today I finished with Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone” – it is fascinating and depressing, and the chapter provides a little inspiration.
The book is a data junkie’s dream, documenting, in scholarly detail, the decline in social capital in the USA. As Putname defines it, social captial is:
collective value of all “social networks” [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other [“norms of reciprocity”].
The most lamentable and high profile example of the decline is demonstrated by the percentage of Americans that vote in every presidential election. This has steadily been dropping over the last hundred years. It seems almost certain that there will be a blip next week with so much attention on Bush vs Kerry, but this seems to be the exception.
The trend is for people to care less about their community of fellow citizens, and to do less to help them, which in turn leads to benefiting less, and so on. It is a downward spiral.
The last chapter of the book is so fascinating because it describes the end of the 19th century as a period similar to the current – the telegraph and the railroads revolutionised communication and society even more than the internet is so often portrayed as doing. The pace of change was probably faster than today’s. Corruption was rife in government, with cronyism exceeding Cheney and Haliburton. Social Darwinism was the mode of thinking, with the poor getting poorer, the rich getting much richer, and the rich feeling thoroughly entitled and deserving.
What is inspirational however is that the seeds of change were sown during that same periods – hundreds of societies started around the country, as citizens began trying to return the sense of community that they had felt in small towns. The Scouts and the NAACP, the NRA, the Klu Klux Klan and the Masons, all these groups formed and mushroomed in the USA in the thirty years after 1870. And they form the majority of the stable organisations in the USA today. (A second period of flowering was the 1950s and 1960s, but it was not as impressive in scale.)
These organisations then formed the nucleus of the progressive movements, eventually propelling the likes of Wilson to the presidency, and spearheading scores of legislative acts that reversed the injustices and poverty.
Putnam argues that the USA is at a similar crossroad. What interests me the most is his discussion of the role of religion in the formation of those organisations in the 19th century. It was the glue that allowed citizens to trust and invest in each other.
This changes my interpretation of the Bush’s mixing of religion with government: it might well be part of the next set of solution. Apparently at Wilson’s nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1912, the crowd spontaneously erupted into singing “Onwards Christian soldiers”.
The world is becomig more religious. In the USA, no presidential candidate can hope for nomination if they do not invoke their faith in their rhetoric. And in Arab world, religion is advancing its grip on the political process. For me, this trend was troubling, because religion has always been about excluding and occasionally attacking those of another religion. But on the other hand, perhaps there is no other way that we have of advancing as communities and societies. Putnam’s book has changed my mind – so I am now agnostic about religion and faith in politics.
I’ve been looking at the very impressive Ethnicity Online web site, and I think it will prove to be a very useful resource. It provides information to healthcare workers about dealing with patients, colleagues and employees from six different religions.
For example, it is better to avoid unnecessary tactile contact with Muslim patients, such as shaking hands or patting, especially with the opposite gender. Buddhist patients may prefer to avoid pain medication, opting for psychosomatic techniques. And although alcohol and tobacco are taboo for Sikhs, medications containing traces of alcohol are acceptable if the aim is not to intoxicate.
My congratulations to the site’s team, the good folks from CARET and CBCU, on a job well done.
The Public Library of Science’s first issue of PLoS Medicine journal is finally out, and it is a joy to see its birth.
PLoS is the American’s first open access journal, and is better funded and publicised than Britain’s BioMedCentral. The latter pioneered the field and hundreds of universities around the world are its customers.
The wonderful point about open access publishing is that its customers pay a small fee to cover the costs of peer review and publishing. The cost also covers making the content freely available to anyone through the internet. That means any reasearcher, clinician, or patient in the world can read the latest scientific literature free of charge. It also means that anyone can build on the content free of charge, and without asking permission. For example I have created a RepliGo version of the issue that works on handheld computers and smartphones.
Peter Suber has an excellent introduction to the benefits to society from open access publishing.
What is interesting to me is seeing the political process behind this. It is fine for scientists to choose between open access and closed access (where the reader pays) publishers when submitting their research results. But if the tax payer has funded the research – an enormous expense – it seems only right that the tax payer should be able to read the results of the research – at no expense.
So in the UK and the USA the legislative bodies are passing laws that demand that publicly-funded research must be available through open access. The publishers have been desperately lobbying against this for years. But it seems that they are losing the battle.
On the mention of sites like fundrace.org making Federal Election Commission data easy to access, the FEC itself is worth looking at.
C-SPAN’s Booknotes has a fascinating interview with Richard Viguerie discussing his new book “America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power”. Viguerie describes the tricks of the trade for reaching out to voters and donors – not big donors, just getting lots of small donations by writing good letters to the right segment of the population.
He tells the story of how he got some of the names:
This would be 1964. And I`m not sure how I heard about it, but in those days, if you ran for president, you had to file with the clerk of the House of Representatives all of the names and addresses of the people who had given you $50 or more. So I went down there one day, and lo and behold, there was this big stack of sheets of paper with Barry Goldwater`s $50-plus donors.
So I had brought a legal pad, and I started writing. And I came back the next day and wrote more. And I got to realize, Hey, you know, I`ve got a full-time day job, still working for Young Americans for Freedom, and this is — I`m not making a lot of progress. So what I did, I went out and hired about six women to come in with three-by-five index cards and write the name and addresses and the dollar amount they had given there. And did that for about two-and-a-half, three months.
And I was just about finished. I had, I estimate, about 15,000 names there. And after I`d gotten 12,500, a nice man there didn`t know what I was doing, but it just didn`t feel right to him, said, Well, you can`t do this anymore. You got to stop this. And if I had the maturity I have now, I`d say, Talk to my lawyer. Ladies, keep writing, because it was legal. It was all very proper. You can`t do that now. They`ve passed laws in, I think it was, the 1970s that you can`t use commercially, for fund-raising, the donors that are filed with the Federal Election Commission for — I think you have to file all your donors of $200 or more. You can go and look at those, but you can`t use them for any commercial or fund-raising purposes. But in 1964, you could.
It’s rather endearing how he had stumbled on this.
The interview is also interesting because it shows how the Republicans in the 70’s pioneered new media like direct-mail. Now, he says, the Democrats are pioneering new media like documentaries. I have to say Michael Moore’s documentaries are boring me, but it seems that they have a big effect on a lot of people.
What I love about America is its numbers. Americans count everything. And when the government does the counting, it makes the numbers available to everyone.
What is the use of all this counting? No one knows. Or at least, they do not always have to know when they start counting. But they just count. And after a while, the uses come up.
Two applications got me thinking about this. The first is fundrace.org which collates data about political donations. These area available from the Federal Election Comission, which is Federal, so its data is in the public domain.
You can use the site to find out about who your neighbours are donating to. Seriously. I found I was surrounded by a small Democrat majority, but the total donations of the Republicans dwarfed those of the Democrats. The top three donors (at $50,000, $30,000 and $20,000) were Republicans. I then checked my friends’ neighbourhoods. My boss lived in a very Democrat neighbourhood. In fact her neighbours were Howard Dean Democrats. And the 90210 neighbourhood, of TV fame, is very rich and very Republican.
You can also search by name of the donor. Because all of these donations show the full name and address of donor. For example Martin Sheen is a Dick Gephardt Democrat.
All of which brings up privacy questions of course. How long before neighbours get annoyed with each other. And is there a point to anonymous voting if such personal donations are not anonymous. As usual, The Economist has intelligent things to say on the matter.
It is through the slightly less intelligent Wired.com that I found out about the second application, which is mapping software. These Geographic Information Systems GIS were developed by local governments and real estate developers to cross-reference important data about an area with its geography in a graphical form, usually overlaying data on overhead photographs or maps of a region. It has been used to track commercial trends and social phenomena for specific regions, an invaluable tool for planning purposes.
The software got cheaper, the data more available, and now activists have gotten hold of it. They are hoping to use it to increase voter turnout, and to focus their campaigning efforts. As the article concludes -“Its potential isn’t even close to being realized”.