The Importance of Social Capital

The Importance of Social Capital
A phrase came into my head, recently, about some of the things I would like to do with my life. Let me back up a bit…. About this time of year, I always sit down and write my goals for the coming year. I call them goals, but let’s call it… a theme, a direction, some things I’d like to see, do, and maybe achieve. They aren’t goals, per se – more like guidelines. This year, I am trying a different tack, one from a company called The Dragontree Apothecary. It’s a book to walk through your year, interactive – kinda of hipster, but it’s something different. I’ve been doing this exercise for thirty years; sometimes a girl has to find something new.
 

Anyway, I was thinking something I’d like to leave the world when I die, a legacy, memory, something that I’ve contributed in my time here. I’m not planning on exiting soon; this is simply an exercise in learning where to put my time. The thought struck me that people always talk about combating poverty or giving to charity. As Freemasons, Charity is a core value that many of us appreciate, value, and toward which we give time and money. I was thinking about Charity and about how I’d like to twist that, and combat more than Physical Poverty. I thought about Emotional Poverty. This seems to me to be a very private thing to combat – we all must learn to move away from apathy and disinterestedness but each of us has a different path to get there. No, Emotional Poverty is something each individual must combat on their own.

What I really want to do is combat Mental Poverty.

knowledge3Poverty is described as a deficiency of necessary or desirable ingredients or qualities. It is sparse, meager, insufficient. It is being destitute or indigent, a dearth of, well, something. So, what is mental poverty? I think it’s the state of needing more “mind.” Mind is intellect, the totality of conscious and unconscious mental activities – it is the part of each human being that has the capacity to reason, think, calculate, extrapolate, judge and perceive. So, to be mentally impoverished means that the sum total of our capacity to reason and think is sparse, meager, and insufficient.

Little did I know, but should have guessed, it was already a thing.

I don’t think of this as combating stupidity. I think of this as combating ignorance. Ignorance is simply lacking knowledge; I think mental poverty comes from ignorance and from the inability to lift oneself from ignorance. I want to combat the factors that go into that inability – I want to create a world where people who are ignorant and want to lift themselves from it can do so. They have the tools, means, and will to make it happen.

Luckily, Freemasonry tells us that it is our duty to be a guide and helper of the ignorant. Does some part of you bristle at that arrogance? It did me. Who am I to be a guide and helper of the ignorant? Who am I to judge who is ignorant and who isn’t? Well, I’m not. However, if it’s my duty to be that guide, and to help reverse mental poverty, how do I make it my duty? Well, to me, I first have to make myself less ignorant.

I do this often by reading, listening to podcasts, watching TED talks, listening to different points of views… actually engaging with those that are different from me. However, it doesn’t seem quite enough. While listening to one of those same podcasts, Freakonomics, I heard a term I hadn’t heard before: Social Capital. What captured my attention right off is what a lack of social capital mean to a culture, what its effects are, and how can it be reversed. Even more interesting is why we WANT to reverse it.

shutterstock_knowledgeThe episode was primarily about Trust, and why we want to have a more trusting country; countries that believe that most people can be trusted are generally healthier, wealthier, and have a more positive discourse than countries were trust is lacking. In distrustful societies, people tend to be poorer in emotional and physical ways, but also mentally – ergo, mental poverty. So why increase social capital? To increase Trust and bring people out of poverty and despair. I think that is an incredibly Masonic idea and ideal.

So, perhaps the way we get out of mental poverty and create a most trusting and vibrant society is to increase social capital. To quote David Halpern, from the British “Nudge Unit:” Social trust is an extraordinarily interesting variable and it doesn’t get anywhere near the attention it deserves. But the basic idea is trying to understand what is the kind of fabric of society that makes economies and, indeed, just people get along in general. It’s clearly so critical for a whole range of outcomes.” The episode goes on to say, “Outcomes like economic growth, and individual health.” That includes better government and overall, a more civil society. Social capital, while hard to exactly quantify, does exist and is tangible. It’s like good art: we know it when we see its effects.

When people meet, gather, discuss, and “network,” they are creating social capital. It is in the discourse and interaction between competing ideas (humans) and cultures that creates a more vibrant, trustworthy culture. It creates goodwill and fellowship, above and beyond what we find in our own homes. However, they are not exempt either. When you invite someone over for dinner, join the PTA, host a book club, or go to a party at a friend’s house, you are engaging in building social capital. Meeting and talking with people of different backgrounds creates understanding and trust, which in turn builds a better democracy and more educated society. It’s difficult to grow in a vacuum.

To me, this is what Freemasons do as a matter of 7628F943-9E30-48AA-ADB7-60C05E09276Acourse. We encourage this kind of social and civic duty, with our fellow members and with our community. We are encouraged to be out in the world, be examples, and work hard at learning what other people think and do. It comes full circle. Our job as Freemasons is to be the guide and helper of “the ignorant,” which includes ourselves, and we increase our intellectual acuity by building our social capital, which in turn builds a better, more trustful society that continues to become emotionally, physically, and mentally wealthier. The cycle goes the other way.

In the United States of America, this is going to be a difficult task. We have so much distrust and hate because, I think, we have little social capital. Robert Putnam, in his book “Bowling Alone,” has stated that we’re currently around 35% “trustful” in the U.S.A. – compared to some place like Norway or Sweden, which is around 70%. There might be many counter arguments for this, but one thing is certain – there is more social capital in those countries, which leads to a better society overall. Putnam’s original article, published before the book, can be found here.  The article also includes information and follow ups from other sources.

In the end, what I believe I can do for my coming year’s “guidelines” is to engage more socially, in civic-minded ways. I know that I feel better when I get out, socialize, talk with people. I become alive, vibrant, thoughtful, and my mind is stimulated by new ideas and concepts. I test my emotional mettle against others and learn how to become more mindful and adept at conversation and rhetoric. When I meet people of different backgrounds, religions, races, creeds, and identities, I am enlightened and enriched. In other words, I have worked to bring myself into a better place, and in doing so, perhaps I have brought society a little higher, too. In fact, sociologists agree: “From the material marshaled by Robert Putnam, we can see that the simple act of joining and being regularly involved in organized groups has a very significant impact on society.”

Thus, simply being a Freemason is a first step in the right direction. A good group to seek out and engage in this kind of civic discourse is the Masonic Philosophical Society. Study centers meet to not only discuss Freemasonry but a wide range of topics important to our global culture. I’ve attended several of these meetings and hosted a few. I find them to be highly engaging and very insightful. Besides these, I’m looking into joining a few civic and non-partisan ethical organizations, as well. Heck, maybe starting my own book club is a way to start. Maybe I’ll start with Bowling Alone. No one should ever have to do such a lonely thing.

Book:

The Social Capital Wikipedia page is also a fairly well documented page, and up to date.

“Bowling Alone” does have its own website as well: http://bowlingalone.com/

Freakonomics and Freemasonry

Freakonomics and Freemasonry

In 2005, a University of Chicago economist and a New York Times journalist revolutionized economic thinking in popular culture with their non-fiction book, “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.”  The authors put forward a fresh perspective as to how the world works through an exploratory lens they refer to as “the hidden side.”  The authors argue that this exploration can be accomplished by “stripping away a layer or two from modern life and seeing what is happening underneath.” The book is formatted by postulating a series of thought-provoking questions. What do school teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What kind of impact did Roe v. Wade have on violent crime? Since the original work was pubFreakonomics Authorslished in 2005, the Freakonomics authors have capitalized on their success by creating a Freakonomics brand through additional books, lectures, blogs, and a weekly podcast.

According to Steven Levitt, economics was a science with excellent tools for gaining answers but a serious shortage of interesting questions to direct the application of those tools.  He provided an original set of  thought-provoking questions and then applied the tools of his economic training. The result was statistically significant, rational explanations to explain perplexing phenomenon in the modern world. Often eschewing conventional wisdom, Levitt and Dubner created controversy by demonstrating empirical evidence for events, including their theory that the legalization of abortion in the 1970s reduced violent crime in the United States two decades later. Unconcerned with shocking the mainstream population, the authors argue that morality is how individuals would like the world to work, and economics is the way the world actually operates. The book outlines a number of basic principles related to economics: 1) Incentives are the cornerstone of life; 2) conventional wisdom is often wrong; 3) Dramatic events or effects often have distant, subtle causes; 4) Experts use their informational advantage to serve their own agenda; and 5) knowing what to measure and how to measure makes the world less complicated. 

Incentives

Freakonomics postulates that economics is the study of human behavior, explained through the investigation of incentives. Thus, to understand human behavior, one must understand the incentives which motivate him into action.  Levitt and Dubner write, “Economists love incentives. The typical economist believes the world has not yet invented a problem that he cannot fix if given a free hand to design the proper incentive scheme.” According to the authors, incentives come in three varieties: moral, social, and economic. Moral incentives motivate an individual to act out of conscienceincentiveseconomic or conviction. Social incentives inspire individuals to act in order to avoid shame or achieve glory. Finally, economic incentives direct people to act in their financial interest.  

To explain how these incentives work in the real world, Levitt and Dubner utilized an example of a day care center in Haifa, Israel.  In this example, the center’s management faced a recurring problem: parents were late to pick up their children and staff had to be paid extra wages to watch the children past the agreed upon schedule. Management decided to enact a fee for the late pickup of a child, which they believed would discourage parental tardiness. Instead, they was shocked to discover that parents showed up late more often after the fee was instituted. According to the authors, the fee had the reverse impact on parental arrival times because the parents traded a moral incentive, a sense of guilt for being late, for an economic incentive, a small fee for a late pickup. These parents changed their behavior by assessing the benefits of the extra time in their schedule and decided that the price was worth the added cost. 

Conventional Wisdom

Freakonomics is a persuasive read, in part, because of the authors’ innovative way of employing powerful quantitative tools of economic inquiry to refute conventional wisdom. The problem with conventional wisdom is not that is it always incorrect, rather that such explanations are simply accepted by the general population without questioning or examination.  To many, human social behavior is complex and requires too much effort to understand. In an effort to avoid mental analysis, we accept conventional wisdom delivered  in short phrases which comfort us with their simplicity and familiarity. Taught as children, we hear the same phrase repeatedly until we start parroting it back as an explanation. Such aphorisms include “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” “the early bird gets the worm,” and “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Conventional wisdom is often first created by experts in a field, i.e. physicians advised patients to avoid eating eggs to maintain a healthy level of cholesterol. These conclusions get repeated in the media and by other experts who further establish credibility. Repeated often enough, a false attribution of causality becomes accepted by society as conventional wisdom to explain a problem. 

Levitt and Dubner cite several examples of conventional wisdom, which is demonstrably in error including the positive societal connotations of allowing your child to attend a play date where the family owns a swimming pool versus the negative associations of allowing your child to visit a home where guns are kept. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), there is one drowning of a child for every 11,000 residential pools in the United States.  There are approximately 6 million pools in the United States, which equates to  550 children under the age of ten who drown each year. Comparatively, there is 1 child killed by a gun for every 1 million guns. There are an estimated 200 million guns in the United States, which means that roughly 175 children under ten die each year from guns. Thus, the likelihood of death by pool equates to 1 in 11,000 versus death by gun to 1 in 1 million. The authors write, “If you both own a gun and a swimming pool in your backyard, the swimming pool is about 100 times more likely to kill a child than the gun is.”

Dramatic Events 

Freakonomics postulates that economic inquiry, the gathering and interpreting of data, is time intensive and complex. When considering the causes that precipitated a dramatic event, the answer is often outside the realm of attributed factors. The book carefully analyses the dramatic rise in crime reported in the early 1990s and the predictions that the violence would increase dramatically in the decade. President Clinton spoke to the fears abounding from the increase in deaths by gunfire, carjackings, robbery, and rape. He stated, “We know we’ve got about six years to turn this juvenile crime thing around or our country is going to be living with chaos.” In a drastic turn of events, crime began to fall in 1995 and continued in thjacket_freakonomics_lge subsequent years. The teenage murder rate did not rise to the levels predicted, rather it fell more than fifty percent within five years. By 2000, the U.S. murder rate had dropped to the lowest levels in thirty-five years. Experts then theorized a number of logical reasons for the drop in crime: the booming economy. the proliferation of gun control laws, and innovative policing techniques. Levitt and Dubner’s analysis concluded that the real underlying cause was attributable to the legalization of abortion in 1973 and the related decrease of children born into poverty. 

Experts and Informational Advantage 

Freakonomics explores how specific individuals can capitalize on their informational advantage to serve their own goals. The authors examine the informational advantage held by a real estate agent, including the current condition of local housing markets. They can combine this superior knowledge to expedite a home sale which may be at a price less than what the seller could have obtained by a longer listing period. The real estate agent’s commission is structured in such a way that what may be a significant increase in profit for the sellers equates to negligible increase in the fees they receive for the sale of the home. Moreover, the real estate agent’s credibility is often linked to how fast a home is sold, i.e. days on the market. The authors cite evidence of real estate agents using their informational advantage to scare sellers into accepting a lower offer to achieve a deal which is in the agent’s best interest. 

Measuring the World

Freakonomics provides new insights by applying the scientific process to address economic and social issues. The authors formulated testable hypotheses and then gathered the relevant data, often from what was previously considered unconventional sources to test those hypotheses. Freakonomics provides concrete illustrations of how unconventional methods of data gathering and innovate means of interpreWorkingtoolsting said data provides new insights into how our world works. The book argues that knowing what to measure and how to measure it makes a complicated world easier to understand.

The Freakonomics of Freemasonry

Popular culture often relays a mistaken point of view of Freemasonry as being an elite organization, where individual members possess and yield undue power in our society. This is an example of the principle that conventional wisdom is often wrong and should be examined by the individual. Stereotypes about Freemasonry have been exacerbated and enforced by the media, i.e. attention to sensationalized books such as “The Lost Symbol” by Dan Brown.  In reality, Freemasonry is an educational and self-improvement system that requires hard work and dedication. Not unlike a school, members are taught how to behave as upright members of society and instructed on how to improve their lives through greater control of their bodies and minds. Many freemasons are very successful individuals who reap the benefits of education in the seven liberal arts and sciences, including grammar, logic, rhetoric, music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy.  Repetition is a recipe for success as the more time an individual takes to perfect his skills, related to writing, public speaking, debate, and logical reasoning, the greater the probability he will have in being successful in the business world and in society in general.