Should government food assistance programs have nutritional requirements?

Some of the foods you can purchase through WIC.

Probably.

There’s good reason to believe that adding nutritional requirements to government food programs is a better use of money and leads to better health outcomes for the people in said programs.

WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) is a state-run program that helps low-income women and children purchase healthy food. WIC has specific guidelines for the quantities and types of food recipients can purchase, all of which have to meet certain health standards. In this program there is no way to purchase soda, candy, pizza, baked sweets, ice cream, etc. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often referred to as “food stamps”) is a federally-funded program helping low-income people purchase almost any food.

The USDA explains that SNAP is for purchasing any food or food product for home consumption and that this definition includes “soft drinks, candy, cookies, snack crackers, and ice cream” and similar items. Data suggest these types of purchases make up at least 17% of SNAP spending . In 2017, about 42 million people used SNAP at an average of $125.79 per person per month, meaning the government spent about $11.3 billion that year buying junk food for low-income people. What are the arguments for spending so much on junk rather than using those funds to ensure low-income people have high quality food?

Opponents of SNAP nutritional requirements give many reasons for why nutritional requirements are not feasible or effective: we can’t come up with clear standards for what is “healthy,” it would be too complicated and costly to implement such standards, restrictions wouldn’t stop people from buying unhealthy food with their own money, and people in higher income brackets purchase similar amounts of unhealthy food.

Yet WIC has managed to define what constitutes healthy food and implement a program based on those boundaries. In fact the USDA describes WIC as “one of the nation’s most successful and cost-effective nutrition intervention programs.” There is evidence to suggest people participating in WIC (especially children) have better nutrition and health outcomes than their peers. Conversely, there is evidence to suggest people who receive SNAP benefits have worse nutrition than income-eligible people who don’t participate in SNAP. For example:

Changing WIC changes what children eat – May 2013

Comparing July to December in 2008 and 2011, increases were observed in breastfeeding initiation (72.2-77.5%); delaying introduction of solid foods until after 4 months of age (90.1-93.8%); daily fruit (87.0-91.6%), vegetable (78.1-80.8%), and whole grain consumption (59.0-64.4%) by children aged 1-4 years; and switches from whole milk to low-/nonfat milk by children aged 2-4 years (66.4-69.4%). In 1-year-old children, the proportion ≥95th percentile weight-for-recumbent length decreased from 15.1 to 14.2%; the proportion of children 2- to 4-year-old with body mass index (BMI) ≥95th percentile decreased from 14.6 to 14.2%.

Trends in Obesity Among Participants Aged 2–4 Years in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children – November 2016

The prevalence of obesity among young children from low-income families participating in WIC in U.S. states and territories was 14.5% in 2014. This estimate was higher than the national estimate (8.9%) among all U.S. children in a slightly different age group (2–5 years) based on data from the 2011–2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (7). Since 2010, statistically significant downward trends in obesity prevalence among WIC young children have been observed overall, in all five racial/ethnic groups, and in 34 of the 56 WIC state agencies, suggesting that prevention initiatives are making progress, potentially by impacting the estimated excess of calories eaten versus energy expended for this vulnerable group (8).

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – September 2015

Child SNAP recipients consume more sugary beverages, processed meats, and high-fat dairy products, but fewer nuts, seeds, and legumes than income-eligible nonparticipants. Similarly, adult SNAP recipients consume more fruit juice, potatoes, red meat, and sugary beverages, but fewer whole grains than income-eligible nonparticipants. In another study, SNAP participants had lower dietary quality scores overall, and consumed significantly fewer fruits, vegetables, seafood, and plant proteins, but significantly more added sugar than income-eligible nonparticipants.

The study specifically compares SNAP nutrition to WIC nutrition:

In one study comparing the grocery store purchases of SNAP and WIC households in New England, SNAP households purchased more than double the amount of sugary beverages per month (399 ounces) than WIC households (169 ounces), 72% of which were paid for with SNAP dollars. In a 3-month study, new SNAP participants significantly increased their consumption of refined grains compared with low-income people who did not join. In a study of Hispanic Texan women, SNAP participants consumed 26% more sugary beverages and 38% more sweets and desserts than low-income nonparticipants.

Furthermore, most of the people who use SNAP believe the program should not allow recipients to purchase unhealthy food:

54% of SNAP participants supported removing sugary drinks from SNAP eligibility. In another survey of 522 SNAP stakeholders, 78% of respondents agreed that soda, and 74% agreed that “foods of low nutritional value” such as candy and sugar-sweetened fruit drinks should not be eligible for purchase with benefits. Seventy-seven percent of respondents believed that SNAP benefits should be consistent with the DGAs [Dietary Guidelines for Americans], and 54% thought that SNAP should be reformulated into a defined food package similar to WIC.

I want to live in a society where people are healthy and no one goes hungry. SNAP can and should serve both goals.

Stuff I Say at School – Part VI: Economic Freedom & Corruption

The Assignment

Response to a group’s summary of Jakob Svensson’s “Eight Questions About Corruption.”

The Stuff I Said

The Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) Index, published in its annual Economic Freedom of the World reports, defines economic freedom based on five major areas: (1) size of the central government, (2) legal system and the security of property rights, (3) stability of the currency, (4) freedom to trade internationally, and (5) regulation of labour, credit, and business. According to its 2018 report (which looks at data from 2016), countries with more economic freedom have substantially higher per-capita incomes, greater economic growth, and lower rates of poverty. Drawing on the EFW Index, Georgetown political philosophers Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski point to a strong positive correlation between a country’s degree of economic freedom and its lack of public sector corruption.

Granted, a lack of corruption could very well give rise to market reforms and increased economic freedom instead of the other way around. However, recent research on China’s anti-corruption reforms suggests that markets may actually pave the way for anti-corruption reforms. Summarizing the implications of this research, Lin et al. explain,

Reducing corruption creates more value where market reforms are already more fully implemented. If officials, rather than markets, allocate resources, bribes can be essential to grease bureaucratic gears to get anything done. Thus, non-[state owned enterprises’] stocks actually decline in China’s least liberalised provinces – e.g. Tibet and Tsinghai – on news of reduced expected corruption. These very real costs of reducing corruption can stymie reforms, and may explain why anticorruption reforms often have little traction in low-income countries where markets also work poorly. China has shown the world something interesting: prior market reforms clear away the defensible part of opposition to anticorruption reforms.Once market forces are functioning, bribe-soliciting officials become a nuisance rather than tools for getting things done. Eliminating pests is more popular than taking tools away … A virtuous cycle ensues – persistent anticorruption efforts encourage market-oriented behaviour, which makes anticorruption reforms more effective, which further encourages market oriented behaviour.

Interesting enough, there is some evidence that suggests that more government hands in the pies increases corruption. For example, a 2017 study found that larger municipality councils in Sweden result in more corruption problems. A 2009 study found that more government tiers and more public employees lead to more bribery. Finally, a 2015 study showed that high levels of regulation are associated with higher levels of corruption (likely because of regulatory capture).

Do Most Americans Really Want What They Say They Want?

I hear a lot about how “most Americans” are in favor of “Policy XYZ.” The problem is that the social science shows that most Americans don’t know what they’re talking about. Do opinions change with more information or when costs are introduced? Two surveys from the Cato Institute seem to answer this in the affirmative.

The first is on federal paid leave. Seventy-four percent of the 1,700 Americans surveyed “a new federal government program to provide 12 weeks of paid leave to new parents or to people to deal with their own or a family member’s serious medical condition…Support slips and consensus fractures for a federal paid leave program, however, after costs are considered.” A 20 percentage point drop in support occurs when a $200 price tag is attached. Less than half are willing to pay $450 more in taxes for the program. When other potential costs are introduced (e.g., smaller future raises, reduction in other benefits, women less likely to be promoted, cut funding to other government programs), the majority of Americans find themselves opposing the program.

Less than half of men would be willing to pay even $200 more, while 55% of women would still be willing to pay $450 more. Support for the program drops across all political parties as costs are introduced, with 60% of Democrats still willing to fork over $1,200 a year to implement it (but only 22% of Republicans and 45% of Independents). “In sum,” writes Cato researcher Emily Ekins, “Democrats have a much higher tolerance threshold for taxes than the average American.”

Another survey looked at support for the Affordable Care Act’s pre-existing condition regulation. Out of the 2,498 Americans questioned, 65% support this aspect of the ACA. However, when costs are introduced, support drops. Furthermore, wealthier Americans are more willing to entertain trade-offs than lower-income ones.

Thomas Sowell has written, “There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs.” What “most Americans” want depends on whether or not trade-offs are kept in the dark.

The Economic Consequences of Tariffs

From a recent working paper:

We use impulse response functions from local projections on a panel of annual data spanning 151 countries over 1963-2014. The main analysis on aggregate data is complemented with industry-level data.

Our results suggest that tariff increases have an adverse impact on output and productivity; these effects are economically and statistically significant. They are magnified when tariffs are used during expansions, for advanced economies, and when tariffs go up. We also find that tariff increases lead to more unemployment and higher inequality, further adding to the deadweight losses of tariffs. Tariffs have only small effects on the trade balance though, in part because they induce offsetting exchange rate appreciations. Finally, protectionism also leads to a decline in consumption; this, together with our findings, suggests that tariffs are bad for welfare.

All this seems eminently sensible and bolsters the arguments that mainstream economists make against tariffs; our results can be regarded as strong empirical evidence for the benefits of liberal trade. And given the current global context, we take special note of the negative consequences when advanced economies increase tariffs during cyclical upturns (pg. 25-26).

Does Populism Reduce Economic Inequality?

The above comes from a recent study of The New Populism project. This reduction in economic inequality may lead some populist supporters to feel vindicated. However, the study continues by pointing out that “the fiscal policies of populists are less progressive than non-populists. This is what we might have expected; they are not reducing inequality as a result of government taxation or welfare structures.” The mechanism remains unknown, “maybe minimum wage policies, maybe moves towards formalization of the labour force, or limits on income generation of the very wealthy (or even possibly in the case of Venezuela, the very wealthy leaving, thereby reducing overall levels of market inequality). But they do reduce overall levels of market inequality” (pg. 5).

However, this isn’t the only effect of populists:

  • Populist leaders increase indirect (regressive) taxation.
  • Populism has no real impact on corruption, despite corruption often bringing populists to power.
  • “[P]opulist chief executives are more likely to infringe on the freedom and fairness of the electoral process than their non-populist counterparts” (pg. 14).
  • “[B]oth right and left populist chief executives seem more likely to embark on a mission to cut back on civil liberties” (pg. 15).
  • “We confirm a strong, negative effect of populism on press freedom. Not every decline can be attributed to populists, but almost every strong or moderate populist registers some decline” (pg. 17).
  • “Finally, populism in government is often associated with the centralization of power under the chief executive” and the erosion of executive constraints (pg. 18-19).


So giving power over to populist authoritarians who undermine democratic institutions and civil liberties is one successful avenue to economic equality. The others, according to historian Walter Scheidel, are “mass-mobilization warfare, violent and transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic epidemics. Hundreds of millions perished in their wake, and by the time these crises had passed, the gap between rich and poor had shrunk.”

What Was the Cost of Trump’s Trade War in 2018?

A new working paper confirms what economists have been saying about tariffs all along:

Economists have long argued that there are real income losses from import protection. Using the evidence to date from the 2018 trade war, we find empirical support for these arguments. We estimate the cumulative deadweight welfare cost (reduction in real income) from the U.S. tariffs to be around $6.9 billion during the first 11 months of 2018, with an additional cost of $12.3 billion to domestic consumers and importers in the form of tariff revenue transferred to the government. The deadweight welfare costs alone reached $1.4 billion per month by November of 2018. The trade war also caused dramatic adjustments in international supply chains, as approximately $165 billion dollars of trade ($136 billion of imports and $29 billion of exports) is lost or redirected in order to avoid the tariffs. We find that the U.S. tariffs were almost completely passed through into U.S. domestic prices, so that the entire incidence of the tariffs fell on domestic consumers and importers up to now, with no impact so far on the prices received by foreign exporters. We also find that U.S. producers responded to reduced import competition by raising their prices.

Our estimates, while concerning, omit other potentially large costs such as policy uncertainty as emphasized by Handley and Limão (2017) and Pierce and Schott (2016). While these effects of greater trade policy uncertainty are beyond the scope of this study, they are likely to be considerable, and may be reflected in the substantial falls in U.S. and Chinese equity markets around the time of some of the most important trade policy announcements (pg. 22-23).

What Drives Racial and Ethnic Inequality Today?

A brand new study offers some interesting insights into the question. Kay Hymowitz summarizes,

Using Census and ACS data, [John Iceland] shows that whites were the least likely of all groups to be poor throughout the decades studied (though, notably, their poverty rates inched up after 1980.) Although blacks and American Indians have become markedly less poor since 1959, they remain the groups with the highest— and fairly similar—odds of living in poverty. Hispanics never had poverty rates as high as those for American Indians and Blacks in the years studied, but their rates today, at 22.5%, are only marginally lower than those poorer groups (26.1 and 25%, respectively).

Iceland’s calculations also confirm that we are a much richer nation than we were in 1959. Affluence, defined as family income-to-poverty ratios five times the poverty threshold (or $120,180 as of 2015), has grown for all demographic categories, though at a faster pace for whites and Asians than others. (This “affluence” may strike New Yorkers and renters in other expensive cities as dubious, though the author checked his findings against alternative measures of poverty and affluence; they all showed the same basic trends.) 


Despite the massive declines in poverty, what are the main factors behind continuing inequality?

Taking the groups as a whole, he finds immigrant status to be the characteristic that best correlates with poverty, and education the trait most associated with affluence. However, the features most closely related to poverty and affluence differ among groups in fascinating ways. At a time of renewed concerns about racial inequality, the most striking story is for blacks. African Americans are more than three times as likely to be poor than whites without controls. With controls, the gap declines considerably—to 1.71.  Iceland estimates that female-headed households can now explain about one-third of the black-white poverty difference, age comes in second at 16%, and education at 15%; all-in-all, the three characteristics can explain two-thirds of the poverty gap between blacks and whites. 

Iceland’s findings on trends in minority poverty and affluence are consistent with a narrative of progress in racial relations. In 1959, family structure, education, and age explained less than half of the poverty and affluence gap between blacks and whites, for example; most of the divide was due to “unobservables” like discrimination, neighborhood, and social networks. Iceland confirms earlier research showing black and American Indian poverty plummeting in the 1960s; 57% of African-Americans and 60.3% of Indians started that decade poor. By the 1970s the number was 35.5% and 35.5%. Because the strong economy of the 1960’s lifted all ethnic and racial boats during the 1960s, black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, and white, however, the decade ended with inequality between the various groups more or less unchanged. In sum, between civil rights laws and economic growth, minority groups were able to make substantial economic progress in the 1960s, though not enough to catch up with whites.

But as discriminatory barriers fell, individual and family characteristics became more crucial for economic mobility. The author shows that “observables,” including family structure, age, and education, have considerably more explanatory power for poverty and affluence gaps today than they did in 1959, while unobservable factors, like discrimination, though still significant for blacks and American Indians, have nevertheless become less so.

What about other groups?

Education differences have the largest effect on the Hispanic and white poverty gap and that effect has grown over time; age and immigrant status play strong supporting roles. Education has been the prime mover for affluent Hispanics and American Indians; intact families, fewer children, and relocation to metropolitan areas also helped the latter group improve their outcomes.

Asians are the most educated of any group as well as the most stably married. These traits help explain the 35.8% of Asians who are affluent (vs. 32.9% of second-place whites) as well as why, though they have higher poverty rates than whites mostly due to immigration, they are still somewhat “protected” against poverty.

Some limitations and cautions:

It could be that family structure itself is partly a proxy for discrimination. If black men have trouble finding jobs because of prejudice, they are inevitably less “marriageable.” He notes as well that the data available has serious limitations. “Asian” was not a Census category until 1980; before that, people checked the Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, or Hawaiian box. It’s worth noting that Asian remains an awkward grouping, encompassing people of very different histories and cultures; in measuring affluence, Iceland shows, the Vietnamese don’t look at all like other Asians. “Hispanic” is similarly problematic. With controls, Cubans are as likely as whites to be affluent; that’s far from the case with other Hispanic subgroups.

Thoughts on Patriarchy Chicken

A friend of mine posted an article on Facebook about a fun commuting game: patriarchy chicken. The idea is that you (a woman, of course) go about your commute as you ordinarily would do with one exception: you stop giving way to men. Because, you see,

Men have been socialised, for their entire lives, to take up space. Men who would never express these thoughts out loud have nevertheless been brought up to believe that their right to occupy space takes precedent over anyone else’s right to be there. They spread their legs on tubes and trains, they bellow across coffee shops and guffaw in pubs, and they never, ever give way.

New Statesman

The more I thought about this claim, the less sense it made. The article is written from the perspective of a Londoner, and so right away you have to ask: what’s the extent of this space-hogging socialization? Is it everywhere? Just the West? Just the Anglosphere? I mean, if this is really a think, then let’s take this seriously, right? Where are the cross-national studies? (Really, if you have any, send them my way.) It’s just odd that these new terms–mansplaining, manspsreading, etc.–crop out and then become part of the accepted wisdom with basically no analysis at all. Poof! They’re part of our (socially-constructed) reality.

Here’s the thing, though, I was certainly not socialized “to take up space”. As a man (that gives me some insight into how men are socialized, right?), my socialization included at least a couple of points contrary to the “take up space” model.

  1. Never intimidate. Men are not only generally physically stronger, but we (as a sex) are also overwhelmingly responsible for basically all violent crime. Which means that, as a man, you can intimidate women without even realizing that you’re doing it. As a result men (me, for one) have to constantly monitor their physical proximity relative to other people to ensure that a woman never feels in any way threatened. And look, there’s no way to go into detail on this without sounding at least a little crazy, but what I’m about to describe are largely unconscious rules that a lot of men (like me) follow every day. We’ll use elevator etiquette as our basic example. If you find yourself riding alone in the elevator with a woman you don’t know or have just met (at a work conference, for example) you don’t stand too close, don’t stand between her and the door, and don’t stand between her and the buttons. You allow for brief eye contact and a casual smile / head nod initially to show that you’re socialized and non-threatening, but then you generally leave her alone. If possible, you select your floor first (especially if its a hotel elevator) because if you happen to be on the same floor you don’t want to give the impression that you’re following her. Also, if you do end up going to the same floor, you ensure adequate distance so that she has her own personal space. These rules aren’t hard and fast. They’re just part of the everyday, ongoing monitoring that many men do to ensure that they don’t accidentally come across as threatening to anyone around them.
  2. Always serve. This is trickier now than it used to be. If you go overboard trying to play-act like a 15th century knight you’re just going to annoy people and make them uncomfortable, which isn’t truly gentlemanly. The default rule is to be polite to everyone and that the tie always goes to a woman. In other words–as it applies to patriarchy chicken–you always give way to a woman.

That’s how I was socialized. It’s not that I’m just ignorant of the “take up space” socialization, I was raised–in many ways–in the opposite school. And look, I’m not alone here. Most of the men I call friends act the same way. We don’t have to talk about it. We know. Because we apply the rules not only to ourselves individually, but also to ourselves in a group. If one man can be intimidating on accident, a group of two or three men have to be even more careful to avoid making anyone else uncomfortable.

Again, we don’t talk about it. It’s just a basic social rule that all guys know. Like the rule that you never, ever use a urinal adjacent to someone who’s already peeing if there are other free spots available. Never in my life growing up was I told that. It’s just basic man-code. So is giving way to women. Interested in more stuff like this? Check out the Art of Manliness website.

Alright, so if I–and a lot of men like me–have been socialized not to get in a woman’s way or expect her to move for us, then what gives? Is Charlotte Riley (who wrote the New Statesman article) lying? Hallucinating? No, I’m sure she’s not.

Here’s the thing, if every man out there expected women to get out of their way, then patriarchy chicken wouldn’t have sporadic run-ins, it would have a never-ending chain reaction of collisions. All it really takes is a small percentage–say, 5% off the top of my head–of men who expect women to get out of their way to be really, really noticeable. And here’s the thing, such men exist. We call them jerks. (If we’re being polite.) And they probably don’t see themselves as men who expect women to defer to them spatially. They see themselves as important people who expect everyone else to get out of their way.

In my experience, there are basically zero social justice concerns that can’t be reformulated without the political lens and be just as valid. This is just another example of that. Instead of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about male socialization that strain credulity, why not go with the simpler approach: some people are jerks?

And, hey, look: if you want to play “jerk chicken” (which sounds delicious) instead of patriarchy chicken, great! Go for it. I’m not telling Riley–or anyone else–to do anything any differently. You be you. I just think it’s kind of sad that, left to their own devices, people seem so eager to adopt what are basically the social science version of conspiracy theories. It’s like choosing to live your life in as dark and depressing a light as possible. Yeah, you can go around thinking that all (most?) men secretly hate you and want to oppress you… but, in the absence of really strong data, why would you want to? It just seems sad.

That’s how most conspiracies work, though. They are fundamentally un-empowering. Nobody is empowered by the idea that aliens can swoop down in a UFO whenever they want, kidnap them, probe them, and then release them to a world that treats the story with derision. That’s not empowering! Nobody is empowered by the idea that we’re all just pawns of mysterious forces like the Illuminati. Conspiracy theories are basically an exercise in cashing in real control (agency over your actions and attitude and believes) for fake control (made-up explanations that remove the uncertainty and ambiguity of life). This trade-off doesn’t make a lot of sense when you put it on those terms, but that’s really what’s going on with conspiracy theories. People would rather be impotent in a world that makes sense than potent in a world that doesn’t.

The whole “Men have been socialised, for their entire lives, to take up space.” thing is not exactly the same, but it’s pretty close. Which makes it understandable, but still sad.

Management Still Matters

I’ve said it before: management matters. I even published a paper on it. Harvard’s Raffaella Sadun lays out the case once more:

What we found was quite consistent across sectors and countries, namely a large and significant correlation between management and organizational performance. Figure 1 (Source), for example, shows the relationship between management and a variety of metrics for firm performance—including productivity, profitability, growth, and survival—among US manufacturing plants.

The correlation between management and performance appears to be similar across countries and (to our surprise) even in “public” sectors such as health care and education. For example, well-run hospitals appear to have lower mortality rates from Acute Myocardial Infarction (AMI, i.e heart attacks), and well-run schools enjoy better test scores among their pupils.

In subsequent research, my colleague Nick Bloom and colleagues set up a management “experiment,” in which a random set of Indian manufacturing firms were provided with a “dose” of management consultancy and compared to a control group. Their experiment showed that the relationship between management and firm performance appears to be causal.

Other researches have argued that the role of management may extend well beyond the performance of individual firms, and extend to whole economies. For example, Pellegrino and Zingales argue that people management gaps among Italian firms may be responsible for the weak productivity performance experience by the country since the early 90s by delaying the adoption of complementary and productivity enhancing technologies. In a recent paper, Schivardi and Schmitz extend this argument to Southern Europe more generally.

She identifies four major mechanisms for why management practices are so diverse across different countries:

1. There seem to be large informational barriers. Those prevent managers from having a clear understanding of the quality of their own practices, as well as the potential benefit that modern management practices could accrue to their organization. For example, when we asked managers to self-evaluate the quality of their own practices on a scale between 1 and 10, most managers rated themselves an 8. Their own scores were typically uncorrelated with our arguably more objective management score. 

2. Management adoption is strongly related to the education of the workforce, which, in turn, is shaped by differences in skill supply. This is not surprising, given the fact that many “best-practices” require significant numeracy and literacy skills.

3. Even when well-informed and with plenty skills available, managers may not be motivated to invest in new management practices, as the adjustment may be costly to the firm or to them personally (for example, relying on management practices may require less of their direct and personalized control, references). Research has shown the presence of a correlation between competitive pressure and management quality, which is in line with the classic idea in economics that competition reduces organizational slack.

4. Introducing new management practices in a firm requires a substantial buy-in from the employees, as its adoption rests on significant co-investments (i.e. learning new behavioral routines) that are hard to monitor and incentivize through standard contracting solutions. However, organizational frictions may prevent such co-investments from happening. For example, Susan Helper and Rebecca Henderson attribute GM’s decline and inability to fully implement productivity-enhancing managerial practices such as lean management to a fundamental lack of trust between managers and employees (employees suspected that the productivity improvements generated by lean would result in layoffs rather than generalized gains). This latter category points to the importance of softer aspects of organizations, such as corporate culture and leadership behavior, which may be able to overcome this type of resistance to change.

She concludes,

While much remains to be done, the evidence so far suggest that variations in this key factor of production may have large implications for performance, at both the firm and country level. Understanding why management quality varies across organizations will help us advance the field and develop better policies for improving management and productivity.

Stuff I Say at School – Part V: Tocqueville and Social Capital

This is part of the Stuff I Say at School series.

The Assignment

Alexis de Tocqueville argues that the active involvement of American citizens in civil society distinguishes America from Europe and helps to prevent American government from becoming over centralized.  In fact, civil society not only prevents Big Government from taking over, but enlarges each citizen’s life, helping them overcome the natural tendency of democratic citizens to isolate from each other.  Contemporary social observers, like Robert Putnam and Marc Dunkelman, have seen trends of disengagement from civil society in their recent studies (and more engagement in virtual communities via technology).   Discuss the significance of civil society from Tocqueville’s perspective and whether these recent trends of disengagement should be viewed as a cause of some alarm.

The Stuff I Said

Tocqueville’s view of civil society is very organic; a kind of pre-state network guided by cultural norms and both individual  and communal pursuits. The bottom-up, arguably emergent nature of Tocqueville’s perception is likely why many classical liberal writers quote him so favorably. The ability of private individuals to organize to advance societal goals rather than relying on the coercion of the state appears to be deeply encouraged by Tocqueville. This makes public engagement a necessity to avoid “despotism.” This makes the decline in social capital potentially problematic. 

However, there are a few points worth noting about the claims of social capital decline and the march toward despotism:

First and foremost, government has grown significantly since the mid 1800s. Democracy in America was written 20-30 years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. My own state of Texas had not even been annexed yet. For all we know, Tocqueville might think we’ve been in the era of Big Government for over a century.

Next, economists Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn find that declines in social capital (i.e., volunteering and organization membership, entertainment of friends and relatives at home) between 1952 and 1998 were largely among women due to their increased participation in the labor force. Other contributors were income inequality and increasing ethnic heterogeneity. While income inequality can be a problem (it tends to erode trust), increasing diversity and female labor participation are, in my view, not negative developments.

Parents also appear to be spending more time with their children. For example, a 2016 study of 11 Western countries found that “the mean time the average mother in the 11 countries spent daily on child care in 1965 was calculated to be about 54 minutes, it increased to a predicted 104 minutes by 2012. For fathers, the estimates increased from a scant 16 minutes daily in 1965 to 59 minutes in 2012” (pg. 1090). Engaged parenting results in better child outcomes. So while parents may not be entertaining friends or bowling with buddies as much, they are giving their kids more attention. Considering Tocqueville’s focus on family, I think he would find this a plus (especially in the midst of the family fragmentation that has occurred over the last few decades).

But even with these declines, a majority of Americans still participate in various organizations. Drawing on the 2007 Baylor National Religious Survey, sociologist Rodney Stark finds that while 41% of Americans have no membership in non-church organizations, 48% had 1-3 memberships and 11% had 4-5 memberships. “About six Americans out of ten belong to at least one voluntary organization. Add in church organizations and the number rises to more than seven out of ten, and the median becomes two memberships” (pg. 122-123).

Finally, the labor market was dominated by agriculture (76.2% in 1800; 53.6% in 1850) during the period that Tocqueville wrote. By the turn of the 20th century, however, most of the labor force could be found in manufacturing (35.8%) and service sectors (23.6%). By the 21st century, service had come to dominate the labor market (73% in 1999). While social capital in the form of organizational participation may have declined over the last half century, the kind of work we do has changed drastically. This includes our workplace experience. We actually have co-workers that we spend hours each day cooperating with and customers that we are obligated to respect day in and day out. The relationships (and social capital) we establish through the workplace are very different from 19th-century farms or even industrial-era factories. The late Peter Drucker believed that today’s business institutions “are increasingly the means through which individual human beings find their livelihood, find their access to social status, to community and to individual achievement and satisfaction” (pg. 16). I don’t think we should underestimate the long-run impact of commerce on social capital. Numerous studies find that markets foster socially-desirable traits like trust, cooperation, and tolerance.

In short, I think Tocqueville might find some of our over-reliance on government distasteful, but overall would be impressed with how incredibly adaptive the American people have been over the course of nearly two centuries of rapid change and development. This latter point would confirm many of the observations he made about the underlying mores of American civil society.