The Book Club

Men in Uniforms

Dear Bob,

So, 750 Kalamazooians and surveys about moral decline can’t be mistaken? Or at least not any more mistaken than polls that show that people think the country is on the right track, or that they’re optimistic about the future? What about the upwards of 90 percent of Americans who consider themselves “middle-class”? And the large numbers that believe in “creation science”? Polls and surveys are curious things and should be taken with a hypertension-inducing dose of salt. Let me apologize in advance for lingering over the less-interesting question of whether your basic premise is descriptive of actual reality. In any case, judging from the crowds you’re drawing on your book tour, it sounds like you’re getting plenty of time to kick around your proposals for renewing civic America.

If, in fact, social and moral values and community have generally declined, then why has crime fallen over the past decade (even when accounting for changes in the youth population), why has the divorce rate stabilized since the ‘80s, and why has, by your own measure, volunteering increased? Shouldn’t your theory predict the exact opposite? I keep “repeating” that we’ve experienced a massive, generalized increase in wealth not because I think owning houses and cars are the sine qua non of the good life (though the significant pleasure they bring is a reason why 67 percent and 90 percent of American households own each, respectively) but because such advances complicate your thesis. “Just as areas high in social capital are good at maintaining livable spaces, they are also good at getting ahead,” you write. “A growing body of research suggests that where trust and social networks flourish, individuals, firms neighborhoods, and even nations prosper.” Maybe the fact that most people are far better off now in absolute terms than they were 30 years–and you agree they are–is a sign that meaningful bonds are still being forged and maintained, whether people acknowledge them as such.

As for “evidence … that Bowling Alone is mistaken about the declines in the dozens of other forms of community involvement … let’s hear it.” Well, Bob, I presented some of that evidence yesterday–figures on parental involvement in education, including increases in attendance at school-board meetings and school events, not to mention boosts in volunteering. Here’s some more, from Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time (Penn State Press, 1997), by John P. Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey. Now, I know you’re familiar with their work, since you wrote the book’s preface; our readers should know that the researchers used detailed-time diaries from the ongoing American’s Use of Time project to map out how people while away the hours. One of the points you make in your introduction rebuts your contention in our debate that “virtually all the evidence shows a steady decline in the amount of time that parents spend with their kids.” As you summarize Time for Life’s findings in your intro, “Neglected children? The evidence here suggests that the amount of time parents spend per child has remained essentially constant over these decades [the ‘60s through the ‘80s]. The widely discussed reduction in aggregate time spent in child care appears to be almost entirely attributable to declines in the proportion of children in the population.”

There’s other good news in Time for Life, too: “The commute to work [detailed in the time diaries] has remained virtually identical across time,” they write, noting that such a finding is “consistent with Census Bureau data.” Overall, they find we’ve gained about five hours of “free time” a week since the ‘60s (though like you, they resent how much of that gain goes to TV). The authors are not Pollyannas. Between 1965 and 1985 (the period for which they have complete data), they do in fact find declines in certain aspects of “social capital”: Socializing declined by 1.5 hours, participation in official non-religious organizations by 0.1 hours, and sports/cultural events by 0.3 hours. However, on balance, they found overall increases in “communication” (0.8 hours), sports/exercise (1.2 hours), hobbies (0.6 hours), and adult education (0.4 hours). “And across an era when many observers have doubted America’s commitment to moral and family values,” they note, “attendance at religious services (and organizations) has remained fairly constant.” This may not be your optimal community, but clearly it draws a far different picture than you do in Bowling Alone. Maybe not Norman Rockwell, but certainly not your American Gothic, either.

But let me return to your response about parental involvement in education, as I think it gets to the deeper issue dividing us. In your previous entry, you shifted the debate from whether Americans are more involved in their kids’ education–which they are–to how many official parent groups–whether PTA or PTO–there are. You like regimented groups, often with uniforms–bowling with buddies is not as good as bowling in leagues; going camping with friends is not as good as joining the Boy Scouts (as a–gasp!--former Eagle Scout, I can say on my honor that the BSA is, on balance, a disturbingly retrograde outfit for all sorts of reasons and I only wish it were truly in decline. Click here for my NPR report on the recent Boy Scout court rulings [requires RealPlayer software]).

Certainly those regimented groups are done for–since the ‘60s, American culture has gotten a whole lot looser and more informal. Basically, because we’re richer and smarter, we feel more empowered to live our lives the way we want to. We’ve recognized that much–if not all–of what the ruling classes and elite institutions have told us is just plain self-serving bullshit (this awareness, Bob, is especially true among those of us outside such institutions). As I suggested yesterday, we’re more antinomian now, all of us, from the lowest to the highest, and we’re more likely to tell each other to go fuck off. Effectively, the all-important right of exit from a given situation has been introduced en masse, instead of existing only for the wealthy and well-connected. (I’ve discussed the theme at length as it relates to cultural production, where it is often mistaken for a decline in standards, rather than recognized as a liberating multiplication of them. Click here for my full argument.) One reading of this is essentially the one you offer: This is the end of civic life, of community, of common purpose. My reading goes the other way: This is the beginning of true community, where all people actually get more of a say in how they live their lives and on what terms. Religious groups, for instance, still command much of our time, but the relationship is substantially different.

Introducing a right of exit–the ability to go elsewhere–makes community more responsive to its members. Just look at all the permutations in school choice and the increased levels of participation and satisfaction they bring over the traditional no-opt-out model. By the same token, it becomes very difficult for any one person or group or elite to enforce a single standard of “community.” Social capital, like economic capital, has become deregulated and is more dispersed throughout society. That hasn’t immiserated us any more than widely available credit has. As in the economic realm, such deregulation has made us socially richer, more tolerant, and more open than we were–you never did answer the question, “Who among us would rather be living in 1960 … than today,” did you?–and it will help make us richer still in the future, too.