Sunday, February 14, 2010

Social capital inside the beltway

The Atlantic provides a brief meditation on the fact that lots of folks in Georgetown (one of the older and more expensive parts of DC) do not bother to shovel the snow on their sidewalks, despite a law requiring them to do so and despite the costs this imposes on pedestrians, most of whom are presumably their neighbors.

The author of the Atlantic piece reaches a different implicit conclusion about the cause of this behavior than I do, as she emphasizes car ownership and high incomes.

In contrast, my sense is that the behavior she complains of is merely a special case of the general observation that DC does not have a lot of what sociologists call social capital. If you drive in DC, you will observe that the locals pass up pretty much every opportunity to improve the lives of other drivers, or of pedestrians, even when the cost to them would be quite low.

Why might this be, in the city famously said to combine northern charm and southern efficiency? One good candidate is high population turnover. Relative to other cities, a lot of people live in the DC area only for a short time. High house prices and bad schools also encourage a lifecycle pattern of coming to DC single, horny and full of idealism in one's 20s and then leaving for somewhere with lower house prices and better schools in one's 30s with a spouse, some kids, and a lot less idealism. Others come for a few years to serve in government.

I think an explanation based on low social capital resulting from high population turnover fits the data better, where data here means casual observations by me and by the author of the magazine article, but someone should collect some real data and do a serious study.

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