Social Capital and the Obama Administration

In the late 1990s, while he was a member of the Illinois Senate, Barack Obama was also a member of the Saguaro Seminar — a brainstorming group organized by Robert Putnam on how to remedy the decline in social capital in the United States.

Social capital refers to the collective value of social networks: when people are embedded in networks and can draw upon the norms of cooperation and reciprocity the networks embody there are a variety of measurable benefits both to them and to the community as a whole. These benefits can include more effective government, faster economic growth, improved health, and increased happiness.

Putnam’s article and then book entitled Bowling Alone traced the decline of social capital during the past several decades and the effects of this decline. The Saguaro Seminar brought together a diverse group of individuals to think about what could be done to counteract this trend.

(Disclosure: I worked for Bob Putnam for several years and I was rapporteur to the Saguaro Seminar.)

Among the proposals of the Saguaro Seminar is for government, when it considers new policies, to conduct a Social Capital Impact Assessment. In essence, policymakers, in considering the benefits and downsides of any program, would be required to take account of the social capital impact. Ideally, government would then adopt an approach that helped to preserve or generate social capital. (To give a simple example: in choosing between two possible locations for a shopping mall, government would select the location that did not displace or disrupt an existing community.)

Over the years, Presidents have required executive personnel to measure and take account of the impact of regulatory choices on designated variables. President Reagan, for example, issued an Executive Order requiring executive personnel to examine the impact of federal programs on federalism and, where possible, to minimize the erosion of state authority. Congress can also require impact statements: one obvious example is Section 102 of the 1970 National Environmental Protection Act which required federal officials to prepare and distribute a detailed impact environmental impact statement for any federal policy or project significantly affecting the quality of the environment.

With a member of the Saguaro Seminar now in the White House, and there in large measure as a result of increased civic engagement, there is a reasonable chance that federal agencies will be required in the near future to take account of the impact of regulatory programs on levels of social capital.

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3 Responses

  1. Miguel says:

    The lack of trust between Republicans and Democrats has reached the point where effective measures to the economic downturn are proving difficult to enact (witness the lack of Republican support for the stimulus bill and the near meltdown in CA). The question I have is that there might be a real tension between Obama’s long-term goals of building trust and the need to respond quickly to the economic emergency. How can he reach out to Republicans when they oppose any expansion of government?

  2. Jason Mazzone says:

    Good point. When I wrote the post, I didn’t have in mind trust between political parties (or among members of government) but rather the role of social networks and trust within the general population. Cooperation within government surely makes governing more effective and, as a result, gives people confidence in the government; confidence in the government, in turn, makes it easier to govern, and, as a result, makes government more effective.