Social Capital and Katrina

Low social capital in Louisiana in general and New Orleans in particular had a lot to do with the poor preparation, poor planning, poor response, poor law-enforcement and overall poor performance in response to Katrina. It is not so much “America’s shame”, as the Europeans so gloatingly claim as it is Louisiana’s historical baggage. However bad FEMA may have performed, the local first-responders performance was rotten, and the Feds did not even have local channels of authority to support and work with. Peter St. Andre had a good post on the Anglosphere blog, linking to an excellent piece entitled Social Capital: De Tocqueville, Putnam, and the Future of New Orleans by Stowe Boyd — a person I had not previously heard of, but whom I will pay attention to in the future. He has a lengthy quote from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, which add more detail to the extreme, pathological lack of social capital in Louisiana, which Michael Barone referred to here, and which I discussed here.

Stowe Boyd offers this un-PC thought:

Just as any sensible military commander knows that morale is just as important as weaponry, our leaders need to move beyond a superficial and potentially catastrophic attitude about social capital. People in different parts of the country may respond radically differently to similar sorts of emergencies, based on social trust, affiliation, and other factors. And I am explicitly not singling out the poor or Blacks; the region as a whole is the question.

As we turn our thoughts to rebuilding the fallen buildings, removing the debris, and burying our dead, it will be insufficient to only look to the physical infrastructure necessary to make a city alive. We have a much larger and potentially longer-term project ahead of us: to increase social capital in a region that has been starved for centuries.

I suspect that no one in political authority will have the courage to refer to the existence of these factors. Even though Mr. Boyd’s disclaims that he is not singling out the poor and Blacks, any attempt to refer to a deficiency of social capital would be decried as “blaming the victim”. The question of how you go about “increasing social capital” is an interesting and important one, and I haven’t read Putnam, so I don’t know what he has to say about it. I suspect that the Government cannot do much to increase social capital. People need to do it themselves, but if they lack social capital they won’t do it, and that is a chicken-and-the-egg problem. No one ever said centuries-old patterns can be changed easily, if at all.

Update: Note also this very thoughtful post by Mr. Boyd about decentralized responses to disaster, which is very consistent with the Aaron Wildavsky quote in my previous post. He calls for a “stupid network” that will be disaster-proof. Worth reading.

17 thoughts on “Social Capital and Katrina”

  1. For some time I’ve been wondering how much of the performance was due the the French heritage of Louisiana. Partially because I just like to bash the French, but also because their way of governing is very centralized. This could explain what seems to be a complete disconnect between what the Feds expected to happen at the local level (e.g. do something and don’t surrender) and what the locals expected the Feds to do (which apparently was everything). Food for thought.

  2. Louisiana has got multiple whammies for low social capital.

    (1) The states social, political and legal model descends from France instead of the Anglosphere. French is a low trust culture which leads to centralization, bureaucratization and cronyism.

    (2) A Deep South culture which arose out of the worst of the plantation economy based on slavery. A plantation economy creates a highly stratified class structure with a few rich and powerful families running everything and the success of everyone else dependent on currying favor with that narrow elite. The conditions of slavery were worse in Louisiana than anywhere else in America. (In Louisiana sugar cane, not cotton, was king and slaves were often worked to death. The phrase, “sold down the river” meaning to be betrayed, comes from the sense of betrayal that slaves had when their inland owners sold them Louisiana sugar cane plantations. ) Social stratification by race and class were worse in Louisiana than anywhere else in the south.

    (3) Louisiana has one of the lowest rates of immigration either internally or abroad. This lack of fresh blood lets the traditional dysfunction continue unchallenged.

    (4) Little industry or capitalism. What industry Louisiana does have is largely based around resource extraction of petroleum, fisheries or timber or shipping. All of these industries are in decline. The capital for almost all of this came from out of state and the states own capital systems are based more around parasitizing the flow of external capital than in building their own. Banking laws are archaic. The pragmatic, merit driven culture of vibrant capitalism is largely absent. The state has banked it future on becoming a soggy Las Vegas.

    In short, Louisiana’s cultural, political and economic systems are massively archaic and poorly adapted to the modern world. It will take a massive effort of will by the people of the state to break out of the old patterns.

  3. Boyd’s article is facinating. What is remarkable about the analysis of social capital is the disparity between north and south. It would seem that climate has an influence on social capital. Social capital has to be tested in order to increase its value. The most obvious tests are natual disasters.

    A friend of mine from the Czech Republic asked why there are so many poor people in the south. I told her it’s easier to be poor in the south. It’s easier to let people be poor in the south. They’re not going to be too uncomfortable. Hurricanes and floods not withstanding, the weather really doesn’t challenge social capital like several blizzards a year in North Dakota.

  4. Putnam created a map indicating each state’s level of social capital (scroll down to Figure 6):

    If you compare that with the map in “Albion’s Seed” titled “Speech Regions in the United States” (p. 833), it’s easy to conclude that Puritan and Quaker folkways increase social capital while “backcountry” and lowland Southern folkways deplete it.

    I agree it’s virtually impossible to legislate social capital into existence, but one possible method is to bring Puritans and New Ulstermen (I’ll use Jim Bennett’s excellent term for backcountrymen) together. In his most recent book, “Black Rednecks and White Liberals”, Thomas Sowell points out that “segregated black schools often succeeded by suppressing redneckism with civilized New England puritanism”. (I’m citing the Publisher’s Weekly review, available on Amazon.) They did this by importing teachers from New England, who imparted Puritan ways to their students.

    Sowell cites heavily to “Albion’s Seed” in his first chapter. He makes the point that many blacks confuse backcountry culture with “authentic black culture” and accordingly cling to self-destructive patterns of behavior, which anyone can change with effort and discipline.

    There’s a lot of money, however, in perpetuating the myth that “authentic black culture” is what Sowell calls “redneck” behavior and others call “gangsterism”, etc. From experience, I know blacks are certainly the equal of whites in intelligence, and probably more socially conservative on the whole. But if you’re 12, and you’re immersed in media glorifying gangsta rappers and thugs, and you don’t have any alternative role models, and your peer group is emulating what they see on TV and hear on the radio, it’s hard to break out of the redneck culture and adopt Puritan or Quaker folkways. After all, gangsterism is defined as the “real” black culture, and you’re a traitor if you don’t adopt it.

    So, in order to make any real progress, we have to offer attractive alternatives to little kids in the Ninth Ward who are surrounded by Tupac posters and bombarded with misogynistic songs glorifying violence, crime, and an early death.

    I know this post is about the South as a whole, not about black folkways. (Mr. Fischer, if you’re listening, please hurry up with Volume 2!) I apologize if I’ve veered off topic. But I thought the link between Putnam, Fischer, and Sowell might be of interest.

  5. Shannon…interesting analysis. But is France really a “low trust” culture? My impression is that there is relatively little corruption in France, although there *is* considerable centralization.

  6. David Foster,

    Since I had precisely the opposite impression re: France and “corruption” I went about trying to find some web accessable material on the topic. Unfortunately most of what there is (in an admittedly cursory search) is dated (aged out links to generally reputable sources) or requires subscription/membership or is to specific corruption cases rather than the larger question of whether the French system, or culture, has some atypical level of corruption. (I personally don’t view the US as a “corrupt” nation but can easily find many cases of individual corruption allegations, trials, etc.)

    Examples of the things I expected to find (probably since my impression comes from reading such things somewhere along the way), are here and here.

    The links are aged out so these are not particularly useful but they provide some idea of how someone might have an alternate view of France wrt corruption. Consider also (easily googled for oneself) the “French and Candian Connection” for UNSCAM.


    Interesting article. I am only vaguely familiar with the concepts of social capital. I could be mistaken but I view this site as a “libertarian” one or, at least, sympathetic to libertarian principles.

    Where I am taking this is not meant as an attack on libertarianism or the concepts of social capital. The links you provided mention some of the residue of social pathenogens such as slavery and slavery and bigotry.

    Having experienced the deep south, particularly the lowland backwoods and some of the bayou country I can tell you that when I first began to encounter libertarian ideas I immediately thought about the people of the deep south – they have very strong “libertarian” tendencies.

    I am not suggesting in any way that libertarianism is kin to the social pathenogens mentioned in the articles you linked to. I would, however, be interested in any thoughts you have or pointers to any work you are aware of that examines libertarianism wrt social capital and “social connectedness”.

  7. Engineer-Poet,

    I doubt gangsterism could be removed from radio and TV by fiat, and most of us First Amendment fans would oppose that even if it were possible. But I think it could become increasingly unpopular, if there were a critical mass of people in the target demographic who rejected it. These are conflicting memes, really, and they have to do battle in the marketplace of ideas. Blasting 50 Cent promotes a vision of black people as thugs. Reading James Weldon Johnson’s “Along This Way” promotes a vision of black people as intelligent, decent, and capable of amazing things… just like every other ethnic group. I think Johnson’s vision is the correct one, but my marketing budget is much smaller than the Universal Music Group’s. And let’s face it, movies, TV, and other forms of drama require conflict to be exciting, so the bad guys get the most air time. This is going to be a difficult problem to solve.


    I highly recommend you check out “Albion’s Seed” by David Hackett Fischer. Leonard Wilson’s Amazon review summarizes Fischer’s analysis of American concepts of liberty as follows:

    “The Puritan concept of liberty, “ordered liberty” in Fischer’s terminology, focused on the “freedom” to conform to the policies of the Puritan Church and local government. The Virginia concept of liberty, “hegemonic liberty”, was hierarchical in nature, ranging from the great freedom of those in positions of power and wealth down to the total lack of freedom accorded to slaves. The Quaker concept of liberty, “reciprocal liberty”, focused on the aspects of freedom that were held equally by all people as opposed to the unequal and asymmetric freedoms of the Puritans and Virginians. Finally, the Scotch-Irish concept of liberty, “natural liberty”, focused on the natural rights of the individual and his freedom from government coercion.”

    You may be talking about the Scotch-Irish concept of “natural liberty” when you mention deep south libertarianism.


    You might like this series on decentralized responses to disaster — this installment discusses some of the telecommunications issues any of us might face in an emergency:

  8. David Foster,

    But is France really a “low trust” culture?”

    Its all relative but compared to the Anglosphere and northern Europe they definitely are. France is culturally more like Italy or Spain than England or Holland.

    Bureacratism is often a successful response to a low trust culture. People don’t trust each other so they insist on rigid rules to govern their relations. They may suppress corruption at the expense of sacrificing flexibility.

  9. “I doubt gangsterism could be removed from radio and TV by fiat, and most of us First Amendment fans would oppose that even if it were possible.”

    Start pointing out that the rap music glorifying violence and sex is a modern day minstrel show and no longer the authentic expression of the people oppressed at the bottom. It’s just black people debasing themselves by playing into the worst racist stereotypes for the entertainment of white people.

  10. Phil Fraering,

    “where does Texas fit in on all of these alleged social connectedness maps”

    Due to its size and historic economic (relative) economic diversity, Texas is something of a mixed bag. The northeastern coastal region, roughly northeast up from a hundred miles south of Houston is very much like Louisiana and for the same reasons. Beaumont and Port Arthur could easily be Louisiana towns. Social trust is low.

    Central Texas around and south of Austin was settled largely by German pacifist early in the state’s history. Social trust is extremely high. West and North Texas were largely settled by people from Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and Illinois and has moderate to high social trust. (The open spaces, low population density and dangerous environment of West Texas also make people more reliant and trusting in my opinion). The southern border areas are a mix but are increasingly evolving into a low-trust Hispanic model which is very close to the Louisiana one.

  11. You can check out Transparency International’s perceived corruption index at France scores slightly behind the US, and behind pretty much the entire Anglosphere and the Nordic countries. One can debate the flaws of the index since it is difficult to measure corruption, and this study only measures perceptions, but I think it is good as a general guide.

  12. If SW Louisiana and SE Texas is basically just like the rest of Louisiana (i.e. New Orleans) why didn’t they have a breakdown from Rita the same way New Orleans did from Katrina?

    Rita went straight through that area right up the Sabine…

  13. Maybe, just maybe, the reason why Texas was NOT as badly affected by hurricane Rita was because Louisiana set the example of what NOT to do. And, also, Rita was not as strong as Katrina. That helped.
    Why did the Federal government drop the ball after Katrina? Well………..1.) Was it really their responsibility? If so, then why bother having a state government? And 2.) the Feds were more concern about terrorist attacks on the east and west coasts (where the people really matter) than about natural disasters on the south coast (where the people don’t matter [the federal governement and the rest of the citizens of our great country have yet to get over southern treason of the Civil War]).

  14. I do think it’s safe to say that, in general, individual’s in urban areas are more often “takers and dependents” of the state when compared to individuals in non-urban areas.

    Mike, re. “Southern treason”….exactly what law prohibited cession of a state? The US constitution would not have been ratified had it contain articles requiring perpetual union….it was a stubling block to ratification and was not included.

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