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.