Tuesday, January 10, 2017

10/1/17: Losing Trust and Social Capital: U.S. and Europe


The U.S. National Intelligence Council January 9, 2017 report on future global trends titled “Paradox of Progress” cites income inequality as one of the reasons for emergence of anti-free-trade sentiments in the West (see page 12 here: https://www.dni.gov/files/images/globalTrends/documents/GT-Full-Report.pdf) and links income inequality to declining public trust in U.S. institutions (page 32, above).

These risk assessments are supported by recent research from the IMF.

A recent IMF research paper by Gould, Eric D. and Hijzen, Alexander, titled “Growing Apart, Losing Trust? The Impact of Inequality on Social Capital” (from August 2016, IMF Working Paper No. 16/176: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2882614) observes that “There has been a sharp decline in the extent to which individuals trust one another, and other social capital indicators, over the past forty years in the United States”



So, observe the first fact: trust and social capital have declined in the U.S. over time.

Next, the IMF paper notes that “income inequality has tended to increase” in the U.S. over the same period of time. The paper then goes on to examine “whether the downward trend in social capital is responding to the increasing gaps in income.” The authors use U.S. data to test this possible relationship and contrasts the dynamics against the data from the EU. Beyond this, the analysis also “exploits variation across [U.S.] states and over time (1980-2010), while our analysis of the [european data] utilizes variation across European countries and over time (2002-2012).”

Per authors, “The results provide robust evidence that overall inequality lowers an individual's sense of trust in others in the United States as well as in other advanced economies. These effects mainly stem from residual inequality, which may be more closely associated with the notion of fairness, as well as inequality in the bottom of the [income] distribution.”

Some more on the findings:

  1. “The results suggest that inequality at the bottom of the distribution lowers an individual’s sense of trust in others – in the United States and in Europe,” and per IMF, the relationship is causal: greater inequality at the bottom of income distribution causes loss of trust.
  2. “For the United States, it appears that inequality at the bottom of the distribution is the main component of inequality that reduces trust, and this phenomenon is mainly confined to those that are negatively impacted by that component of inequality – individuals who are less educated and those at the lower third of the income distribution.” Were these ‘negatively impacted’ not at least a subset of the voters that Hillary Clinton described as ‘deplorables’?
  3. “The trust levels of Europeans are also negatively affected by increasing inequality levels. However, in contrast to the United States, the impact of inequality on trust in Europe is more general. Inequality at the top and bottom of the distribution seem to have a negative impact, and the negative effect is shared across education groups.” Again, any wonder that Europe nowadays has emerging Left and Right wing populist political movements, that are more sustained over time than either Bernie Sanders’ and Donald Trump’s campaigns in the U.S.?
  4. 4) Interestingly, in the context of ‘1%-er’ arguments: “For both the United States and Europe, the results do not provide any support for the idea that increases in inequality at the very top of the distribution, such as the top 1 percent or top 5 percent shares, have led to a decline in overall trust levels. The significant negative effect of inequality on trust is apparently not driven by inequalities at these extreme ends of the distribution.”


So, perhaps it is the structure of the U.S. and European institutions and the ways in which these institutions function on the ground that are causing the deterioration of trust and social capital? And, perhaps, looking at broader income and jobs outcomes, rather than focusing on '1%' arguments, can be a more productive approach to starting reshaping U.S. and European systems to address the ongoing loss of public trust and social capital?

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