The Real Source of 'Social Capital'
How many people care about you?
Dear Reader (including those of you who might have a thing or two to teach me about braiding chin whiskers),
So the economy is cratering, the White House seems precariously close to simply pretending the pandemic is over, big chunks of the populist right have decided that the new frontline of liberty is refusing to wear face masks and requiring that everyone genuflect at the altar of Michael Flynn. Meanwhile, big chunks of the left are untroubled by the antics of an FBI that managed to turn an admitted foreign agent (of the Turks, not the Russians) into a martyr.
We can get to some of that in a minute (feel free to scroll ahead if what follows is not your bag), but I’m starting with something I want to write about: zoological false advertising.
It all started with a poorly written tweet from our friend Scott Lincicome. Scott is many things, particularly if you include what his critics say about him (globalist neoliberal shill, deep state RINO, freedom-fetishizing cuck, etc.). He is a husband, father, lawyer, scholar, and a defender of (what he claims to be) the traditional nacho as well as the global trading system—usually in that order. Love him or hate him, one thing he’s not is a very good Twitter poll writer. This morning he tweeted:
Now, as I told him almost immediately, pandas were a lock to win the thing. A plain reading of the question simply demands it. Pandas have the best PR team in the world. They’re the posterbear of the World Wildlife Fund, the centerpiece of the Kung Fu Panda franchise, the symbol of mall Chinese food, and the star attraction at virtually every major zoo in the world, in part because the Chinese government is one giant national cartel designed to manage panda scarcity. The other OPEC (Organization of Panda Exporting Communists) does not give or even sell pandas; it, in effect, leases them to other countries—and those leases come with a lot of riders.
Now, you might say they don’t have good PR precisely because they don’t really need it. They’re really just great clients. If you’re the hack who’s hired to defend the murder hornet or gaboon viper, you’ve got your work cut out for you. “Let’s get a photoshoot of GV working at a soup kitchen!” “How much would Kim Kardashian charge to name her next baby Gaboon Viper West?” But when your client is, as my wife (an internationally recognized bear-skeptic) puts it, “too cute to live,” it’s like pushing on an open door.
That said, there are some misconceptions about the creatures. They don’t crap Triscuits. Their bellies don’t smell like corn chips. They aren’t filled with marzipan, and they aren’t formidable martial artists. But these aren’t really first-order PR problems.
In fact, they don’t have first-order PR problems. Pandas aren’t caught knee-deep in cocaine at a porn star’s condo. The Washington Post set out to debunk some of the more widespread myths about Ailuropoda melanoleuca (Latin for “Soft pillow bear”). Their big exposé revealed that they’re not as friendly as you might think. The evidence for this? One panda bit one zookeeper … 36 years ago. Given this record of criminality, a reasonable person might ask what the zookeeper did to deserve getting bit by a panda. I mean, if you told me that Betty White stabbed someone in the neck with a ballpoint pen three decades ago, I’d want to hear the full story, because my gut instinct is that someone needed a Bic injection.
Another myth? They’re not great lovers. The Post was on firmer ground here. Getting pandas to mate in captivity requires a lot of boxed wine and Johnny Mathis records. But it turns out that in the wild, pandas are lit, getting it on like guests at one of Jimmy Caan’s 1970s pool parties. From the Post:
In the wild, aggregations of male pandas form along ridge tops in the spring, and a stream of visiting females in heat keeps the mating activity intense. That’s hard to mimic for zoo pandas.
Again, not great for the crucial 3-to-13-year-old demo. But not a huge problem for a skillful PR team.
Another myth dispelled by the Post is that pandas are lazy. You see, in reality, they spend most of their time eating—up to 19 hours a day. Um, I’m gonna give this one partial credit at best. If instead of bamboo, pandas ate from giant bags of tree-grown Funyuns, I’m not sure finding out that they use their opposable thumbs to grab fistfuls all day long would completely dispel their reputation for sloth. You can’t have one rule for incels and another for pandas.
Anyway, you get the point. So where was I? Oh, right, animals that get better press than they deserve. That’s what Lincicome was actually getting at, but given that he thinks the small print on codicils to addenda of WTO regulations counts as clear writing, he failed to get that across. His real goal, I subsequently learned, was to argue that blue jays suck.
Now, I hold no brief for the blue jay, a literal angry bird that is known to pillage the nests of other birds, and on occasion scare my spaniel. And I agree that squirrels, another contender, get amazing press coverage despite the fact they are little more than rats in 1920s football booster club fur coats. As for the praying mantis, I think they do get better coverage than some of the facts warrant, but overall their image is on point. They are widely seen as cool looking yet somewhat terrifying insect badasses, particularly the ladies. All mantises only eat live prey (including birds in some cases!). They all prefer to eat brains. But the ladies really go next level by decapitating their sex partners to feed their young. Now, if girl pandas did that—maybe a Gary Busey panda brought some bad acid?—the Chicoms would have a real PR problem on their hands.
But Lincicome, in his quest to defame blue jays, skipped over some of the worst offenders. Polar bears, thanks to Coca-Cola and climate change activists, get terrific press, and they eat your face.
But my views on bears are well-known. Which ironically brings us to a missing contender in Lincicome’s poll: the adorable, cuddly, koala bear, which is the zoological equivalent of Voltaire’s quip, “The Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.” (I know, you thought that was Larry Storch’s line, too.)
Koalas are not adorable. They look like a monster-handed Jimmy Durante covered with the lint from underneath a dirty refrigerator. They are not cuddly, they are super bitey and spitty, and they are not very bright. And they are not bears (they’re marsupials). Something like half of koalas have chlamydia, something you might expect of pandas given their penchant for outdoor key parties. The mothers feed their young their own poo, but given that this is a family publication, I’ll spare you the details of how they work this out. Think of how mama birds feed their young, but replace mama’s beak with a koala butt. There’s a Jacob Wohl joke in there somewhere.
All right, as the girl zoo panda said when it just wasn’t happening, “Enough of this.”
The present crises.
As I intimated at the beginning of this indefensibly self-indulgent digression, there’s a lot of serious stuff going on. But sometimes it’s best to just tune it out and concentrate on the important things, and I don’t mean the trampiness of pandas or koala coprophagy. Today would have been my late brother’s 53rd birthday. He’s been gone for nine years, but given everything that’s been going on it feels fresher than usual. I’m not going to dwell on that aspect of things, but it does bring to mind a point I’ve made a few times here before.
Social scientists talk a lot about capital—social capital, political capital, economic capital, intellectual capital, cognitive capital, financial capital, etc. Financial capital is the easiest to understand because it just means how much money (or some similar instrument) you, or an institution, or a country, has access to. Right now, people with lots of financial capital can weather the economic catastrophe before us much more easily than people with very little. This is about as far as you can get from a penetrating insight.
The other forms of capital are more interesting, though. Imagine you’ve been stranded on a deserted island. If you have lots of financial capital but no survival training or skills, you are very poor. Once rescued and brought back to civilization, you’ll be rich again. Meanwhile, a stranded person with lots of survival training will be rich on the island, even if he doesn’t have two coins to rub together in the “real world.” I put real world in quotes, because that is what we call modern society, even though against the backdrop of human history it’s more like an artificial oasis. There’s some fascinating economic research that holds that the vast majority of our wealth doesn’t take the form of money or gold, but intellectual, or more technically, intangible capital. We know how to do stuff, and that’s what makes us richer. Switzerland has a tiny fraction of the natural resources of, say, Afghanistan. Which is richer? From a column I wrote—gulp—13 years ago:
In the case of the United States, for example, less than a fifth of our wealth exists as material stuff like minerals, crops and factories. In Switzerland, cuckoo clocks, ski chalets, cheese, Rolex watches, timber and every other tangible asset amount to a mere 16% of that country’s wealth. The rest is captured by the expertise, culture, laws and traditions of the Swiss themselves.
These numbers come from Kirk Hamilton, a World Bank environmental economist and lead author of a new study, “Where is the Wealth of Nations?” (available at worldbank.org). In a fascinating interview in Reason magazine, Hamilton explains how, when measured properly, “natural capital” (croplands, oil, etc.) and “produced capital” (factories, iPods, roads, etc.) are the smallest slices of the economic pie. What Hamilton calls “intangible capital,” which includes the rule of law, education and the like, is by far the biggest slice. The entire planet’s “natural capital accounts for 5% of total wealth, produced capital for 18% and intangible capital 77%.”
Social capital is the most interesting, to me. At the macro level it’s how we describe the rich interplay of knowledge, customs, institutions, and social relationships that allow a society to function. At the micro level, social capital is similar, but it can be boiled down to the question, “How many people care about you?”
“Care” can imply friendship, or love, or perhaps just respect. I often illustrate this point by talking about homelessness. It’s a bit of cliché in some quarters to say that “you could be homeless tomorrow.” For some people that’s tragically true, at least figuratively. Living paycheck to paycheck leaves you vulnerable if all you have to rely on is modest or meager financial capital without any other form of capital to fall back on (a surgeon can lose his job, but so long as he didn’t lose it for malpractice, he’ll find another soon enough).
But for most people with even modest social capital, they can’t be homeless “tomorrow.” My brother had his demons and his problems. But unless he disowned his family (vice versa was never an option) homelessness was never in the cards. It’s a useful exercise: Take an inventory of the people in your life who would have rent money, or a spare sofa, or a room for you if you lost everything.
The only way to truly burn through all of your social capital is to first burn through your moral capital, your storehouse of good character. If you abuse friendships, exploit family, you’ll eventually be on your own. (This is one of my problems with blanket drug legalizers—they downplay the fact that drug addiction is, for many, like an acid that melts through social capital).
The Janus-faced monster of the economic calamity and the pandemic are a powerful test of our social capital, at the macro and micro level. So far, I think that we’re passing the test. I admit, that’s just my impression based on anecdotal observations, and I am the first to concede that there are contrary data points. What worries me is that I don’t know how long it can last.
Because when I listen to the national conversation—for want of a less-clichéd term—I see a massive disconnect between what is required and what is being done. A country’s social capital doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it is fed and sustained by other forms of capital, and the spend rate on those other forms is fast becoming catastrophic. Some pro-lifers who spent years building up credibility on the “seamless garment of life” argument—anyone remember Terri Schiavo?—are suddenly alternating between being blasé and macho about how many vulnerable Americans we can lose for the sake of the economy. Progressives, many in possession of comfortably intact new economy jobs, are similarly cavalier or dismissive about the economic toll being wrought on people.
The argument over wearing masks is particularly dispiriting for its insipidity. Performative virtue-signalers to the left of me seem to want the mask to become a symbol of solidarity with technocratic overlords. Performative virtue-signalers (allegedly) to the right of me want to make face masks into the modern jackboot in an updated version of 1984.
Everywhere I look—yes, starting in the White House—I see these other forms of capital being shoveled into the fire as quickly as our financial capital goes ever further into the negative. Political capital is wasted on cronies and dumb fights designed to entertain the tiny fraction of us who soak meaning from cable news food fights. Intellectual capital is drained by dumb conspiracy theories. Moral capital is wasted defending these losses like good money after bad. Feminists write about the need to elect the better of two alleged rapists, and so do social conservatives, as if a bill for these expenditures will never come due.
I’ll have my say about this stuff, at least the stuff worth the effort, because that’s my job—and even when all this crap gets me down, I count myself blessed to have it. But the point I wanted to get across is that your job, while vital, is not as vital as the true source of your social capital: your family, however defined. If you hoarded canned goods and toilet paper, congratulations on your foresight. But the thing that will really get you through this is the group of people you care about and the people who care about you. That’s what the richest people alive have stockpiled.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: So I told you about the armadillo under the porch already. Well, yesterday, I let Zoë and Pippa off the porch to go for a walk. As expected, Zoë immediately went looking for it. I didn’t worry too much about it because I assumed the armadillo had plenty of time to target harden in its subterranean lair. She saw that I was walking away with Pip anyhow, so she started to follow me, so I attended to Pippa’s tennis ball needs for a brief moment. When I turned around Zoë was off like a rocket, bounding over the tall grass rows between the houses on the beach. In seconds she was three houses down, leaping several feet in the air. She was snapping at the air, which made me think she was giving a dragon fly the business, maybe even a murder dragon fly. I even got to say something I always dreamed of saying, “That’s no armadillo.” I called on her to stop and she did, but mostly to sniff around a wood boardwalk leading to the street. At one point she even started to dig at the wood, as if it might give way like wet dirt. I put a leash on her and we walked out to the beach. She seemed to calm down and I threw the ball for Pip. But then, she made a beeline back for the tall grass. It turned out there was a Florida rabbit, the tastiest of hoppy things according to dingo lore. Pippa actually abandoned the ball to join in the hunt. I walked back to the house and called for Zoë to come, thinking that she would follow because it was dinner time. To my surprise she came to me very fast. What I didn’t realize was that the rabbit was heading my way, too. This big brown critter bounded out of the grass with the dingo close on its floppy tail. It then ran under the porch—the armadillo porch!
Fear not, no rabbits were harmed in this tale. But now the dingo considers the porch to be, quite literally, the most fascinating thing in the world.
Anyway, the girls are fine. Pippa is very happy in that spanielly way (though she is still capable of disappointment). The dingo has no meaning in her life. And I have two furry instruments of social capital to keep hoarding (and Gracie prospers, too).
And now, the weird stuff
Photograph of pandas by Liu Guoxing/VCG/Getty Images.