The Real Source of ‘Social Capital’

“How many people care about you?”

Jonah Goldberg has written what I think is a very thoughtful commentary on something we need to keep sight of during the current public debate on the relative importance of weighing the risks of loss of life and that of economic failure. I’ve excerpted the relevant section of his weekly newsletter below:

The present crises.

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 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. 

My “new” restored vintage fountain pens

My grandmother on my mother’s side, Florence Smith, lived to the age of 100, and passed away in January, 2010. A few years before that Helen and I were helping my mother get Grandma’s house ready to be put up for sale. It was really a lot of work, since Grandma apparently did not throw out anything. Squirreled away in a desk drawer were a couple of old fountain pens and a mechanical pencil. They no longer worked and Mom said I might as well take them if I wanted. So we brought them home and I squirreled them away in my desk.

A year or so ago I began writing with a couple of modern fountain pens of my own. I began to wonder whether I could get the old pens working again. I did a little research on the pens, and I was able to identify the red pen as a Parker Duofold Jr. pen. With a little more research, based on the markings and trim of the pen I believe I can date the pen to 1926. The brown pen is a Sheaffer, but identifying and dating it was a little more difficult. At first I pegged it as a Sheaffer Balance from the 1940s, but I wasn’t sure.

I quickly determined that repairing them was beyond my ability, so I began to look online for a fountain pen repair specialist. Although there are a number of them to choose from, their work is in high demand, and the wait times can be quite long. I finally contacted Jeff Powers of Powers Pen Company and arranged for him to do the repairs. It was a genuine pleasure working with Jeff, who discussed just what I wanted to have done (full restoration or repair to working condition). He told me what could be accomplished based on their condition. Jeff expressed his appreciation that he was working on what were, for me, heirlooms. We decided that he would repair them to writing condition and do his standard cleaning and polishing. I would have two pens that I could write with, and any remaining cosmetic flaws would be a reminder of the person who originally owned them and wrote with them.

The pens came back to me two days ago, and I am delighted with both pens. I regret the photograph above doesn’t do justice to how nice they turned out. (I’ll try to put up something better). Although Jeff did not do a full cosmetic restore, his clean and polish job improved both pens nicely. And most importantly, they both are wonderful writers, especially the Sheaffer. I Inked up the Parker Duofold Jr. pen with blue Parker Quink, and in the photo above I wrote in my journal with Tomoe River paper (famous among fountain pen aficionados). I filled the Sheaffer with Waterman Absolute Brown ink, and it looks great on the Tomoe River paper.

I asked Jeff if he could identify the pen and, sure enough, he was able to identify it as a Sheaffer Statesman pen in “Burnt Umber Brown” from the late 1940s. He noted that my pen has a vacuum fill mechanism, whereas the Statesman model featured what was called a “Touchdown” mechanism. But while Sheaffer transitioned from the vacuum fill to the Touchdown, they would use up their supply of vacuum fill mechanisms.

It was great working with Jeff, and should anyone read this and have a fountain pen they would like to have worked on, I can recommend him without hesitation.

Human Depravity

Let us observe this. There are few things so little believed and realized as the corruption of human nature. Men imagine that if they saw a perfect person, they would love and admire him. They flatter themselves that it is the inconsistency of professing Christians which they dislike, and not their religion. They forget that when a really perfect man was on earth, in the person of the Son of God, He was hated and put to death. That single fact goes far to prove the truth of [Jonathan] Edwards’ remark – “unconverted men would kill God, if they could get at Him.”
J.C. Ryle  

Brief Book Review: March Violets by Philip Kerr

MMarchVioletsarch Violets, set in 1936 Nazi Germany, introduces Bernie Gunter, a former police detective who, disgruntled with the Nazi bureaucracy, resigned from his position and is now employed as a private detective. Kerr does a good job of capturing the viciousness, corruption and seediness of Nazi Germany. Gunther is an interesting character, but I felt at times that Kerr overdoes the harderned, wise-cracking detective routine. The plot is interesting for the most part, but occasionally it lurched from from one plot twist to another with a slightly unconvincing ending. But Kerr has apparently had success with Bernie Gunther, and there are ten novels in the series, with an eleventh due in 2016. I might try the 2nd installment, The Pale Criminal.