The Strange Disappearance of Cooperation in America

Peter Turchin


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Tomorrow I head for “Sci Foo” at the Googleplex. I proposed a discussion session there, “Are We Becoming Less Cooperative? If So, Why?” and I’d like to use today’s blog to help me formulate my ideas for this session. So here it goes.


The title of this blog is a paraphrase of a 1995 article by Robert Putnam, “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America.” Robert Putnam is a political scientist at Harvard who over the last 20 years has been documenting the decline of ‘social capital’ in America.

Putnam has argued, in particular, that last several decades saw lower levels of trust in government, lower levels of civic participation, lower connectedness among ordinary Americans, and lower social cooperation.

This is a puzzling development, because from its inception the American society was characterized, to an unusual degree, by the density of associational ties and an abundance of social capital. Almost 200 years ago that discerning observer of social life, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote about the exceptional ability of Americans to form voluntary associations and, more generally, to cooperate in solving problems that required concerted collective action. This capacity for cooperation apparently lasted into the post-World War II era, but several indicators suggest that during the last 3-4 decades it has been unraveling.

Robert Putnam points to such indicators as the participation rate in voluntary organizations (Masonic lodges, Parent-Teacher Associations, sports clubs and bowling leagues…):

associationsIf between 1900 and 1960 the general trend for the mean membership rate was to increase, during the 1970s this trend reversed itself. Participation has been declining ever since. Another indicator is the level of generalized trust, including trust in such institutions as the state:


Putnam’s thesis has been quite controversial. But during the two decades since he first proposed it various measures of social capital continued to decline, strengthening his case. In some cases there were substantial up and down fluctuations, as with trust in government (the graph above). Yet note how each trough is lower than the preceding one, and peaks reach nowhere near the level of confidence last observed during the 1960s.

While Putnam’s focus was primarily on the associational life of ordinary Americans, the changes that he documented about unraveling social cooperation have affected American social life at all levels, including state and federal governance and relations between economic classes (e.g., employers and employees).

One important factor, closely related to social cooperation, is the degree of economic inequality. Both general theories of social evolution and empirical studies suggest that inequality is corrosive of cooperation. As Emmanuel Saez, Thomas Piketty, and coworkers have demonstrated using sophisticated analyses of income tax returns, income inequality declined during most of the twentieth century, but it turned a corner in the 1970s and has been increasing ever since:


Furthermore, as I have shown in my own research, such cycles in economic inequality are actually recurrent features in the history of complex societies. More details are available in my Aeon article and in The Double Helix of Inequality and Well-Being.

In these articles I argue that general well-being (and high levels of social cooperation) tends to move in the opposite direction from inequality.  During the ‘disintegrative phases’ inequality is high while well-being and cooperation are low. During the ‘integrative phases’ inequality is low, while well-being and cooperation are high. This antagonistic association produces a characteristic ‘double helix’ pattern in the data on well-being and inequality:


The cyclic pattern of cooperation versus discord is reflected in the ‘polarization index’ developed by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal:

polarizationThis graph shows that there were two periods of unusually low polarization and high cooperation among the elites: the 1820s (also known as the ‘Era of Good Feelings’) and the 1950s. In contrast, the Gilded Age (1870-1900) and the last three decades since 1980 (which many commentators have dubbed ‘The Second Gilded Age’) were both periods of growing economic inequality and declining cooperation among the political elites.

You may think that political polarization is not so bad. What’s wrong with different political parties holding strong opinions about how this country should be governed? The problem is, the clash of ideas inevitably leads to the clash of personalities. As political positions become separated by a deep ideological gulf the capacity for compromise disappears and political leaders become increasingly intransigent. The end result is political gridlock, something that became abundantly clear in the last few years, but has been developing over the last few decades. Take a look at this graph, showing the proportion of legislation that was either filibustered in the Senate, or threatened with a filibuster:

filibustersSource: Sinclair, Barbara. 2006. Party wars: polarization and the politics of national policy making. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

The change is from 7 to 70 percent! Or the confirmation rates for judicial nominations:


Did they decrease from nearly 100 percent in the 1960s to around 40 percent today because the judges today are more corrupt and incompetent? Or is it a reflection of an increasing political gridlock – the failure of cooperation among the governing elites?

To anybody who reads political news regularly there can be no doubt that cooperation among the American political elites has been unraveling. This is clear from the quantitative proxies I plotted above, and it is also evident from simply hearing what our political leaders say about each other.

In addition to the collapse of cooperation among the political elites and growing divisions between the elites and general population, we also see the relations between employers and employees becoming less cooperative and more antagonistic. I have addressed this issue in my blog A Proxy for Non-Market Forces (Why Real Wages Stopped Growing III).

What we have then, is a ‘strange disappearance’ of cooperation at all levels within the American society: from the neighborhood bowling leagues to the national-level economic and political institutes. What’s worse, it is disappearing from our lexicon:

cooperation_ngramIn our search of explanations (which is the first and necessary step before proposing remedies) we need to look for fundamental factors that affect social cooperation. Yes, Americans watch more TV, but is this really why they bowl together less? Yes, news media is reducing everything to five-second sound bites, but is this why we have the political gridlock? Social cooperation waxes and wanes in most complex societies, following a long cycle. This is a generic pattern in not only our own society but also in ancient and medieval empires. Where there are recurrent empirical patterns, there must be general explanations. This means that things are not hopeless – we can figure out why cooperation is declining, and how to fix this problem.


Note added on 7.VII.2013: see next The Strange Disappearance of Cooperation in America II


Notes on the margin: after Sci Foo I go to the Evolution meetings in Snowbird, Utah. As I will be away from home for a week, I am taking a short break from blogging. 

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Very interesting…

Lei Gong

I have an untested theory that at least some of the decay in cooperation has been spurred on by the suburbanization of America. As T. Greer points out, these attitudinal shifts have a generational component, and I think it’s plausible and possible that those raised in the more insular and spaced out blocks of surburban homes simply have a developed different attitudes, beliefs, and practices about trust, cooperation, and civil participation.

Peter Turchin

On the other hand, we have been more connected by social media. There was a discussion of this point at Sci Foo – I’ll expand on it in the next blog.

Peter Ellis

I don’t accept that social media connects us in the same way qualitatively as personal contact. On the one hand a lot of social media interaction merely happens in parallel to face to face contact as when neighbours, school friends etc. communicate through face book. This is still primarily a face to face relationship. However communication with distant people who we never meet is a competely different type of relationship. It is one which can be controlled and limited by those who ‘consume’ it. I choose this word intentionally to convey that such interaction forms part of a spectrum of consuming entertainment rather than a genuine human relationship except in the minority of cases where the interaction is persued to a much deeper level so that it leads to face to face interaction.

A lot of the person to person relationships are reinforced by circumstances such as being related, needing to work together, or needing to attend the same class room each day. The relationship cannot be switched off when it ceases to give satisfaction, so we have to work at it and compromise.

Lance Manion

Compared to people living on rural farms in the 19th century, you mean?

George Strong

Recent studies have shown a drop in cooperation as diversity and multiculturalism increases. We must get the US back to 85% white if we don’t want our children to live in a nightmare dystopia.


That drop can be easily explained by the mere existence of people who think as you do.


Hypothesis: A great power can only extract resources from beyond its national borders until other states catch up in economic/military terms, which is quite easy these days given the way science is currently done. This either closes off areas where other great powers emerge, or reduces freedom to exploit as the budding great powers enter the game.

An increase in the state’s inward focus and internal coercion follows, which leads to increased elite competition, inducing a contraction (or slow decline) characterized by loss of colonies and military overstretch, then either state collapse, military defeat by other great powers or revolution.

The current crop of American elite might be beyond saving now that the state has started looking inward, which spells increased competition, not less. The American way of life is simply unsustainable, no amount of elite cooperation can solve that.

T. Greer

Peter, a query:

One of the over-riding points hammered in and rigorously proven in Bowling Alone is the generational nature of these changes. The old WII vets and their generation did not become less civic or cooperative in tandem with economic inequality – they stayed cooperative and civic to their deaths. Each generation has a distinctive profile, the general trend being that each has less friends, less civic duty, more malaise, and less trust than the last.

Does your model have a specific generational component to it?

Peter Turchin

Apologies about a delayed response. But, yes, I have a general age-structured model that traces how social moods wax and wane. This will show up in the draft of my book on demographic structural analysis of American history, which I hope to post in a month or so (well, initially I promised to post it a year ago… but this time I am working full speed on it – stay tuned).


From the graphs it looks like changes in inequality follow the (opposite) changes in cooperation, not the other way around.

Peter Turchin

I never said that changes in inequality are the causal factor in the unraveling of cooperation. Rather, both are a result of other, deeper dynamics. Some of it is explained in my Aeon article, but a fuller explanation is forthcoming in the book I am finishing up on structural-demographic analysis of American history.


You didn’t, but I’ve seen this idea mentioned by other people as something obvious.


myself included 🙁


My idea: as the cooperation grows, and people trust more each other, this creates easy opportunities for sociopathes and other social parasites to exploit the rest of the society, which increases inequality. Then crisis comes when parasites are too numerous and too powerful for the society to function properly. Crisis wipes the wealth and limits parasite growth. As parasites are cleaned out, general trust increases.

Inequality, IMO, is just the symptom, not the cause.

Peter Turchin

I agree that inequality is more of a symptom, than the cause. It’s part of a whole complex of demographic, economic, social, and political variables, and the complex goes up an down in cycles. This suggests there is a dynamical mechanism, such as the one you sketched out above, that underlies the cycles. I have a somewhat more invovled explanation, based on the structural-demographic theory – see my Aeon article for details:

Guvvamint Watchee

As someone who’s worked years in the prisons of California, I can attest to some support for this. There is a massive high-security prison population, and believe me– you are happy that they are in prison.

It’s extremely expensive, but the bright side is I can now walk in parks at night in the Capitol city Sacramento and there are no aggressive teenagers hanging around.

I have basically never been bullied by criminals in that city.

This might be in the trough of what you are describing, where the parasites have been collected, but trust is still yet to start growing again.


I want to suggest to you an explanation. The cooperation and social activism abundant throughout American history was fueled by one of the most thought out designs for a moral government ever created: the constitution. These codifications for the administration of our nation were no mere guidelines, and the framers, our “founding fathers,” were clear that the powers of government afforded and described were exhaustive rather than inclusive. For a good century no threats or fads we moved through resulted in a significant effect on cooperation and social activism because we adhered to a set of lofty and admirable ideals. Local communities were left to make social decisions which the federal government had no right to decide, rather than a court of nine only addressing issues like gay marriage after pressure builds. Individuals could easily make an impact through local human channels that treated them as neighbors rather than with cold standardized forms and indifference. The men representing these communities recognized that although they sought the benefit of their constituents, they foremost had sworn an oath to uphold the contract and ideal of the American government. In the past 50 years the constitution has been stomped into the ground. Abuses through willful refusal of intent, e.g. the general welfare clause, the commerce clause, and even “commander in chief” have led to a nation where one man can declare war, one assembly of men holds market regulation powers never intended, disdain for those who would question the system, and the destruction of the lives of heroes who fight this encroachment. Is it any wonder trust and cooperation is so low when we have taken our foundation and made it as malleable as quicksand?

Peter Turchin

Rick, there are two reasons why this cannot be an explanation (it is at best a part of explanation). First, as I mention in the blog and show in my academic publications, these processes are cyclic. Your explanation may fit one of the trends (the most recent), but what about other trends, and trend reversals? Second, why was the constitution stomped in the ground in the last 50 years?

Bob VanTassell

The Constitution was stomped into the ground because the elites, corporations, control the major media. The only 4th estate is now on the internet, which the elites fear. As an example, on 9-11-01, there were many reports by firemen, Governor Pataki, newsmen, employees of the management company, that there were many explosions and that the towers appeared to have come down because of controlled demolition. By 9-12, there were no more reports of explosions. The 911 Commission Report said nothing about explosions.


It strikes me that the US Constitution is more effect than cause.

It’s just too darned easy to invent attractive stories in a search for causality. If cooperation is dropping, is it due to the death of self-employment (and the small family farm)?… urbanization?… cultural diversity?… some sort of resource depletion?…economic cycles?… technology?…population mobility?…decrease in atomic families?

What I find most interesting are the opportunities for prediction.

I could be convinced otherwise, but the notion of using public policy to drive something like this strikes me as a chimera.

Peter Turchin

Absolutely right. You cannot establish causality by correlation, especially when you have just one data point. See my recent blog on this:
However, my research on cooperation in America is embedded in a much larger research program of social evolution and cliodynamics. The American project, in fact, is serving as a testing ground for theories developed for other historical societies. Look through this blog and on my web page for more.


The article intentionally avoids the obvious – multicultural societies become non-cohesive over time. Homogeneous societies are simply more cooperative. The idea that cultural diversity within the same geographical area is an inherently good thing is nothing but an article of faith. There is massive evidence to the contrary but its ideological adherents are as difficult to convince with science and logic as any religious fundamentalist.

Peter Turchin

The blog is about empirical patterns, not explanations. Getting to a cooperative equilibrium in multiethnic societies is harder than in monoethnic ones. There are both theoretical reasons why this is so, and empirical research supporting it (e.g., Robert Putnam’s recent research). I have written about this in my academic publications. This does not mean that multiethnic societies cannot be cooperative, you just need to work harder at it.

Peter Schaeffer

Apparently no one wants to talk about this, but this is an immigration problem. The elite consensus is that immigration is good for America. It’s certainly good for the elite… and tragic for everyone else.

Take a look at the charts over at Polarized America ( The correlation between immigration and polarization is little short of overwhelming (r = 0.90).

If we want a less polarized country, we can have one. Just close the border for 50 years. Sadly, the forces of greed (cheap labor exploitation) and evil (racial / ethnic special interest groups) think we need more immigration, not less.

Peter Turchin

I have a blog where I estimate the importance of immigration in the mix of forces that have been depressing wages:


Mr. Turchin,

I will read you post with considerable interest.

Thank you.

Peter Schaeffer


Dear Peter, Sorry to ask probably two obvious questions, but

1) have you done an academic review article of this, or do we need to cite the forthcoming book?

2) you look at income disparity — have you looked at any other comparisons of aspiration / perceived wealth? e.g. average cost of raising a child vs. income, probability of having a house as large as your parents’ when you have children?

We’re working on a model for explaining “cross cultural” variation in public goods investment, but if it’s right it should work across time as well as across borders.


Peter Turchin

Hi, Joanna –

1. Right, this will be a part of the forthcoming book – I should be posting the complete draft in a month or so.

2. I’ve looked at some. For example, the age of first marriage appears to be a good proxy for social optimism. But other indicators you suggest would be very interesting to take a look at. Have you found data on these proxies? The relevant literature here would be Easterlin/Macunovich.


To me, some of these charts indicate that political careers are becoming far more important than creating a better future for the electorate.
The solution begins with one term in Congress in one lifetime.


The disappearance of cooperation is not strange from my viewpoint. To me the causative effects are quite obvious and have been for the last 40 years or so of my life. I have been witnessing the breakdown and disappearance of human culture in my lifetime. What perhaps is now called human culture is in actuality the absence of human culture. Modern western culture is bereft of true higher purpose and has effectively lost its connection to the Living Divine Reality. The decay of this world will not stop until the fruitlessness of rule by ego only is recognized and there certainly is a question on whether we will effectively destroy this world before that happens. The old religions have lost their connection to the Divine Reality and so what we see them animate are politics, maintaining their status quo and organizational striving for self preservation only. No heroes will come from the old guard as that capability has been lost. In some sense science is the new religion and there is great belief by many that we can somehow figure it all out. That is nonsense. Everyone thinks there is some answer but truly it is only when all of your seeking has been frustrated that the possibility of fully human growth, culture and evolution is extant. Science is a useful tool but no more than that. Truly human culture is dedicated, inherently, to higher purpose and tools for making that happen are acknowledgment of our inherent connection to the Divine Reality, study, discipline and wisdom thus gained from those previous endeavors.

Peter Turchin

This is too pessimistic. In history there are all kinds of turns. While we are now leaving through a downtredn in cooperation, and I am afraid that we have some troubling times ahead, in the past there were also trend reversal for the better. We just need to figure out what we need to do to turn things around.


I agree totally. That’s why I teach yoga and meditation. Without a grounding in a cognitive practice, humans tend to devolve into depression.



Have you watched the BBC documentary, “The Century of Self”? It is hard to see the loss of cooperation as a cyclical phenomenon when some of the basic forces which require cooperation have been totally changed, or eliminated.due to economic/technological developments. We live in a very different “society” with very different human relationships than existed in previous low-cooperation periods.

It is a long, 4 parts, but I highly recommend watching it as I see it as an integral piece of understanding cooperation, empathy and idea of the self in society.

Peter Turchin

As I discuss in my articles and books on Cliodynamics, history is fractal. Some processes operate on the scale of millennia, others centuries and decades. There is no question that the world has been changing as a result of technology, but that was not just over the last century – essentially, ever since the modern H. sapiens evolved. On top of that long-term trend there are aother cycles, including the secular ones my blog was about. Just look at the data, the trends are very consistent: first increase, then decrease. So the causes are other factors than the monotonic growth of technology. In any case, technology can either destroy or promote cooperation. It’s cultural mechanisms that drive these cycles.


I think you underestimate the scope of tech change in the last century; that it can in no way be related to tech change previous to that.

A few generations ago, a farmer needed his neighbors to raise a barn, to share equipment and reap the harvest, or even to get news. That is no longer the case. Patience is not a virtue, by virtue of now being able to get anything whenever we want.

That is a relatively new phenomenon. What used to be a problem of production, in which cooperation was required (to build stuff), has been turned on its head to now be a problem of consumption, where all problems are solved by buying more for yourself.

That technological change has brought about the ability to immediately satisfy human needs and wants and so the organization of society is now less about cooperative production than individual consumption, which actually goes against cooperation. The documentary is a good view on that.

Rod Temple

I don’t see anything strange at all about the disappearance of cooperation in America.

I am listed on a Sex Offender Registry in the U.S. and I can tell you for certain that it destroys any desire for cooperation or civility with other U.S. citizens (except for people that you directly know to be good people). In fact, I believe being listed on such a Registry removes a person’s obligation to be a good citizen. People who support the Registries are enemies of the people who are listed on them.

The Registries currently list around .75 million people so the lack of desire to cooperate or be civil is being indoctrinated into perhaps around 2 million people total. Maybe less, maybe more. But there are no excuses that the Registries have not been completely expanded to include all people who have been convicted of a felony (at least). So, there should be probably a few million more people listed on Registries and they should have all the same harassment laws directed at them that people listed on the Sex Offender Registries have. That should have occurred a decade ago and there are no excuses to prevent it from happening today.


I would suggest Prechter’s theory of socionomics for some insight. Changing patterns in social mood affect cooperation. We also may be headed towards a peak in polarization, but you will not necessarily like what is coming if the country becomes less polarized. It is likely it will be accompanied by the largest war since WWII.

I don’t think you can tease out diversity and immigration, they are combined to some degree. When the borders were shut, you see a rise in cooperation and a drop in income inequality. When the borders are opened, inequality rises along with diversity. An open immigration policy is literally an inequality policy because third world immigrants need a generation or two to assimilate into the native society. You also cannot take free trade out of the equation as an effect, in that nations with open borders tend to also have free trade, which impacts wages.

Finally, there is destruction of freedom of association via feminism. Men can no longer form clubs or association exclusively for men, many “male only” places have been sued out of existence. If you think back in history, a lot of these organizations were male organizations. If men want a space of their own, they can no longer form a larger cooperative group, so they stick with small groups of friends. Which also helps exacerbate ethnic and racial tensions, since there’s less opportunity for social interaction. For example, today many men have left television and moves for video games, but now there is a push for more female game designers, complaints of sexism, etc. It is like men are not allowed to have their own place in society, and that is very destructive to cooperation among men.


Go on There’s plenty of “mens’ groups” on there. Join one in your locale. Easy. Done.

Peter Turchin

I have encountered Prechter’s Socionomics, and I have had discussions with the adherents of the theory. I am far from being convinced. The statistical approaches lack rigor, so there is a big question of separating signal from noise. Most importantly, there is no believable explanation of the mechanisms that drive the purported dynamics.


Here’s a radical theory utterly heretical but blindingly obvious. People are hopelessly and pathologically narcissistic. Culture of Narcissism was written decades ago. Have you gotten the memo? People are self-absorbed and exploitative. Quaint concepts like religion, cooperation, friendship, romantic love and altruism no longer work. Basic agreements and cooperation in a sane framework become impossible in this environment. The commonalities that bind (religion and ethnicity are gone other than narrow regions), so the atomized self rules.
You want to “bowl” in a bowling club? Are you weird? How do you talk to these strangers from a different world? Is he making six-figs? I;m not; I feel like shit. Is he making a pass at me? What’s funny about the “Bowling” story is that my step mother had an affair with a guy in her bowling club. So, basically, you can’t bowl without worry about your wife banging a high scoring bowler.
This is a hobbes view of all-against-all where family, love, religion, nationalism are all destroyed. You are utterly idiotic if you think this collapse was incidental and not organized or by design. In a society ruled by cultural marxists, this kind of collapse is intended and designed. Social chaos is not a by product but a sought after goal by government, educational institutions.
The rise of narcissism and collapse of morality were all intentional in a “long march” through the institutions. For an example of this in “real time” see the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood who rapidly undid any secular Egyptian organization within a few months. Our long march took decades.

Virtually Nonymous

Peter, there is no point writing a book on this subject. You will encounter hatefacts which render your book unpalatable to modern society, or you will be forced to weasel your way around a reality that is staring you in the face. Maybe in another time or another place your efforts would be appreciated(and I most certainly would), but exploring all the reasons for the decline in co-operation(you’ll no doubt be interested in Japan, which is an incredibly co-operative society despite all their many economic problems) will leave you a societal outcast.

Peter Turchin

The topic is too important, so I will have to take my chances. I’ll do my best to avoid becoming an outcast…

The case of Japan is not quite as straightforward as many portray. I am by no means an expert, but it’s not just economic problems. There is pervasive political corruption. The Fukushima disaster has exposed a really ugly underbelly of the Japanese society and polity. I say this while remaining an admirer of Japanese language, culture, and martial arts (I had been a devotee of judo for a big chunk of my adult life). But the Japanese society is in deep trouble, and its ability to cooperate has been unraveling.


Japanese society has been this corrupt for decades (centuries?), it’s not particularly getting worse. Where do you get the signs of unraveling?

You can’t talk of lack of cooperation without talking of ethnic diversity and its effects. And if you do, you will be Watsoned. Unless your surname is Putnam, of course, then they can cut you some slack.


Hmmm, what started changing around 1965 demographics-wise. People are seemingly willfully ignorant in the name of political correctness.

Eugene McCreary

The last vestiges of our society as a cooperative endeavor went out with Jimmy Carter. Anyone who was alive and a thinking adult during Reagan’s era will recall that the whole dynamic, the whole message subliminally sent out from our leaders was, get to the trough first and get as much as you can. Subsequently government became not simply an enabler of financial corruption but an active tool of it.

Peter Turchin

This is what the structural-demographic indicators say. The breaking point, indeed, was the Carter administration. Interesting that it was a Democratic administration. But it was more similar to the following Reagan era, while Nixon years were more similar to the Johnson era – according to SD indicators.


Due to Carter or Watergate?

Possible Watergate (showing the venality of elites) followed by Iran (showing the impotence of elites).

David C Fischer

You are saying some very important things, about which I have thought about frequently over two or three decades. Being candid, I have attributed the unraveling of society to government intervention. For example, the phenomenon of warehousing parents in old-age facilities, instead of the care that their children used to provide, I have attributed to social security and medicare, which leaves younger generations less financially able to support their parents’ (because of taxes imposed) and at the same time seeming to make caring for the aged the responsibility of government, rather than their offsprings’. This does not differ qualitatively from Moynihan’s famous accurate prediction that AFDC would break up black families.

Government regulations intended to impose “fairness” or safety in various areas of human activity replace judgment, discretion, and nuance with rigid one-size-fits-all legalisms, and concepts of right vs. wrong are reduced to legal vs. Illegal. Saying things that make life pleasant, such as complimenting another’s attractiveness at work, or repeating at work a joke heard on a TV show, can result a lawsuit, and a six-year old boy that hugs a female fellow

offspring. This does not differ qualitatively from Moynihan’s famous correct
prediction for which he was accused of racism

David C Fischer

You are saying some very important things, about which I have thought about frequently over two or three decades. Being candid, I have attributed the unraveling of society to government intervention. For example, the phenomenon of warehousing parents in old-age facilities, instead of the care that their children used to provide, I have attributed to social security and medicare, which leaves younger generations less financially able to support their parents’ (because of taxes imposed) and at the same time seeming to make caring for the aged the responsibility of government, rather than their offsprings’. This does not differ qualitatively from Moynihan’s famous accurate prediction that AFDC would break up black families.

Government regulations intended to impose “fairness” or safety in various
areas of human activity replace judgment, discretion, and nuance with rigid
one-size-fits-all legalisms, and concepts of right vs. wrong are reduced to legal
vs. Illegal. But there would reasons why, at common law, such distinctions were made and maintined. Saying things at work that make life pleasant, such as complimenting another’s attractiveness, or repeating at work a joke heard on a TV show, can result a lawsuit, and a six-year old boy that hugs a female fellow female first-grader or makes a gun with his index finger and thumb is expelled from school.

Our civil legal system treats our courts as venues for entrepreneurism, if not casinos, rather than government coercive dispute-resolution organs of the last resort. Interestingly, incivility among litigators has become a matter of significant attention within the bar, one of the few examples of public- mindedness that the bar has exhibited. In any case, i consider it intriguing that lawyers have been mentioned so frequently in these blogs, as i consider a
subset of us, namely, trial lawyers, central to the zeitgeist leading to our societal unraveling. At this point, the blogs are limited to noting the
association, rather than attempting to show a causal relationship.

At any rate, having made my speech, my thesis, that expansion of government and judicial do-goodism and intervention in inter- personal relationships frwys the social fabric seems undermined by Peter’s observations of cyclicality in the pheomenon, so I lookbforward to further study and explication.

association, rather than attempting to show causal relationships.


offspring. This does not differ qualitatively from Moynihan’s famous correct
prediction for which he was accused of racism

Kevin Carothers

I would like to see how this article reads if it was researched by replacing political with the rise of corporate power. Corporations are what spins the world now…. Ever since the end of the Eisenhower administration.


I am coming back to this post based upon a more recent post in this blog referencing it as part of an argument.

Stepping back, these are some seriously wacky and unrelated charts.

One chart isn’t on trust. It is on trust in government. If you think those are the same thing then someone should seriously check their assumptions. In general, the more obvious trend is that as government plays an increasingly large and influential role in our lives we trust it less and less.

Another chart pretends to show well being compared to equality. News flash, average well being in the US has progressed pretty steadily at about two percent per year or more for two hundred years. And look at the data points. According to this empirical chart, the 1930s were an era of above average well being. Huh?

I could keep going, but the fact that anyone looks at this group of charts and concludes cooperation is dropping is absolutely astounding. How about a chart on the size of supply chain networks tracked across two centuries? The size of cities? The size of corporations? The size of government? The extent of market geography or population?

Let me clarify: networks of cooperation are increasing by multiple orders of magnitude during this time. This has corresponded with steady increases in global well being, and the global well being has been increasing at a faster rate over the last generation not at a slower rate. There is nothing inevitable about this process, and there are some bad trends at a more granular level, but the overall trend is clearly the exact opposite of what most commenters and the author are suggesting. We are clearly NOT seeing a disappearance of cooperation in either the US or the world. We are seeing absolutely amazing increases in scale and scope.

David Locke

Game theory leaves us with the defectors winning against the occasional wins of the collaborators.

Much of what we see, think, and are told is defined by the plutocrats. Social science research results are soon weaponized by the defectors. One such finding on dirty campaigns leading independent voters to not vote, so we see more dirty campaigns, rather than substantive campaigns.

Will the cyclical nature of the game lead us to further unwillingness to participate?

Maireid Sullivan

Charting increase in income is useless when it is a calculation of the mean between growing numbers of billionaires and impoverished.

Cam Kirmser

My guess is that there is a strong influence of government-provide welfare driving cooperation down.

I think the more the collective provides aid, the less the individual sees a need to do so and, therefore, becomes detached from the condition. I know this happens with me; after all, why should I give to a charity when the government is already taxing me to the same end?

David Calderwood

I have two thoughts on this:
1. The rise of political conflict is a result of one trend running its course and a different trend emerging to compete with the old, in a cyclical process by which the dominant idea changes over time. Recall that 150 years ago people largely believed poverty was “earned” by those who were poor, while from the 1960’s until recently poverty was a condition endured through no “fault” of the poor, hence the requirement that the state (via political action) ameliorate poverty. The same applies to wealth disparities between different races (census definition) of people in the USA. Endogenous attribution (i.e., biological inheritance of a spectrum of individual attributes that contribute to wealth production and accumulation under modern social conditions) is deemed utter blasphemy now, despite it’s being a dominant, scientifically unbacked at the time, belief just a few decades ago.
2. Robert Prechter, Jr.’s development of the Socionomic Hypothesis ( bears on the larger cyclical systems herein described. It is quite evident that something measured in real time by stock market trends exhibits the lagging effects we largely refer to as “history,” as essentially all wars occur after significant drops in markets, and virtually all economic contractions are presaged by market declines. That stocks line up with fashion, fiction, pop culture, music and other social phenomena calls out for comparison with the message of cliodynamics.

David Calderwood

Declining social trust appears to logically derive from increasingly heterogeneous populations. In the USA, adding 65 million people of very, very different cultures (what, about a 25% shift in population?) since Hart-Celler in 1965 has surely degraded people’s willingness to be civic-minded. When a society is made up of people who largely feel (and behave) like a very extended family, one might expect very high levels of asabiya. When “taking one for the Gipper” is highly likely to benefit someone who 1) you don’t know and 2) whose very presence you find abrasive, just how much willingness might one expect?

All of the political-social stresses cited in these pages are logical derivatives of increasing levels of political coercion intended to benefit people “outside the ‘family.'” This applies to promotion of legal-superiority for certain groups (e.g., “affirmative action” and the many financial/economic set-asides for those deemed in “need” at the expense of those deemed “at fault”) among the populace, to the point where sitting politicians openly put the interests of a person in Mogadishu or Allepo ahead of the American expected to shoulder the tax and social burden of importing that individual.

I can think of no better illustration of the echo chamber of the Politico-Elite who dwell on top of Mt. Olympus, USA (also known as Mordor-on-the-Potomac) and whose lives and sensibilities enjoy a larger gulf vis-a-vis pre-1965 heritage Americans than did France’s Bourbons compared with French commoners in 1780.

Matthew Dunn

First time reader and love your work Peter. A lot of what has been mentioned above could all be in a small way contributing factors but the overall factor in my eyes is the loss of people to people interaction caused in the most part by computers. Computers are the biggest reason we have stopped interacting with each other. Human beings by nature have quite a large ability to side with the easier and weakest way of doing things due to all of our own perceived personal weaknesses or short comings. Nobody is encouraged or pushed anymore to do anything even a little scary to them and there is zero personal responsibility anymore, you only have to look at our schools to see this. In the last 3 generations we have allowed all of peoples weaknesses to drive the way we do things. Someone cries or gets hurt so we stop doing it. We have created a society that is now actually making things worse. Simply to grow in to well rounded human beings we need to confront ourselves, confront our weaknesses and to work out in some basic form what this life meaning is because if we dont and as previously mentioned, we are not doing this we are losing the ability to grow as people. Furthermore and way more controversially a lot of this stems from a woman’s point of view. Let me explain, women by nature are nurturers so by nature when someone comes to them who is upset and doesn’t want to do something it is more in a woman’s make up to cuddle that person and tell them they dont have to do it if they dont want to. This has now formed the basis of the laws so no surprise we are getting the results that we are. Nothing of any value is easy, nothing really means much unless you have busted your rear for it. If people aren’t allowed to fail or confront themselves this is a one way street to conflict. By 2020 give or take we will be at war again and this one will influence all of us. Computers are the being of the end, growth as a strategy doesn’t work, globalization doesn’t work so your comments within one of your other articles is completely true. It is that simple

T Quain


Very interesting research, and very complex and difficult to understand. Forgive me if I missed it, but I don’t see anything here about two related trends that seem to me largely responsible for this collapse: out-of-control capitalism, and environmental collapse. Though passionately concerned about many issues and wishing deeply for more social contact, I did not join the PTA or any of the associations previous generations may have done because I was too exhausted from long days at work and then dealing with family life in the evening. Don’t many workers feel the same pressures? Do most people have more or less free time than they had in previous generations? Many of your respondents after the election of 2016 seem to blame globalization and the resulting immigration, but don’t seem to realize that globalization – the ability to move operations to a place where cheap labor and natural resources can be exploited – is modern imperialism and a result of capitalism. Our current standard of living is owed to exploitation of the environment and of other people, either invisible people or people very far away, people no one here cares about.. How do exploitation and injustice fit within your theory?

David Calderwood

It is a misuse of the language to call what passes today for capitalism, out of control or otherwise. Most jobs now depend directly or indirectly on central state spending, which for 35 years has been unconstrained by the need to first tax. Today’s economic system defies description under classical or any other economic analysis, due to a mania that embraced limitless “guns and butter” via borrowing, itself enabled by the historically unprecedented coexistence of fiat money and a secular bond bull market of astonishing proportion. It is evidence of a folie a plusiers, a madness of the many, where the Jungian archetype of “flight” took hold of the herd’s collective mind and caused people to embrace a world without limits, where every natural law was repealed, even gravity.

Peter Ellis

This is a phenomenon I have actually felt in the UK since the late 1970s. I have been observing it keenly. What we are seeing is a cultural shift. My own personal pet idea is that culture is largely a behavioural adaptation to economic forces.

The economic trends included rising real incomes and the intensification of consumerism. Greater financial independce reduces the need for people to co-operate. Consumer capitalism segments society, trying to sub-divide it ever more finely creating a greater range of sub-markets, sub-cultures and commercial opportunities. (a bit like ecological niches and adaptive radiation).

Another cultural value of consumerism is prioritising the seeking of personal satisfaction through the exercise of increasing choice.I find something demeaning and infantilising in consumerism. We are encouraged to be impulsive and over-materialistic to fuel the buying habit.

of course underlying this is the greater dependence of the economy on importing, distribution, marketing and retail as opposed to other industrial sectors like production. The world economy exhibits a tendency towards a division of labour. A simplistic characature of this is the USA-China relationship. China is a producer society, USA is a consumer society, the USA makes credit easily available to consumers, Chinese profits fund the lending.

Just some thoughts.

David Calderwood

Eventually, those who do not produce cannot consume. Say’s Law is inviolate. Just because a 35 year bond bull market has yielded the appearance that producing DEBT is a form of production doesn’t make it so. Even long divergences into folly eventually are revealed as such.

What we are seeing is the post-apogee of the greatest mass mania in recorded history, far larger than Tulipmania, John Law’s Mississippi Scheme and the South Sea Bubble (combined.) It began in the 1960’s amidst a collective embrace that quite literally anything was possible, even the elimination of poverty and want. It rose to the level of a cult religion, where in recent years even the nature of biology has been deemed nothing but a “social construct.”

I believe the actual top was 17 years ago, and that notwithstanding new nominal highs in stocks, bonds, and dollar denominated wealth, all of this has only occurred on a sandy foundation of dollar inflation. Just because the inflation flows into assets, rationalizing the increases in their value, instead of into consumer goods (CPI-related, that is) doesn’t mean no monetary inflation occurred. On the contrary, it has been the largest increase—-ever. But unlike coined money or even printed bills, debt-as-money is extinguished not by issuing more of it but by issuing too much during a period of manic trust, such that when trust turns inevitably to distrust, the overhang (which in our case is unimaginably vast) will simply evaporate. Contrary to what we hear on TV all the time from “experts,” wealth doesn’t move from market to market. When a stock goes up, it does so at the thinest margin, and the total rise in market cap comes from NOWHERE. Ditto on the way down. With IOU’s (bonds) it’s even worse. A rising interest rate on a one kind of debt can evaporate unimaginably vast wealth from prior-existing debt, such is the enormous leverage now in existence.

Truly, we stand on the precipice, and there is no net for safety.

Peter Ellis

Is the issue confused by two different meanings of co-operation? It seems the issue here is really ‘vertical’ co-operation, co-operation between the wealthy elites and the mass of people, rather than ‘horizontal co-operation’ between peers.

Effects like growing inequality are likely to foster horizontal co-operation as large numbers of people find material pressures on their standard of living they fall back more on the support of social networks, friends, neighbours, gangs, the local church etc. Rising standards of living dissolve much of this.

However ‘vertical’ co-operation is not really co-operation, it’s actually those with the most power in society either voluntarily restricting their pursuit of narrow self-interest at the cost of those ‘below’, or perhaps in fact finding that they are weaker and unable to secure their interests.

One way of looking at this is in terms of the changing power balances between different strata in society. According to this the shift since 1980 is an increase in the relative power of the wealthy elites, who now find themselves able to extract more from those ‘beneath’ them.

I don’t shy away from the issue of labour availability, The medieval examples from England are well known; the power struggle between the wealthy and the poor following the mass loss of population during the ‘Black Death’ etc. caused labour shortages and demands for improved pay and conditions, met with violence.

In more modern times the elites could turn to opening the door to immigration as a way to increase the supply of labour relative to demand, effectively lowering its price. It is made difficult to discuss this issue by people who fail to discuss this as an economic phenomenon and want to turn it into racism or cultural chauvanism thus discrediting those who do wish it to be addressed seriously.

In the UK it has probably been the main driver of the Brexit vote, where unlimited and uncontrolled immigration from much poorer parts of Eastern Europe put pressure on jobs, housing and public services but it proved impossible to have a public debate because of the dangerous repercussions on community relations. Those elites who benefit from an oversupply of cheap labour also benefit when any discussion turns anti-social and discredits those who are trying to open up a debate on the economic issues.

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