Saturday, August 22, 2009

The tradeoffs of diversity

Robert Putnam, a pretty well known Harvard Professor and a someone with a tradition of having liberal views, was doing some research on social capital and found some results that disturbed him. He was tempted not to publish them. The ethics and incentives of this decision are a great topic that I will post on later.

But for now, let me focus on the research itself. What he found is not surprising really, but in the context of his research, it has some possibly disturbing implications for a liberal viewpoint.

It turns out that homogeneous populations (people of the same age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, etc) tend to interact more and better than heterogeneous populations. Men seem to know how to talk to other men than they do to women (surprise surprise!!). But also old people with old people and Catholics with Catholics. This leads to more trust among neighbors in the more homogeneous community.

And the effects on the neighborhood encompass relations among everyone. It seems that just being in a heterogeneous neighborhood reduces trust overall so we even trust people very similar to us less when we live among a diverse group. This difference in trust has broader implications. Trust leads to greater social capital, which increases the overall success and welfare of the community. Less crime, higher income growth, and overall community success. And when you look in detail at the research that shows that diverse teams make better decisions, it turns out that demographics is one of least effective kinds of diversity. Differences in experience, personality, approaches, and thinking styles are all more important. So taken together, demographically homogeneous groups will be more successful in the long run.

Where Dr. Putnam got worried is that this suggests we should stop integrating neighborhoods, schools, companies, and the country at large. Even immigration policy should be affected in countries that are still largely homogenous, such as Scandinavia. This was counter to everything he believed in from a more ethical point of view. Again, the ethics is a topic for a later post.

There is also research that shows smarter people build more social capital, regardless of demographics. So perhaps the solution is to make sure we surround ourselves with smart people. Then we can be integrated. Of course, we quickly bang up against the limitation that not everyone is endowed with the gift of superior smarts. We could try to use immigration policy to let in lots of demographically diverse smart people (which is a good policy for all sorts of reasons). But we would also have to limit immigration for the other half of the curve – another illiberal policy.

So what is the answer to this conundrum? For ethnic and racial differences, maybe all we really need to do is wait a few generations. With the rapid increase in inter-racial mixing, pretty soon there won’t be such big differences among us. I see this in Miami to an extent I never would have dreamed years ago. Almost every couple in the city is mixed in some way. Then we just need to find better ways to communicate between genders and age groups. This is easier than with race and ethnicity because of course we grow up in families that have all different ages and genders so we get more used to it at ages when we are still malleable.

Until then . . . . Let’s just work hard on open communication and trust, even when your gut is not so sure.