Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Social Capital's Role in Coping in Disaster Areas

Daniel Aldrich has published a politically correct and thought provoking piece in the NY Times about the beneficial role that social capital plays in helping affected individuals to cope with natural disasters.  As you know, Dora Costa and I have published in the AER on the benefits of friends in stressful situations (i.e surviving war time POW camps).  Aldrich indirectly cites another paper of mine with Dora on the fact that social capital is more likely to be produced in more homogeneous communities.

He over-reaches when he writes;  "As a political scientist (I taught at Tulane at the time), I decided to study how communities respond to natural disasters. I’ve concluded that the density and strength of social networks are the most important variables — not wealth, education or culture — in determining their resilience in the face of catastrophe."

The New York Times must like his rejection of "individualism" in coping with danger and embraces his vision of teamwork.  It "takes a village" is a notion that the NY Times continues to push hard at the national level as it continues to have tough things to say about Romney and Ryan.     

My work on the "Death Toll from Natural Disasters" convinces me that he is wrong about his strong statement above that social capital matters more than education and income.   After all, people have friends and social connections in the developing world but at a point in time poorer nations suffer much more death from natural disasters than rich nations and when poor nations grow richer they suffer less death from similar disasters. 

I do agree with Professor Aldrich that social capital acts as implicit insurance giving affected households a network they can turn to for emotional support and financial support.  Such a network may also have information on coping strategies.

During a crisis we need several "bullets in the gun" to achieve our goal of returning to normal.  Social capital is one coping strategy but at the end of the day, individuals and families will make their own choices, knowing their own goals and basing these decisions on their own resources.   Richer nations will have the tax base to enact ex-ante regulations and zoning controls to reduce ex-ante risk from disasters and will have better ex-post hospital care and food and clean water.  

It is politically incorrect to argue that "economic growth is good" but consider the alternatives.