Broken windows, lush flowers and social capital

The broken windows theory says that visible signs of crime and general nastiness lead people to behave in more socially destructive ways.

The opposite also applies: making things nice helps people behave better.

In the 1980s, the New York subway was like a subterranean Mogadishu. Your odds of making it unmolested to your destination were not good. But then, in the mid 1980s, a massive clean-up effort was initiated, and brought a huge reduction in crime. There were literally fewer stabbings after the graffiti was washed off the trains. Even if it had to be washed down every day.

Now look at Switzerland. There’s immense social pressure to keep your stuff nice and presentable. It’s your civic duty. I really believe this seeps into a more general attitude to public spaces and public life, and generates massive amounts of social capital – which is essentially the amount of trust and cooperative behaviour you have going on in society. It’s the thing Norway has a lot of and China doesn’t.

It’s a presuasive cue to be fucking civilized.

There are people whose first instinct here would be to litter and draw shit on the walls. Our moral duty is to Gulag them.

Of course, social capital is like the MAIN THING that makes a country nice to live in. If there’s such a cheap, and in itself valuable, way of getting it, why the fuck would you not?

Well, there is one reason, and it is cultural. Envy.

In Eastern Europe, the opposite is at work, and the person who paints their house and redoes the garden can easily become a pariah, due to a sort of crab mentality and tall-poppyism. This is both an effect and a cause of low social capital. The people don’t really seem to wish each other well.

Whoever raises the bar implicitly obliges others to stop sucking quite so much and put in an effort too, which they don’t want to. But in a healthy society, you naturally want to do well, and you also want others to do well.

I was cruising in a convertible Mustang in Los Angeles when a hobo approached me at the traffic lights. I expected abuse, but instead he said “Sweet ride, man!” and went away. This would not happen in Central and Eastern Europe. There are those fantastic penthouses that you can’t even see from street level, because it would provoke. So on the one hand, we figured out a solution to inequality. Just don’t let them see it. But on the other hand, really?

We’re going to make the commons suck, just so that deadbeats don’t feel bad about themselves? That’s “fat acceptance” levels of wrong.

Ambient generators of social capital are not just about giving your house a coat of fresh paint and not having rusty wrecks in your driveway. It also applies to people.

Manners and looks matter. Surely, you have noticed how you feel and how you are treated when you wear your best. Every man who traded a hoodie for a blazer, and every woman who traded jeans for a summer dress know that it makes a tremendous difference.

People behave differently if they, and others around them, look like the Queen’s afternoon tea, than if it looks like a gangland show-and-tell, who has the rattiest hoodie, millenial sartorial Hobolympics.

I’m not saying people should wear evening gowns to the grocery store, but maybe put in an effort and look presentable, like an actual civilized human being. Not only are you going to get treated better, you’ll feel and behave better. And by being this beacon of a positive example, you’ll make your communities better.

All this leads to the surprising but probable conclusion that gangsta fashion and sweatpants-wearing millenials are dragging down social capital, and quite possibly making cities more dangerous by radiating an ambient aura of suck.

Fuck this asshole. Look at his soulful, concerned look, like he isn’t causing stabbings and rapes left and right.

The notion that you can grow the critical ingredient for a functioning society in planter boxes, scrub it out of dirty walls, summon it by holding doors open for strangers and buy it with a decent shirt is surprising, and there’s still a discussion quite how well it works. But it works.

If you can get social capital as a positive externality of putting up some petunias and ironing your shirt, fucking do it.

And why would you not? What’s the potential downside of having nicer cities and nicer people? The price of some paint, a bit of housework, a nice shirt? Those things are good in themselves, no matter how much exactly they contribute to an ambient signal to be civilized.

That’s a good deal.

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