“Minister of loneliness” will get to work

This may be a new governmental role in the 21st century: minister of loneliness.

On Wednesday, the U.K. made political history by creating an entirely new, untried political role: the world’s first “minister for loneliness.” The post is designed to combat what Prime Minister Theresa May called “the sad reality of modern life” for many people…

The scope and effects of loneliness are unquestionably devastating. Half a million British people over 60 only talk to another person once a week or less. People who self-report as lonely are more likely to experience dementia, heart disease, and depression. When it comes to life expectancy, the long-term health effects of loneliness are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day

So what could a minister do to ease this situation? The issues spread across a very wide range of policy areas—and that’s kind of the point. A minister for loneliness could potentially have a trans-governmental scope, pressing policy-makers, businesses, and individuals to look at a whole range of decisions through the lens of loneliness.

I was reminded of this recently by a book that suggested cities can contribute to profound social isolation for some. And pair this with the idea that social media can lead to isolation and you have much of the modern world: urbanized and Facebooked.

I would be interested to see if such a minister sticks to small changes across a range of social spheres or tackles some of the broader issues like the individualism and autonomy promoted through the last few centuries of Western life. Is there any chance a Western government would promote less individualism in order to help promote less loneliness? Or, put another way, what would be the tipping point to convince a public that they should give some individual liberty in order to together tackle social isolation?

Mining Twitter for ratings of mass transit and what the agencies can do in response

A new study examined Twitter comments about mass transit in the United States and Canada and came up with a ranking of those invoking the most positive and negative sentiments:

The results of her study, published this month in the Journal of the American Planning Association, ranked 10 of the largest public transit agencies in the US and Canada by how well regarded they are on Twitter. Based on Schweitzer’s “mean sentiment score” and more than 60,000 tweets collected between 2010 and 2014, Twitter was nicest to Vancouver’s Translink, which was followed by Portland, Oregon’s TriMet and Toronto’s TTC. The harshest tweets concerned systems in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. For comparison, Schweitzer calculated scores for public figures (the sentiment score ranged from William Shatner to Osama Bin Laden), airlines, police departments, and welfare programs (the full chart is at the bottom of this post).

Schweitzer used text mining to pick out positive and negative words from the tweets (and manually added terms including brokedown, wtf, scam, epicfail, pervy, and unsuck). Machine learning helped spot things like parody accounts and unusually frequent tweeters. Schweitzer and her graduate students also analyzed some 5,000 tweets by hand, to ensure they lined up with the computer system’s interpretations. Reasons for complaint included delays, facilities, staff conduct, public mismanagement, and the class, race, and gender of other riders.

Here’s the funny thing: The transit system’s scores don’t line up with service quality (judged by on-time performance). But the unsurprising fact that public griping doesn’t necessarily match reality doesn’t make the data useless. Because Schweitzer did find one factor that predicts “mean sentiment”—the way the transit agencies themselves behave on Twitter…

So what’s the takeaway? If you’re looking for a low investment way to improve your public image on Twitter, use Twitter as a tool for conversation, not one-way communication. It may seem that someone complaining to 18 followers that their train is late doesn’t matter, but Schweitzer makes the point that social media does influence broader public perceptions.

Engaging in public relations on social media is not new. However, the idea that government agencies or infrastructure organizations need to may be more recent. On one hand, Americans expect government to be responsive. On the other hand, mass transit is one of those areas that seems monolithic: leaders in those organizations are not elected and infrastructure faces its own kind of difficulties (aging, weather issues, particular funding sources, a sort of permanence that is difficult to change quickly). But, at least the disgruntled might feel heard if there is social media interaction even if their complaints are not fixed immediately.

Possible next steps: would major mass transit groups make policy decisions based on Twitter? Remember, a small percentage of Americans use Twitter regularly but those users can be pretty vocal and/or well positioned in society.

Statistics from the first “Community Association Fact Book”

Many Americans live in community associations and a new book discusses the broad patterns:

A new body of research, the “Community Association Fact Book,” tallies the numbers of associations, housing units, residents and property values for the country and each state. It was published by the Community Association Research Foundation, the research arm of the trade group Community Associations Institute in Falls Church, Va…

According to the study, 24 percent of American homes are in an association. Nationally, the number of associations increased to 328,500 in 2013 from 10,000 in 1970, the first year the foundation began keeping track. During that time, the number of housing units grew to 26.3 million from 701,000, as did the number of unit inhabitants to 65.7 million from 2.1 million. They pay about $65 billion annually assessments.

As for state data, Illinois has 17,900 associations, the fourth-highest after Florida, California and Texas.

The states with the fewest associations, less than 1,000 each, are Alaska, Arkansas, Mississippi, North and South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming.

That’s roughly 20% of Americans living within an association that provides oversight. Of course, these associations are often intended to protect homeowners from their neighbors within the community and outside of it. At the same time, it can lead to new sorts of issues in how to govern these associations, such as collecting and spending money in an association and operating as a board. The Chicago Tribune carries a weekly column featuring questions about associations and it often seems fairly complicated with neighbors disagreeing in a formalized setting.

There has to be an interesting story behind the disparities in the number of associations between states. It may have to do with laws in particular states that make it easier or harder to form an association. But, it all may be influenced by other factors like an urban/rural split (the states with the least number of associations are more rural) and cultural patterns (what do people think about neighborhoods, how important is protecting property values, etc.).

When anti-government forces can control the public narrative about drone strikes in Yemen

While social media was praised in helping the Arab Spring movement, the new availability of Twitter in Yemen has changed who gets to control the public narrative about violence:

The result: AQAP and the Yemeni public have left the government far behind in an information war made possible by the spread of the Internet in the Arab world’s poorest nation. Authorities can no longer shape the narrative of counterinsurgency, particularly when it comes to controversial drone strikes…But the number of Internet users in the country increased nearly tenfold between 2010 and 2012, according to government figures, although even with that rapid expansion, less than a quarter of Yemenis have regular internet access.

Most drone strikes, which are believed to be US operations, target the most impoverished and isolated parts of Yemen where AQAP operates. The region’s remoteness plays into the group’s hands; it also makes it easy for the government to suppress any negative information, including civilian casualties from drone strikes and other aerial attacks.

But now Yemenis can easily, quickly share on-the-ground information. Last December, an airstrike targeted a wedding convoy, killing roughly a dozen civilians. The government initially identified the casualties as militants, but locals soon began posting photos of the dead on Facebook and tweeting the names of victims, directly challenging the government’s obfuscation.

Sounds like quite a change in a short amount of time. The availability of the Internet and social media threaten all sorts of traditional institutions that have relied on controlling information. All of the sudden, alternative viewpoints are available and regular citizens can pick and choose which to follow, believe, and propagate.

What does this do for American foreign policy? We generally disapprove of regimes that crack down on Internet availability (think China) but this is usually because we want to get our messages through. What happens when the same technologies are used to counter American narratives?

Can’t return to an American era where only private charity and churches took care of the poor – because it doesn’t exist

Here is a look at American social welfare policy throughout history and the argument is that there was no golden era of private charity:

One problem with the conservative vision of charity is that it assumes the government hasn’t been playing a role in the management of risk and social insurance from the beginning. It imagines that there is some golden period to return to, free from any and all government interference. As Senator Lee has said, “From our very Founding, we not only fought a war on poverty—we were winning.” How did we do it? According to Lee, it was with our “voluntary civil society.” We started losing only when the government got involved.

This was never the case, and a significant amount of research has been done over the past several decades to overturn the myth of a stateless nineteenth century and to rediscover the lost role of the state in the pre-New Deal world…

As for social insurance specifically, the historian Michael Katz has documented that there has always been a mixed welfare state made up of private and public organizations throughout our country’s history. Outdoor relief, or cash assistance outside of institutions, was an early legal responsibility of American towns, counties, and parishes from colonial times through the early nineteenth century. During this period, these issues were usually dealt with through questions of “settlement.” A community had a responsibility to provide relief to its own needy, native members, defined as those who had a settlement there. This became increasingly difficult with an industrialized society, as people moved to and fro looking for work and were forced out of communities when they couldn’t find any.

The next major initiative was the construction of poorhouses by state governments, especially in the early nineteenth century. The central idea was that by forcing people in need of aid to live in poorhouses where living conditions were quite harsh, there would be fewer applicants. This ended up not being the case, as able-bodied people would still seek out these poorhouses, especially when work was slack and unemployment high. Worse, these institutions became the default support for orphans, the mentally ill, and the elderly without income or family to support them…

That need was partly what gave rise to the Progressive movement. Private charity simply didn’t have the breadth and depth necessary to truly respond to the Four Horsemen in this industrializing era, and Progressives saw a greater role for government to address these ills.

In other words, the government has been involved with addressing social problems from the early days of America. Granted, it may not have looked like the centralized welfare state that is common in the industrialized world today but there was still some government involvement.

This also reminds me of a recommendation made by sociologist William Julius Wilson at the end of The Truly Disadvantaged. After looking at concentrated poverty, Wilson concludes with policy recommendations which includes the key proviso that American social welfare policy should try to raise everyone’s boat because targeted programs for specific groups tend to be seen unfavorably by the larger public. Think of Social Security, a program that benefits a majority of Americans and enjoys widespread support.

Who can predict job growth by sector in the next 10 years if the BLS can’t?

Derek Thompson points out that 2002 predictions by the Bureau of Labor Statistics about job growth by sector for the next ten years turned out to be quite wrong:

What did BLS get right? At least two things: the unstoppable growth in health-care jobs (which it expects to continue) and the steady growth in leisure and hospitality.

What did it miss? Everything else, in particular (a) the boom in mining, led by the natural-gas revolution, (b) the utter collapse of the publishing industry, and (c) the Great Recession, which wiped out half-a-decade of economic growth. BLS thought we’d create 20 million non-farm jobs last decade. We created about six million. That’s a 13-million-job gap. 

Essentially, the BLS failed to anticipate the real-world surprises, which is another way of saying it is not psychic. It extrapolated the recent past (health care was expanding, housing was booming, the economy was recovering from a mild recession), baked in global and demographic trends, and voila, put out a plausible projection of the next ten years. This is a perfectly sensible way to predict the future. But then the real world intervened.

This isn’t supposed to be a post about how the BLS forecasting models are bad. It’s supposed to be a post about how predicting the future is impossible, even though predictions play a starring role in discussions about finance and government.

I think Thompson draws the right conclusions here: it isn’t necessarily about jobs but more about the difficulties governments and other organizations have in predicting even ten years into the future. The world is a complex place and this should push us to think about what we can know moving forward. This would be a great point to inject the writings of Nassim Taleb who has argued in several books that this is a huge problem: there are plenty of people, like on Wall Street or in Washington, who think the future is clear enough to risk a lot. Granted, the BLS isn’t going to lose much if their predictions are wrong but it could have a big effect on others. One example: students looking at what majors to select. In recent years, there are more and more articles that talk about the job fields expected to grow in the future. The argument is that students need to make sure they study for employable careers, particularly with rising college costs. But, they may pick a college or a major based on predictions that aren’t necessarily correct. Perhaps this lack of predictive ability is a good argument for liberal arts schools.

Knowing the difficulties of making long-term predictions, what can the average citizen do? Taleb would suggest hedging our bets, perhaps risking some when the negative effects won’t be that bad. (Taleb lays out this investing strategy in Antifragile: put a good amount of money in safe investments and then risk some in places where the payoff could be huge but you aren’t going to lose much if it doesn’t pan out.)

Health includes social and behavioral dimensions

There may be privacy concerns about the government having behavioral and social data as part of medical records but that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t important factors when looking at health:

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) wants to require health care providers to include “social and behavioral” data in Electronic Health Records (EHR) and to link patient’s records to public health departments, it was announced last week.

Health care experts say the proposal raises additional privacy concerns over Americans’ personal health information, on top of worries that the Obamacare “data hub” could lead to abuse by bureaucrats and identify theft…

The “meaningful use” program already requires doctors and hospitals to report the demographics of a patient and if he smokes to qualify for its first step. The second stage, planned for 2014, will require recording a patient’s family health history.

The National Academy of Sciences will make recommendations for adding social and behavioral data for stage three, which will be unveiled in 2016.

Maybe these are separate concerns: one might argue such data is worthwhile but they don’t trust he government with it. But, I suspect there are some who don’t like the collection of social and behavioral data at all. They would argue it is too intrusive. People have made similar complaints about the Census: why exactly does the government need this data anyway?

However, we know that health is not just a physical outcome. You can’t separate health from behavior and social interactions. There is a lot of potential here for new understandings of health and its multidimensionality. Take something like stress. There are physical reactions to it but this is an issue strongly influenced by context. Solutions to it could include pills or medicine but that is only dealing with the physical outcomes rather than limiting or addressing stressful situations.

We’ll see how this plays out. I suspect, federal government involvement or not, medical professionals will be looking more at the whole person when addressing physical concerns.