On Wednesday a distraught woman threw herself 160 feet from a heavily-traveled Seattle bridge amid shouts and catcalls from motorists and bus passengers. Their response was shocking, according to police spokesman Clem Benton, with a cacophony of commuters yelling, "Jump bitch, jump!"
Traffic on the bridge was slowed for four hours as the 26-year-old threatened to commit suicide, leading former Seattle Weekly editor David Brewster to conclude that road rage was to blame for the drivers' oblique perception of the situation. "You can see how frayed peoples' nerves are in this town about traffic," he lamented.
On the surface, the issue is traffic - the same problem plaguing much of urban America. More people are driving, and driving farther, than ever before. And the obvious solution, building more or bigger roads, has continually exacerbated the problem by encouraging more people to drive.
But this is clearly more than a transportation issue. That people would perceive greater value in a comfortable commute than in human life is clearly cause for concern. Among other things, it points to a deepening of the fissure slowly tearing apart our social and moral foundations.
Deteriorating social cohesion - or what some would call social capital - has not gone unnoticed by the Bush government. This fall, Bush plans nurture the "seedbeds of virtue" by introducing a series of initiatives aimed at strengthening the moral character of the country. Plans include a renewed focus on "character education" in schools, and encouraging media organizations to increase their reporting of "good news".
These initiatives, of course, will be pushed alongside demands for $18.5 billion in additional military spending. That the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office warned recently that Bush's economic plan would require spending $9 billion of the Social Security trust fund - at a time of widening wealth disparity and an economic slowdown that has put 60,000 employees of Fortune 500 companies out of work so far this year - is no matter.
The Pentagon handout is defended by Bush as a necessity in an increasingly "dangerous world." But the true aim, as always, is to artificially stimulate the slumping economy with public money. In that case, the juxtaposition of Bush's two recent announcements - one building social capital, the other eroding it - highlights a disturbing belief, pervasive among policy-makers today: that economy and society are unrelated and non-overlapping.
In the prevailing ideology, government does best when it does least. An efficient and prosperous economy depends upon government getting out of the way, while markets do their work. The erosion of social cohesion and moral character is certainly regrettable, but it is well beyond the scope of economics.
Social degradation, then, is seen as an externality - something occurring on the periphery of, and unrelated to, fundamentally healthy and constructive economic activity. The impact of the economy on society, which can be either positive or negative, is completely ignored. Better societies are created by better social policy, not better economic policy.
But the economy is not the stock market. It is nothing so narrowly construed. Embedded in a well-functioning economy is a complex and fragile web of social, political, and economic institutions. It depends upon an adequate supply of financial capital, yes, but it also requires abundant and growing stores of human and social capital.
To ignore the relationship between social capital and economic prosperity is to allow both to languish. As Francis Fukuyama argues in Trust, if the institutions of capitalism are to function properly, they must coexist with a society leavened with "reciprocity, moral obligation, duty towards community, and trust." At the same time, economic health and stability are often essential components of a strong and vibrant society.
Society and economy, then, are not mutually-exclusive but mutually-supportive. The role of a responsible government lies in recognizing the hidden inter-relationships and ensuring that by tending to one, the other is not left to decay.
Interestingly, by treating society as external to the economy, Bush acts out at the national level what has long been unfolding at the individual level - and manifested itself alarmingly in Seattle. Individuals are increasingly unable to reconcile the seemingly divergent demands of economic life and social life. And as the emphasis on economic prosperity grows, so too does the tension between profit and duty, liberty and fraternity, sovereignty and community.
There is a danger, Fukuyama argues, is viewing the economy as "a realm in which individuals come together only to satisfy their selfish needs and desires before retreating back into their 'real' social lives." But this is precisely the outlook of neoclassical economists and the Bush government. Rather than scrutinizing free-market capitalism to determine which components build social capital and which erode it, Bush's solution is to place greater emphasis on education in order to help more Americans enjoy the spoils of economic growth.
It is time to recognize the relationship between society and economy. Helping more people get on the road to economic prosperity is fine. But a responsible government should also lay roads in other directions. When, as in Seattle, individuals perceive traffic congestion as the biggest downside to suicide, it suggests that society is getting trampled under the well-heeled boots of economy.
And when the preferred destination is economic prosperity, helping citizens reconcile the tension between profit and duty - like easing traffic congestion - requires not bigger roads, but fewer drivers.
Ted Rutland is a management consultant and co-editor of Uncommon Good. He invites comments at email@example.com.