Our Broken Society

While the damage done by the smoking ban is often portrayed as economic damage to pubs and clubs and cafes, it seems to me that the real damage is far greater than this, and almost entirely invisible. And this is the damage that is done to the social cohesion of society.

When a pub or a club closes, the community that sustained it also dies. In fact, if a pub closes, it’s generally because the pub community has become moribund, and the closure of the pub is a consequence of this, rather than a cause of it. And when a community dies, most of the connections between the members of that community will also die. In fact, a community is really nothing but the sum of the connections between its individual members.

It’s possible to think about this mathematically. If you have a pub in which there are 50 regulars, who are all friends with each other, how many friendships or other social connections are there in total? The answer is that in a society with N members there will be N times (N-1) divided by 2 connections between them all. So if there are 50 regulars, there will be a total of 1225 marriages or friendships or acquaintanceships. But because there are two people in each relationship, each with a tie to the other, there will be a total of 2450 personal ties between them.

There are in Britain about 60,000 pubs. If each pub has 100 regulars, some of whom come in every day, and some only once a week or once a month, and all of whom know each other, then each each pub community will comprise 9900 personal ties. And 60,000 pubs will total 594 million ties.

If, as a result of the smoking ban, 10% fewer regulars continue to go to their pub, so that each pub now has 90 regulars instead of 100, the number of ties in each pub community will now be 8010, a fall of 1890 ties. Which makes for 113 million broken ties across all the pubs in Britain, or 20% of all the ties. A 10% fall in the number of regulars results in a 20% loss of community. Each departing regular pubgoer loses 99 ties, and each remaining regular pubgoer loses 10 ties. Assuming symmetrical tie strengths, this means that departing pubgoers feel the loss of their pub community 10 times more strongly than the remaining pubgoers feel the loss of them.

But the damage is even wider. Not all pubgoers are regulars. It seems plausible to suppose that as many pubgoers again are outsiders who aren’t part of the pub community. For example, I used to meet up with friends at pubs that happened to be nearby. If each one of these outsiders is part of a wider 100-strong community, then if 10% of these stop going to pubs and meeting up with friends, then another 113 million ties get broken. Which makes for a total of 226 million broken ties. Given a UK population of 60 million, that’s an average of everybody in Britain having 4 fewer people they know. Except that the losses are sustained almost entirely among the frequenters of pubs and clubs and cafes, and with the heaviest losses falling on the smokers.

These are ball-park figures. I don’t know how many regulars pubs have on average. In tiny little rural pubs it might only be 20 or 30 people. In big warehouse city pubs it might be 10 times that number, and not everybody will know everybody else. And I’ve not thought about how social ties get weakened when people meet less often. In a pub community with 100 members, if 10 of them stop going to the pub, it’s quite likely that 20 or 30 will go less often, weakening the strength of their ties with other pubgoers. I’ve not tried to factor in ‘strength of tie’ like it was tension in an elastic string. The main thing that seems to come out of this very simple mathematical approach is that the loss of community (the ties that bind people together) is greater than the loss of customers, and that a 10% drop in regular pub customers means a 20% loss of pub community.

It’s a lose-lose situation for everybody. In total, non-smoking pub regulars lose as many ties of friendship as the departed smokers. Everybody knows rather fewer people than they did before. Non-smokers notice it least, and smokers notice it most. But society as a whole is less cohesive than it was before. It is tied together less tightly.

Non-smoking pubgoers hardly notice, except to see that the pubs are a bit emptier (and in many cases a lot emptier) than they used to be. It’s not smoky, and they get served at the bar quicker. Non-pubgoers don’t notice it at all.

Most smokers are working class these days. The middle classes gave up smoking years ago. And many of them never go to pubs anyway. And since these are the people who run the media – TV and radio and newspapers – they’ve either not noticed the loss of community themselves, or noticed it only slightly. And so it’s not news. The media keep their eyes peeled for localised disasters, like floods in Yorkshire, or earthquakes in Haiti. They’re not tuned to pick up lots of tiny little disasters happening everywhere.

Or else they send reporters down to the pubs the day after the smoking ban goes into force to ask the customers what they feel about it, and all the customers say that it’s great – because they’re all non-smokers. The smokers outside and at home don’t get interviewed because they’re no longer there for the cameras. And the non-smokers inside haven’t yet noticed the loss of the smokers. A false positive snapshot of the smoking ban emerges: it’s a great success.

And so the media don’t report on the divisive social effects of the smoking ban. And because the media don’t report on it, the politicians don’t notice it either. And because the politicians don’t notice it, party leaders like David Cameron will give speeches about Our Broken Society (like he did today) which completely ignore a comprehensive and widespread social fracture that’s going on right under his nose.

One day they all start to catch up. Just not yet, it seems.

About Frank Davis

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16 Responses to Our Broken Society

  1. Anonymous says:

    Six Degrees of Separation
    I have to confess, Frank, that like many people, I’m better with words than math.
    Nonetheless, I’m curious regarding where you found the formula with which you started this post. The immediate thing that occurred to me was Stanley Milgram’s “small world experiment”.
    (Milgram is better known for a better, powerful study regarding authority and conformity, where subjects were led to believe that they were torturing someone with electic shocks, but carried on because an authority figure demanded that they do so.)
    In Milgram’s “small world experiment” he claimed to demonstrate that a package could get from a person in Chicago to a person in Boston in a total of six steps. This study has since been rightly debunked for its unscientific approach. Nonetheless, it is the cause for a strong cultural meme. A successful play was born called “Six Degrees of Separation” and Will Smith and Donald Sutherland starred in the movie version. I don’t know if Brits are familiar with “The Kevin Bacon Game” but it operates on a similar theory: any movie star can supposedly be connected to the actor Kevin Bacon within six movies.
    On to more practical matters, but with a rather personal example.
    In 1995, a friend dared me to go up and talk to these two girls in a bar we frequented. So, I went over with a pitcher of beer and stuttered and stammered and made a damn fool of myself, but the girls accepted the invitation, probably because they were more interested in the free beer than our company. The girl I liked was very shy; she didn’t say a word, until later on when I asked her for a date. She accepted.
    She didn’t show for up our date. I went home and called her. The phone rang (I counted, and I still remember) 19 times. I was angry. Then she picked up. I told her that I didn’t appreciate being stood up and that she should just be straight with me if she isn’t interested. She made up an excuse for standing me up and said “I’ll meet you in 20 minutes”.
    And she did. From there, we spent 13 years together. We’re broken up, now. No ugly reason. I still think she’s a lovely and wonderful girl, and I think (hope) she has similar sentiments regarding me. Just too many differences approached with different sensibilities in a relationship that went on for way too long without us ever managing to see the way to get married.
    (I don’t think phones without answering machines will even ring 19 times anymore.)
    I remember the events of that time quite well. I only reluctantly went out with my friend that night, and he hasn’t been my friend anymore for more than 10 years. I was scared to death to approach two girls I didn’t know with a pitcher of beer, and I couldn’t have looked more foolish in doing so. The girl I liked seemed extremely disinterested in talking to me, or anyone. When I later got to ask her out, she accepted, but then didn’t show up for the date. Then, I had to call and let the phone ring to the point that it would annoy her to death before she even picked up. The story even gets more complicated than that, but I’ll save it for now.
    The point I want to make in relation to your post is that even the subtlest of possibilities can create meaningful opportunities. From what I’ve read, I’m not sure that Paul McCartney would ever have even met George Harrison if they didn’t both happen to smoke at the time.
    So, beyond all the deeply ideological and political reasons for defending individual freedom, there are tangible, everyday, practical reasons to defend individual freedom as well. Freedom breeds choices and opportunity. Fear hides those benefits of freedom.
    So, you lost me in your equations, but I get the point anyway, and I agree. Opportunity and choice bring people together. Fear and restrictions tear them apart. I give my boring personal example to demonstrate that the circumstances are already difficult enough regarding these matters. It seems to me that it’s downright evil for someone to seek to make them even more difficult. WS.

  2. Anonymous says:

    if you and i can see it, do you really think that the government can’t? it’s entirely deliberate. same with shopping centres vs. high street.

  3. Frank Davis says:

    Re: Six Degrees of Separation
    I’m curious regarding where you found the formula
    I didn’t find it. I figured it out for myself yesterday afternoon. I drew a polygon (e.g. a hexagon), and connected all the vertices together with lines, and then counted the lines (which come to 15). And then I figured that there was probably some simple formula for how to work that out for an N-sided polygon. After a few minutes of staring blankly at the hexagon, I noticed that each vertex was connected to 5 other vertices, and so in a hexagon there were 6 times 5 connections (30), and the number of lines was half this number. So connecting lines/relationships = N.(N-1)/2.
    This is how I usually tackle simple mathematical problems: DIY. My book of mathematical formulae is anyway usually lost somewhere, so I have no option.
    What I wanted was a number for the ‘connectedness’ of a society as a measure of ‘community’. I feel very strongly that smoking bans are profoundly destructive of community. That is, after all, my personal experience. People can talk about ‘tight-knit’ communities or ‘loose’ communities. But because communities are intangible things (unlike physical objects like pubs and restaurants) they get dismissed as being non-existent, unimportant things. And I don’t think they are. There have been times in my life when I’ve been part of very rich communities, and ones (like now) when I’ve been outside them. I somehow generally prefer being inside communities rather than outside.
    I’m sorry if I lost you. There’s somehow a real problem in putting mathematical ideas into words. People freeze as soon as they see a formula. I do too, particularly if it contains differentials which I’m not too good at handling.
    I started out yesterday by beginning to write a completely different essay about community. Midway through it I found myself trying to measure community. And that led to the hexagons and the formula and all the rest. Some day maybe I’ll go back to the original essay.

  4. Frank Davis says:

    Re: Six Degrees of Separation
    P.S. I’ve got lots of stories about chatting up girls too. I know the situation very well. Another time maybe.

  5. Frank Davis says:

    Is it deliberate? Do they really know what they’re doing?
    My sense of this Labour government – and of the political classes in general – is that they’re profoundly disconnected from the people they’re supposed to represent. They live in an illusory world of spin and sound bites, where outfits like ASH can game them with what they openly described as “a confidence trick”.
    When Labour lose the election in May/June, no small part of it will be because they’ll have alienated their former base of working class smokers. It’s a profoundly dumb and stupid thing to have done. I mean, it’s a monumental error. It’s utterly crass.
    To put it another way: Why should the government know? Are governments omniscient? Of course not. How many MPs go to their local pub evenings and have a few pints and play pool? Probably exactly none of them. If they don’t do that, how are they to know? ASH won’t tell them. ASH will tell them that everybody loves the ban, particularly smokers. The media won’t tell them, for the reasons I gave. And also because the media these days are just totally crap at reporting or investigating anything at all.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I love this way of presenting things. Like the poster above, I’m not a “numbers” person and have to scrutinise them carefully before they sink in, but there is a beautiful simplicity and constancy to numbers which words don’t have, in that, even if someone dislikes what you’re saying here and claims that your starting figures are way out – perhaps suggesting that the number of pub customers are in fact only half of your original assumption – a simple re-calculation shows that the number of relationships terminated is still huge. In fact, to bring the total down to a truly insignificant number, ban-lovers would have to assert that the number of “original” pub customers/regulars is a really tiny amount, probably only in single figures, which is in itself a ludicrous assumption – my own, tiny local pub has at least 20 regulars that I can think of off the top of my head and had even more before the ban. The moment you get even to a starting point of just 10 the total rises to levels which couldn’t by any standards be described as “insignificant.” The beauty of the numbers as presented by you here is that they are inarguable. It’s a brilliant way of illustrating a point which, in words alone, can often be dismissed as pure opinion. I salute you, Sah!

  7. Frank Davis says:

    I’m glad you understood my reasoning. And yes, I also wondered whether 100 regulars per pub might be too high. In my local here in Devon I’d also guess that there were 20 or 30 regulars who came in every day. But they’re just the ones that I came to recognise on my relatively brief visits. All I got was a snapshot of it in the late afternoon, and that’s not exactly peak time for any pub (one of the reasons why I tend to go to pubs then). I suspect there were more who only came in the evenings. And maybe only came on one evening every week (like Saturday). And then there are also regulars who only come by now and then. Does someone who only comes in for a half of bitter every 3 months count as a regular? I dunno. My point is that the ‘regulars’ you see in the pub most days are just the tip of the iceberg. There may be a lot more.
    I agree about numbers. There’s indeed a simplicity and constancy to them. But numbers somehow don’t seem to be quite connected to words in our heads. They’re a different sort of concept. Whenever I’m doing any mathematics, I seem to be using some other capability of mine than the bit that handles words. Same if I draw something. That’s why it’s difficult to combine words with numbers and mathematics. Or maybe even words with pictures.
    The antis are always using numbers. It’s their form of mechanised warfare. Numbers are also strangely powerful.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Broken government
    Mr Davis
    An interesting analysis of social cohesion and the role of pubs.
    I suggest our real problem is broken government: we have too much government, which has too little to do. It has become self-absorbed, inward looking, compulsive, obsessive and bored. People with too much power, too many resources and too much time on their hands tend to become abusive, if only to make their own lives a little more interesting.
    With so much power – more than any government has ever had in history – there is little wonder that much of government spends much time engaging in self-harming the nation.
    A bit of downsizing is required.
    PS I am using someone else’s IP – har har.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Re: Six Degrees of Separation
    “I figured it out for myself yesterday afternoon. I drew a polygon (e.g. a hexagon), and connected all the vertices together with lines, and then counted the lines (which come to 15). And then I figured that there was probably some simple formula for how to work that out for an N-sided polygon.”
    Not to belabor this, but did you choose the six sided and sided hexagon because of Milgram’s “six degrees of separation” idea? Just curious. Perhaps I should be more dilligent in looking at your calculations, so I’m just trying to understand the approach you took.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Re: Six Degrees of Separation
    “the six sided and sided”
    Sorry. Meant to write “six sided and angled”.

  11. Frank Davis says:

    Re: Six Degrees of Separation
    No, I didn’t start with a hexagon. I started with a line connecting two points, representing the single relationship between two people. Then I drew a triangle, representing the relationships between 3 people. Then I drew a square, and jointed the opposite vertices together with lines. Then I drew a pentagon. And then a hexagon. At each stage, after I’d joined up all the vertices to represent all the possible relationships, I carefully counted the numbers of lines. 1, 3, 6, 10, 15. Then, because it was getting to be a bit laborious, I started to wonder if there was some simpler way of figuring out how many lines there were in any N-sided polygon connecting all the vertices.
    Milgram didn’t come into it at all. I’ve heard the name before. Was he the guy who famously got people to give ‘patients’ electric shocks? I’ve vaguely heard of a book or play called Six Degrees of Freedom. But that’s all.

  12. Frank Davis says:

    Re: Broken government

  13. iessalb says:

    definitely get your math, but I happen to be mathematically inclined.
    It’s good to see someone lobbing the logarithmic Molotov cocktails back
    at the gendarmes. We didn’t start this numbers game, but we’ll damn
    well finish it if that’s what it takes. You were one of the perceptive
    ones who noticed early on that the ranks of the anti-smokers are filled
    with obsessive-compulsive types, of whom habitually counting and
    metering everything is a signature characteristic.
    The leading proponents of smoking bans and sky-high
    tobacco tax levies in the U.S. are, without any doubt whatsoever, the
    Democrats. The Democrats just got hit with some heavy duty algebra in
    the state of Massachusetts where the senate seat once held by the
    dearly departed Mother Hen of all mother hens, Teddy Kennedy, went to
    Republican Scott Brown. It wasn’t even close, the vote went 52%-47%.
    The Democrat on the losing end was the state Attorney General
    (solicitor? in Britain) who had a long track record of punishing and <a
    Behind all the graven numbers are we esprit actors,
    trying to touch base with one another on some kind of 50-50 basis which
    leads to friendship and conversation. This is all torn asunder when one
    party starts everything off with rigid preconditions built into the
    I no longer visit old friends who insist that I
    smoke outside their
    humble abodes, it’s too irritating and the delicate balance of give and
    take banter exits stage left. What was once evenhanded, two-way
    communication now becomes a landlord to serf relationship and it is no
    longer worth the effort from my standpoint to finish out the scene.
    Rather than focusing on what they might be saying I
    find myself searching for an exit line so I can resume my
    self-determined way of life, which includes smoking a cigarette
    whenever I choose to.
    Just one more thing to add here; we smokers need to
    band together in a common defense and not divide ourselves over
    delivery-system differences. I’ve done the math on this one and I’m
    convinced that we shall overcome. With even a 60% cohesion factor and a
    60% turnout, the numbers are there to defeat our intolerant foes. Add
    to this result the disgruntled Wotsit-eater vote and some enlightened
    non-smokers and it’s final curtain time for the Nanny State.

  14. Frank Davis says:

    I didn’t know that the Connecticut Dem was an antismoker. Lots of them seem to be. e.g. Hillary Clinton.
    the ranks of the anti-smokers are filled with obsessive-compulsive types,
    I got called that a few years ago!.
    I was watching a TV programme called the Girl with X-ray Eyes who claimed to be able to tell what diseases people were suffering from just by looking at them. They put 7 people in front of her with 7 different diseases, and asked her to say what they were suffering from, and she got 4 out of 7 right. And they said that wasn’t good enough, and that she was a fraud. It seemed pretty good to me. I wondered what the chances of her getting it right were, and sat down and figured it out (it took a while). And then contacted the programme’s producers to ask what probabilities they’d supposed. And when they told me, I realised they’d got them wrong. Various other people had also figured out the same numbers as me. When I persisted, I got called an “obsessive-compulsive mathematician”. I was rather proud of that. Well, the “mathematician” bit, anyway. I don’t regard myself as any mathematician at all really. I can do a bit, now and then.
    And I don’t visit old friends who insist I smoke outside. Or at least, less and less. I’m sick of it all.
    Yes, we’ve got the numbers. If smokers banded together, they’d defeat their foes. The problem is to get them to band together.

  15. Frank Davis says:

    150 Maximum
    This may be relevant.
    A professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University has found out that human beings are physically limited to being able to link up and manage up to 150 friends at most, regardless of any other societal variables.
    Professor Robin Dunbar’s study revolves around his own theory, called Dunbar’s number, which posits that the size of our neocortex – the part of our brain that is responsible for conscious thought and language – is too small to handle more than 150 active relationships.

  16. Pingback: Visualizing the Fabric of Society | Frank Davis

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