Around the Nation
4:31 pm
Sun October 30, 2011

Trust In America: Recovering What's Lost

Originally published on Sun October 30, 2011 5:35 pm

Whom do you trust?

A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed barely 10 percent of the public trusts the government. But it doesn't stop there: Trust in public institutions like corporations, banks, courts, the media and universities is at an all-time low; the military is one of the few exceptions.

"I trust that people will respond reliably to incentives," Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, told Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered. "What that sometimes means is that I really can't trust them. [But] what that sometimes means is that I really can."

Wolfers researches trust in institutions, in public figures and in government. He analyzed data from polls on people and trust collected by the Gallup Organization since the early 1970s. Not surprisingly, people trust the government, the courts, the media and big business far less in times of economic distress. But over the course of the past 60 years, overall trust in those institutions has been in steady decline — even in good times. In the 1950s, Wolfers says 4 out of 5 Americans trusted government. Today, that number is down to 1 in 5.

Although government is more transparent now than it was in the 1940s and '50s – when people trusted government more — Wolfers says that very transparency might be the problem.

"We actually now get to see ... into that smoke-filled room where we're seeing the deals being cut," he says. "You see how sausage is made; you don't like eating sausage as much anymore."

These days, Wolfers says people need to think about the incentives facing those who are telling them things. Taking advice from a real estate agent to buy a house, for instance, is a "dopey idea," he says. There are conflicts of interest in many areas that people need to be aware of in order to trust, he says.

"So that's a case where I think there's a very important role for the government in regulating those sectors so that we can actually have faith in – that is trust – those that are holding themselves out as experts," he says.

Wolfers says he isn't sure whether that trust in government that existed in the late '50s and early '60s can return.

"The political landscape and the technology with which we monitor our government has changed," he says.

How Did We Get Here?

Veteran journalist Tom Brokaw is still cited in polls as the most trusted man in news. He's probably the last newsman from an age when government and public institutions were the most trusted in the country.

"We trusted big institutions; we trusted government to do the right thing," Brokaw tells NPR's Raz. "It was a robust time in American in which there was enormous pride in what this country had become coming out of the Great Depression and World War II."

Brokaw has written a new book, The Time of Our Lives: A conversation about America, in which he talks about what's changed since the prosperity of the post-World War II era and the challenges America faces in the new millennium.

He said that much of the current loss of faith is that things people took for granted and put faith in turned out not to be true.

"The younger people who are coming out of college now ... have watched their parents lose jobs or get furloughed," he says. "That's led them to return home in many instances ... because they say, 'We can trust our parents, we don't trust corporations.'"

It's often been said that the current generation does not expect to do better than the generation that came before. But Brokaw says we have to re-examine what that means. The idea that we'll have ever-larger homes, second homes, more cars and more of everything can't go on infinitely, he says.

"I think the question should be reframed in terms of: What does that mean to have a better life than your parents?" he says.

Brokaw says more emphasis should be placed on the quality of life and life's experiences such as the education that you get, the contribution that you make to your country and how you fit in to your community.

"Those are really more important measures of society over the long haul than the piling up of toys and things," he says. "We've kind of lost sight of that."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

From NPR News, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Check, check, check.

RAZ: This past week, we sent some producers out to a few places around the country, to a street fair in Miami, a sidewalk in Pittsburgh...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Let me record.

RAZ: ...a market in Minneapolis, and in Mobile, Alabama...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: OK. We're sitting in the Waffle House with Wilma.

RAZ: ...to ask this question.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Who do you trust?

RAZ: And a few related ones as well.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: First of all, do you trust the government?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: No.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Absolutely not.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I haven't - I never have and I never will.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Actually, yes. I'm probably one of the few people that would say yes to that.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Well, how about do you trust Wall Street?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: The buildings?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: They don't fall down.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: I don't trust Wall Street because it's too many steps removed from what's actually happening.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: They're all set up to kind of screw the independent person or doing things to help themselves.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: You can't trust Wall Street. That's where all the money is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: But it doesn't stop there. Ask about public institutions like corporations, banks, courts, the media, universities, and with just a few exceptions - the military, for example - trust in those institutions is at its all-time low. A New York Times poll out this past week showed barely 10 percent of the public now trusts our government. That's our cover story today: trust and consequences.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: In a few moments, a man lots of people seem to trust, Tom Brokaw. But first, back to our unscientific poll from across the country.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Who do you trust?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #9: Donald Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Who do I trust?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Jesse Ventura.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: No banks, no government.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Who do I trust?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Not the church.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: I trust God.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Why?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Because I believe in God.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: These local places like Salvation Army and...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: There are local businesses.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: They're good. I trust them people pretty good, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: You know, like the mom and pop shops, I trust.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: I trust the people in Occupy Wall Street.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #9: My women's studies teacher.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #11: Yeah, the cop that I know. Hell of a guy. He's a very good guy, he's a good cop.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #11: I trust my husband, my children, friends around me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #12: I trust my family.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #13: I trust my family.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #12: My family. I think they would be next to me no matter what. Hopefully.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #13: It's funny when you ask me that. I don't know if I'm more of a glass half-empty kind of girl, but the first thing that came to my mind is I can think of more people I distrust.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: You can't even trust the local news. They said it was going to rain.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: Voices from Miami, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and Mobile, Alabama. Hey, Justin, who do you trust?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JUSTIN WOLFERS: I trust my mom.

RAZ: Justin Wolfers is an economist at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.

WOLFERS: I trust some of my colleagues.

RAZ: He researches trust, trust and institutions and public figures and in government.

WOLFERS: I'll give you an economist's answer: I trust that people will respond reliably to incentives. What that sometimes means is I really can't trust them. And what that sometimes means is I really can.

RAZ: The Gallup company started polling people on trust back in the early 1970s, and Justin Wolfers has been analyzing that data, and the conclusion? Well, not surprisingly: People trust the government, the courts, the media, big business far less in times of economic distress. But over the course of the past 60 years, overall trust in those institutions has been in steady decline even in good times.

Back in the 1950s, well, Justin Wolfers says four out of five Americans trusted government. That's 80 percent.

WOLFERS: Today, that number is down to one in five Americans. But beyond that, every time we've had a recession, it's blipped down even further.

RAZ: Here's what I don't get, Justin. Let's talk about the government for a moment. One could argue that the government in the United States today is the cleanest and least corrupt in the history, right, of the republic. I mean, it's very transparent, relatively transparent. It's not groups of men who went into backrooms like they did in the '40s and '50s and just figured things out and came out and announced the result.

I mean, we have a pretty good sense of how the government works. And yet, people trust it far less today than ever before. What explains that?

WOLFERS: It may be that transparency is the problem. We actually now get to see there's a window into that smoke-filled backroom where we're seeing the deal is being cut. And the more we learn about it, the more, you know, you see how sausage is made; you don't like eating sausage as much anymore. And certainly, I'm struck whenever I teach international students. They always believe that U.S. political institutions are incredibly corrupt.

If you talk to them, it's because they see the lobbying that occurs and they see the money that's in politics in the United States. There's a lot of lobbying and a lot of money in politics in just about every country around the world, but sometimes it's less transparent. So I think one of the things we have is you can see what's going on in Washington, and frankly, it's not what we learned in civics class.

RAZ: Is there anything or anyone that people trust more now than they did, say, 50 years ago?

WOLFERS: Hmm. Off the top of my head, I mean, maybe the military. There's nothing obvious.

RAZ: Mm-hmm. How can a society function if people don't trust the institutions that they organize around?

WOLFERS: For sure, trust is important. There's a literature in economics that claims that trust is important to economic growth.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

WOLFERS: But there are things that can crowd in where trust is missing. So this is where we use legal institutions rather than trust. Comcast came out the other day to hook up cable at my house. There was a time you could trust the cable guy to come on time. You can't anymore. But now what they do is they offer you 20 bucks. If the guy doesn't turn up on time, you get 20 bucks as compensation.

This is tremendously inefficient, by the way. You're going to have to spend half an hour on the phone insisting that you get your 20 bucks. So it would be better if we still lived in times where we could trust. But if not, there are ways that we can use contract to fill in for the missing trust.

RAZ: That seems like a pretty poor substitute.

WOLFERS: This is why economists and sociologists and political scientists emphasize and love trust, because it is such an efficient social institution. For instance, do you trust your kid's schoolteacher? If you do, it's terrific. If you don't, then we have to do very inefficient things. You have to monitor them, ask your kid exactly what they learned in school, figure out whether they're getting enough homework and so on.

And so, absolutely, mistrust leads to a whole lot of inefficiency. We have to just be that much more concerned about every interaction that we have.

RAZ: I mean, you can understand why people mistrust big ideas. For example, it was an article of faith in this country that if you buy a house, it only goes up in value. And people were spending much more than they could afford because that's what everybody else was doing and that's what everybody else told them. Same with the stock market. You put your money in steadily and you're going to get a return.

WOLFERS: And so this is where it's important to think about the incentives facing those who were telling you things. Honestly, if you took your advice on whether to buy a house from a real estate agent, that's such a dopey idea, I think, you've got only yourself to blame. But there are people called financial planners who market themselves as giving you third-party advice that you should be able to trust. But they don't tell you about their conflicts of interest and the fact that they get paid more if you sell - if they sell you on this product rather than that.

And so that's a case where, I think, there's a very important role for the government in regulating those sectors so that we can actually have faith in, that is, trust those who are holding themselves out as experts.

RAZ: Justin Wolfers from the University of Pennsylvania. So that's where we are, but how did we get here? Tom Brokaw, who do you trust?

TOM BROKAW: I trust my wife. I trust my own instincts after all these years.

RAZ: Tom Brokaw is still cited in polls as the most trusted man in news. But to be fair, he's often tied with Jon Stewart. Brokaw is probably the last newsman from an age when those guys were the most trusted in the country.

BROKAW: We trusted big institutions. We trusted government to do the right thing. They'd led us through World War II, after all. There were enormous public works projects going out across America providing jobs for people, interstate highway systems. It was a robust time in America in which, you know, there was enormous pride in what this country had become. Now that began to change in the '60s. But over the years, I've always been the essential optimist about this country, and I do still believe in its exceptionalism.

RAZ: Justin Wolfers, the professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has looked not just at government but at a lot of institutions: big business, the courts, banks and, indeed, the media. And he has found that pubic confidence in all of those institutions is at all-time low.

BROKAW: My guess is that a lot of that grows out of the economic dislocation that we're going through now. So many of the things that we took for granted, so many of the (unintelligible) that we came to accept as truths have proved not to be that. The younger people who are coming out of college now, the millennials, as they're called, have watched their parents lose jobs or get furloughed. That's led them to return to home in many instances.

I think now 40 percent of the college graduates are going back to live with their parents and they say because we can trust our parents and we don't trust corporations. There are a lot of plays that are in motion here and they have consequences.

RAZ: I was at the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations here in Washington last week. We met a young man who said very frankly that he does not expect to do better than the generation before him.

BROKAW: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Well, I think that we have to re-examine that. What does that mean? That we're going to have ever-larger homes? After all, this can't go on infinitely. Ever-larger cars, more cars, more second homes? I think the question should be reframed in terms of what does that mean to have a better life than your parents? And it should be about the quality of life, the quality of life's experiences, the kinds of education that you get, the contributions that you make to your country, how you fit into your community. Those are really more important measures of a society over the long haul than the piling up of toys and things. And we've kind of lost sight of that.

RAZ: Tom Brokaw. He's written a new book about this. It's called "The Times of Our Lives." Now, according to Justin Wolfers' research, trust is cyclical. It does go back up in boom times.

WOLFERS: Whether we can get back to the early '60s and late '50s, when we really had enormous trust in government, is an open question, and the political landscape and the technology with which we monitor our government has changed. Whether that greater transparency can lead to greater trust, frankly, I don't know.

RAZ: By the way, Justin told us that recently, he got rid of his financial planner, says he doesn't trust them anymore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program