In the early 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt engaged in “trust-busting” — eliminating the powerful control of a few robber barons over the country, its citizens and our democracy. That was a good thing.
In the early 21st century, we have a different form of trust-busting going on — inept, illegal and amoral acts engaged in by some businesses, politicians and individuals that are destroying the bonds of confidence and faith in each other that bind the nation together. That is a bad thing.
A recent trust-busting act is the Libor “rate fixing” scandal first admitted to by Barclays Bank which is having a ripple effect throughout the financial industry worldwide. While the Libor case provides an egregious example of bad behavior, it is unfortunately just one of many that we have witnessed leading into and following the great recession.
It is merely the tip of the iceberg. These less than exemplary acts are not restricted to any sector. They are cross-cutting. Together, they will not sink the ship of state but they have already made it much less seaworthy.
This trust trauma has captured the attention lately of commentators ranging from economists to columnists and ethicists. In a June 17, Sunday New York Times article titled, “Broken Trust Takes Time to Mend,” Tyler Cowen, George Mason economics professor, wrote, “America is witnessing a collapse of trust in politics, including the shaping of its broad economic policy.” In the same issue of The Times, columnist Maureen Dowd in her article, “Moral Dystopia,” broadened the trust-busting perspective far beyond politics, by asking, “Have our materialism, narcissism, and cynicism about the institutions knitting society — schools, sports, religion, politics, banking — dulled our sense of right or wrong?”
Ms. Dowd turns to James Davison Hunter, a professor of religion, culture and social theory at the University of Virginia for the answer to that question. She quotes Professor Hunter, “We know more, and as a consequence, we no longer trust the authority of traditional institutions who used to be carriers of moral ideals.” Hunter goes on to assert, “Now we experience morality more as a choice that we can always change as circumstances call for it… And what you end up with is a nation of ethical free agents.”
We don’t necessarily agree with Professor’s Hunter’s conclusions regarding the American culture and individual behavior. We do know, however, that numerous studies have indicated an almost complete breakdown of trust in our dominant institutions and the potential for an individual to achieve the American dream through education, hard work and determination.
On April 18, 2010, the Pew Research Center released a report titled, The People and Their Government: Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor. The Pew study, which was conducted in March, 2010, asked people to give their opinions on the effect (positive or negative) that various institutions/groups were having “on the way things are going in the country today.” The highest positive effect ratings were given to: small businesses (71 percent); technology companies (68 percent); and churches and religious organizations (63 percent); and colleges and universities (61 percent). The lowest positive effect ratings were given to: banks and other financial institutions (22 percent); Congress (24 percent); large corporations (25 percent); and the federal government (25 percent).
The same Pew study asked who “gets more attention from the federal government than they should.” The groups who received the highest more attention than they should ratings were: Wall Street (50 percent), business leaders (45 percent), and labor unions (34 percent). The groups who receive the lowest more attention than they should ratings were: small business (8 percent); middle class (9 percent); and poor people (17 percent).
On June 12 of this year, Gallup issued a press release on one of its recent polls that began, “Nearly six in 10 Americans are currently dissatisfied with the opportunity for the next generation to live better than their parents.” The release ended with “bottom line conclusions” which included the following, “Americans are highly ambivalent about the nation’s success at meeting the promise of the American dream. Nearly half seem to doubt that Americans have either the willingness or opportunity to get ahead through hard work.”
In another poll issued on June 4, Gallup found similarly to the 2010 study that the public’s institutional confidence is still waning. The poll’s lead sentence read, “Americans’ confidence in U.S. banks is now at a record-low 21 percent.” Only two institutions got lower marks than banks: health maintenance organizations (19 percent) and Congress (13 percent)
We are definitely at a pivot point in terms of the country’s social contract. America and the American dream are held together by faith in our dominant institutions; a belief that the voice of the individual citizen matters; and, an undeniable hope for upward mobility and personal success. These factors have all been compromised. Public trust is on a teeter-totter.
At the beginning of the 20th century, many businesses felt they were equal, or perhaps superior to the government. For example, when Teddy Roosevelt brought an anti-trust suit against J.P. Morgan’s railroad combine, Morgan said, “Send your man to see my man and tell him to fix it up.” Roosevelt responded, “That cannot be done… No private interest can presume to be equal to the government.”
If there had been no trust-busting, the United States might have evolved into an plutocracy or oligarchy. Virtually all wealth and power could have been concentrated in the hands of a few business people. They would have been able to operate independently with impunity and immunity. The American middle class might never have developed and the concept of the American dream might have died still born.
Today, near the beginning of the 21st century, we are confronted by a different form of trust-busting. For the United States as we have known it to survive and to avoid moving backward to where we were at the beginning of the 20th century, we must bust the trust busters. We must engage in trust-building.
Trust-building can only be done by government, business and societal leaders coming together and setting their personal and political interests aside and working cooperatively in the interests of the public and the American citizen. Trust-building requires concentrating on and emphasizing what unites us rather than what divides us.
There is no task that is more important to the future of the country. Trust-building must be job number one for those who love America and are committed to keeping it the greatest nation on earth.