Americans Are Less Trusting Than Ever. What We Can Do to Fix It:

COMMENTARY | “Trust no one” is the mantra of countless action flicks, espionage movies, relational dramas, and virtually every competition-based reality show ever made. We average citizens worry about false advertising, misleading politicians and bosses, hackers and identity thieves, and computer viruses. The world has become so complex and fast-paced that we fear we cannot keep up. Deep down, we worry that we might be taken advantage of.

“Bowling Alone” author Robert Putnam blames this new pan-digital world, where people prefer to sit home with TV and the Internet instead of socializing in person, for Americans’ record level of distrust of others, reports CBS. Others blame rising economic inequality for the increase in mutual distrust, with researchers pointing out that poor people are less trusting. Naturally, an increase in the percentage of poor Americans leads to an increase in overall public distrust. In 1972, when there was less economic inequality and far more traditional group socializing, the General Social Survey found that half of Americans were generally trusting of others. In 2013 only one-third of Americans feel the same way.

Most alarming is that researchers say the problem is essentially permanent, with little change in citizens’ feelings of trust possible after they reach their mid-twenties. By then, most Americans have made up their minds regarding the workings of society, including the basic decency or honesty of their fellows. Is it any wonder that younger Americans, far more inundated than their predecessors by digital entertainment and news highlighting violence, infidelity, betrayal, manipulation, and snark, are less inclined to trust their peers?

What can we do to improve things?

First, we must rein in inefficient government spending. Too many Americans feel, perhaps rightly so, that most levels of government spend excessively and no longer feel beholden to the will and economic well-being of the citizenry. For example, excessive defense spending burdens citizens’ wallets while providing only limited economic stimulation. Excessive funding of public higher education does to little to boost economic productivity and only further entrenches waste and inefficiency at colleges and universities. Less money should be spend at the federal level on higher education and national defense and should be instead channeled into public infrastructure and K-8 education at the local level. By doing so, more citizens would be able to directly see their tax dollars at work.

Second, we must reduce public organizations’ use of affirmative action. While the U.S. Supreme Court still dances around finally deciding whether or not race-based affirmative action in higher education is necessary, it is likely that affirmative action today generates more controversy and resentment than economic benefit. Do the benefits of continued use of affirmative action still outweigh its social costs? While the time may not yet be right to do away with affirmative action and diversity initiatives used by public organizations, it is likely that the costs of such policies will soon outweigh their benefits. As the Civil Rights Act and president Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty grow smaller and smaller in our collective rearview mirror we feel increasingly suspicious of government-mandated programs that provide special treatment to certain groups.

Third, we must reduce economic inequality by mandating caps on executive pay at publicly-traded corporations. Large corporations only exist due to mass public funding, where virtually every adult citizen can afford to purchase a share of stock. Despite relying on the economic productivity and investment of the public, too many of these corporations behave counter to the public good. They try to increase their own stock price by raising profit margins at the cost of workers’ wages, full-time jobs, and investing in American-made products. The corporation’s stock rises, at least temporarily, but its many workers and vendors suffer. Unless legislators intervene, consumers have little leverage or incentive to attempt to intervene, being primarily interested in the stock prices of their own investments. Though some conservatives will balk, limiting corporate officers’ compensation would improve Americans’ mutual trust by reinforcing the fact that we’re all in this economy together.

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