Trust Me

One of the approximately ten zillion critical tasks facing President Biden is the need to restore Americans’ trust in the integrity of their government. Biden is well-equipped to begin that restoration–he is a thoroughly decent and trustworthy man–but it won’t be easy.

Time Magazine recently began an article with some very concerning data:

After an unprecedented year of global pain, loss and uncertainty, a new report finds that 2020 marked “an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world.”

The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, a study published annually by global communications firm Edelman, unveiled its findings on Wednesday after conducting more than 33,000 online surveys in 28 countries between October and November 2020. The firm found that public trust had eroded even further in social institutions—which Edelman defines as government, business, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and media—from 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, global outcry against racial injustice and growing mistrust of what political leaders say and journalists report.

The research found that most people trust businesses– especially their own employers– over government and media. Trust in journalists is split along party lines. Among the consequences of this pervasive distrust is a particularly worrisome one:  only 1 in 3 people are “ready to take the [COVID-19] vaccine as soon as possible.”

Social trust is an essential and irreplaceable basis of a democratic society. Social capital–the bonding and bridging connections to others that make a society work–is defined as a combination of trust and reciprocity.

Social scientists warn that erosion of interpersonal trust has very negative implications for democratic self-government. When I was researching my 2009 book Distrust, American Style, that erosion was already visible. Some scholars suggested that the country’s growing diversity had led to a loss of the cohesion achievable in more homogeneous societies; my research suggested a different culprit. I became absolutely convinced that generalized social trust requires reliably trustworthy social and governing institutions.

In other words, fish rot from the head.

As I argued in that book, the nature of the trust we need is justifiable confidence in the integrity of government and civil society writ large. That confidence was being steadily undermined–not just by what seemed to be daily scandals in business (Enron, Worldcom, et al), sports (doping, dog fighting), religion (revelations about the Catholic Church’s inadequate response to child molestation), and the George W. Bush government (duplicities which seem almost innocent in contrast to the past four years)–but especially  by the Internet.

Suddenly, Americans were marinating in information. Publicity about each scandal and details about a seemingly pervasive lack of trustworthiness was impossible to avoid.

It has gotten considerably worse since 2009. Now we are swimming in a vast sea of information, disinformation, propaganda and conspiracy theories–and as a consequence, trust has continued its sharp decline.

The problem is, without widespread social trust, societies are impossible to maintain.

Think about our daily lives: we deposit our paychecks and trust that the amount will be reflected on our next bank statement. We put a deposit down with the local electric utility and trust that service will be forthcoming. We call the fire department and anticipate their speedy arrival. We drop our clothing off at the cleaners and trust it will be there, cleaned, to pick up. We buy goods online and trust they’ll arrive. We buy meat at the grocery and trust that it has been inspected and is fit to eat. We board an airplane and trust that it has passed a safety inspection and will travel in its assigned air lane..

I could go on and on, but you get the picture. And that picture is much broader–and social trust much more critical– than most of us realize.

An article in The Week had a relevant factoid: evidently, Twitter’s permanent ban of Trump has already made a huge difference. “One research firm found the amount of misinformation online dropped 73 percent in the week after the president and 70,000 QAnon aficionados were shut down by the platform.”

So–the solution to our trust deficit is obvious and simple (cough, cough); we just have to make government visibly trustworthy again, enforce regulations on the businesses and other institutions that are flouting rules with impunity, and figure out how to get online platforms to disallow misinformation and propaganda, without doing violence to the First Amendment.

Piece of cake!

I think I’m going to go pour myself a very stiff drink….


Music for World-Class Cities

When I was in City Hall back in the late 1970s, the goal was to make Indianapolis a “world class” city. That wasn’t just the rhetoric used by the Mayor and his administration–it was echoed by the City Committee (now long defunct) and by the Lilly Endowment, which facilitated the goal with generous grants.

The decision to make Indianapolis into an amateur sports capital wasn’t made because city leaders loved sports, although many surely did. It was based on a hard-headed analysis of where we might have a comparative advantage. The goal was city-building, and sports were a means to that end.

That was then, and now is now. There is no longer a City Committee, and the Endowment–while still generous and immensely important to Indianapolis– no longer partners with elected officials to improve Indianapolis as it did then. Our current Mayor is not a visionary (to put it kindly). Making matters worse, Indianapolis has lost many of the corporate headquarters and locally-owned banks from which we used to draw private-sector civic leadership.

Now, we are in danger of seeing the Indianapolis Symphony–a symphony befitting a world-class city, a symphony of which we have been justifiably proud–become a part-time (read “second-class”) enterprise.

The Symphony is facing significant financial problems.  It will obviously be important to determine the cause of those problems–poor portfolio management? Unfavorable labor contract? Other? I certainly haven’t a clue, and few outside the Board and musicians themselves are likely to have even a reasonable hypothesis.

But I do know one thing: in addition to being a beloved part of our city’s cultural scene and a point of pride, the symphony is important to our local economy.

Nationally, nonprofit arts organizations generate $135 billion in economic activity annually, supporting 4.1 million jobs and generating $22.3 billion in government revenue. Investment in the arts supports jobs, generates tax revenues, promotes tourism, and advances our increasingly creativity-based economy. The typical arts attendee spends $24.60 per person, per event, not including the cost of admission, on items such as meals, parking, and babysitters. Attendees who live outside the county in which the arts event takes place spend twice as much as their local counterparts.

A symphony season has far more impact on the local economy than football. Early in my academic career, I worked on a paper with an expert in the economic impact of sports. Such impact as exists is by virtue of intangibles–the value of raising the profile of the city with the team, that sort of thing. There was no direct dollar benefit. Despite that lack of immediate economic impact, we pump large amounts of public money into privately-owned sports teams and venues.

To the best of my knowledge, no public money flows to the symphony and a mere pittance is distributed among other arts organizations in the city. The arts have clearly not been a priority.

I am not suggesting that long-term public funding is the answer to the symphony’s current problems. Obviously, figuring out what happened, correcting missteps as possible, and developing a plan for future sustainability is critical, but that process takes time. If Indianapolis weren’t so starved for revenue, some sort of “bridge” loan or grant to keep the symphony going during that time would make a lot of sense, because keeping something important is easier and less costly than trying to rebuild it once it is gone.

Indianapolis used to understand that world-class cities require constant attention and inspired leadership. These days we don’t seem to have either.


Are We There Yet?

Two and a half more months of content-free campaign ads for state and local offices.

Two and a half more months of spin, hyperbole and outright falsehoods from national campaigns and the Super Pacs that support them.

Two and a half more months of voters being addressed as if we are idiots–and two and a half more months during which large numbers of voters behave as if they are–filling the comments sections of blogs with invective, treating complicated issues as if they are simple and obvious, and displaying racism, homophobia and anti-immigrant bigotries.

Elections, as political philosophers remind us, are a sign of human progress, a civilized substitute for warfare and other uses of force to settle our differences. Looked at in that light, perhaps the “dirty tricks,” the inane debates, the “win at all costs” behaviors are understandable, if unattractive.

Maybe we should just learn to live with the reality that elections aren’t really about ideas and competing policies, but more like sporting events where crowds root for those they’ve identified as their “team,” irrespective of the merits and sportsmanship of that team’s players. Maybe we should learn to accept that civilization is just a veneer, that reasoned argumentation based upon evidence and verification is still beyond us.

Maybe we should just accept that we’re not there yet.