Whom should we trust? I’m not talking about God, family or friends here – I hope those go without saying. From a societal view, we used to trust government, science and academia, the media and big business. Today, however, opinion polls indicate all these institutions are suffering a crisis in confidence.
• The first one on the list, government, is especially problematic. One could point to the current scandals at the Internal Revenue Service, National Security Administration or Justice Department as examples of why folks are less trusting of their government today. But I would argue that all these recent scandals are anomalies. Though they are indeed examples of a blatant misuse of power, they can be rectified; and there is no widespread condoning of these types of actions. In fact, even those who perpetuated them are rushing to condemn them.
The real problem with government runs deeper. While our elected representatives talk about the deficit and the insolvency of many of our entitlement programs, no one seems willing to seriously address these issues. The government loves to warn us of impending calamity, for instance, the budget sequestration that was going to cost 700,000 jobs, raise unemployment and send an already weak economy into a tailspin.
The reality, however, is that job growth, while still well below what’s needed to lower unemployment, improved. Plus, the stock market enjoyed a historic rally, and key indicators like home and car sales seem to be improving. So, despite the best efforts of government agencies to make the cuts as painful as possible, such as furloughs of such key personnel as meat inspectors and traffic controllers, the world got along amazingly well with the cuts in place.
• Science/academia has also changed. However, it isn’t only due to just politically charged issues like global warming, or antibiotic resistance where we can’t be sure whether the data can be trusted or not. Science, and its partner academia, has become a tool to be used by those promoting specific agendas. Science is supposed to be science – it’s supposed to be provable and repeatable and work toward developing irrefutable conclusions. Instead, we now supposedly have good science on every side of the issue.
• Meanwhile, media has become an exaggerated reflection of science/academia. Good journalism and reporting have been replaced with active promotion of specific agendas. Certainly, we’ve seen an increase in editorializing, which isn’t a bad thing, but the distinction between straight reporting and editorializing has become blurred.
• Big business is another intriguing example. Because of the watchdog role of the three institutions of government, science and media, big business used to occupy the position of least trust. But when you examine the issues of employee relations, market manipulation, or a lack of environmental or consumer safety awareness, big business has made gigantic strides in cleaning up its act.
It’s important to note that this change by business wasn’t driven purely by altruistic motives; rather, it simply became good business for big business to act responsibly. Being a good citizen is good business, and the penalties for not doing so are tremendous – legally, regulatory wise, or in the marketplace.
With that said, however, big business still is held in low regard, thanks in no small part to the fact that government, media, and to a lesser degree science, have a vested interest in portraying big business as evil so they may serve as watchdogs over them. Ironically, the system is somewhat similar to organized crime and protection money. Big business must support the other institutions and, in exchange, it might get roughed up a bit, but not attacked with a full-out assault.
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So, back to the question, "Whom do you trust? Certainly, I would say government and the multibillion-dollar lobbying industry that’s grown up beside it aren’t to be trusted. Meanwhile, the media is the biggest player in shaping public policy and the national agenda, and it can’t be trusted. And science and academia have merely responded and adapted to the financial constraints that have been placed upon them. After all, in order to conduct research, they must get funding, which usually caters to the policy agendas of government, business or the like.
The good news is we don’t have to trust any of them in aggregate, but we should trust American values and morals, as most people are genuinely good and trying to do the right thing. So with a lot of research and a wary eye, I think the case can be made that we can trust the American people to ultimately rein in and keep these institutions in check.
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