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Trust In America: Recovering What's Lost

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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 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


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