The American Political System: The Mistrust Problem
It’s been a little while since I’ve written anything here. In part, my absence was due to just being busy with work, but that’s not the only reason. Sometimes, I just need to stop and just soak in what others are writing, so I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading during my hiatus and that was what I was doing today when I ran across a piece by economist Joseph Stiglitz entitled “The 1 Percent’s Problem”. I don’t know much about Stiglitz other than what he’s written. I suppose the reason I say that is that he’s formerly the chief economist of the World Bank; an institution that clearly serves the same 1% he derides in his op-ed, so it’s hard to understand his motivations in light of that. The fact that I have that question in my mind speaks directly to the mistrust problem that he cogently outlines in the excerpt below:
The Mistrust Problem
One of the puzzles in modern political economy is why anyone bothers to vote. Very few elections actually turn on the ballot of a single individual. There is a cost to voting—no state has an explicit penalty for staying home, but it takes time and effort to get to the polls—and there is seemingly almost never a benefit. Modern political and economic theory assumes the existence of rational, self-interested actors. On that basis, why anyone would vote is a mystery.
The answer is that we’ve been inculcated with notions of “civic virtue.” It is our responsibility to vote. But civic virtue is fragile. If the belief takes hold that the political and economic systems are stacked, individuals will feel released from their civic obligations. When that social contract is abrogated—when trust between a government and its citizens fails—disillusionment, disengagement, or worse is sure to follow. In the United States today, and in many other democracies around the world, mistrust is on the ascendant.
It’s even built in. The head of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, made it perfectly clear: sophisticated investors don’t, or at least shouldn’t, rely on trust. Those who bought the products his bank sold were consenting adults who should have known better. They should have known that Goldman Sachs had the means, and the incentive, to design products that would fail; that they had the means and the incentive to create asymmetries of information—where they knew more about the products than the buyers did—and the means and the incentive to take advantage of those asymmetries. The people who fell victim to the investment banks were, for the most part, well-off investors. But deceptive credit-card practices and predatory lending have left Americans more broadly with a sense that banks are not to be trusted.
Economists often underestimate the role of trust in making our economy work. If every contract had to be enforced by one party taking the other to court, our economy would be in gridlock. Throughout history, the economies that have flourished are those where a handshake is a deal. Without trust, business arrangements based on an understanding that complex details will be worked out later are no longer feasible. Without trust, each participant looks around to see how and when those with whom he is dealing will betray him.
Widening inequality is corrosive of trust: in its economic impact, think of it as the universal solvent. It creates an economic world in which even the winners are wary. But the losers! In every transaction—in every encounter with a boss or business or bureaucrat—they see the hand of someone out to take advantage of them.
Nowhere is trust more important than in politics and the public sphere. There, we have to act together. It’s easier to act together when most individuals are in similar situations—when most of us are, if not in the same boat, at least in boats within a range of like sizes. But growing inequality makes it clear that our fleet looks different—it’s a few mega-yachts surrounded by masses of people in dugout canoes, or clinging to flotsam—which helps explain our vastly differing views of what the government should do.
This excerpt describes how I feel about a great many things and particularly about national politics. I don’t advocate people not voting as it’s really not my place to do so, but disinterest in the process arises naturally when mistrust and irrelevance sets in.
The political parties and their candidates sell us their brand and we only have a choice between two brands; a democrat or a republican. But behind each brand, there’s a sameness or a oneness that really doesn’t distinguish the two in any significant way. In other words, the branding sells the electorate on a difference that really doesn’t exist where it really matters and the staged fights that we see are actually designed to reinforce the branding more than anything else. The nation has lurched towards a vast concentration of wealth and power with the assistance of both parties. We’re in imperialist entanglements due to a very consistent foreign policy pursued by both parties. That foreign policy has saddled us with trillions of dollars of debt and that is leading to a fiscal train wreck that’s been overseen by both parties. There is really no difference between the two where it matters and the differences that are plied to us by the corporate controlled press are on issues that mostly don’t matter while the issues that do matter can’t even be discussed. I liken it to a house that has a leaky faucet in the kitchen while it sits in the path of a raging forest fire. The press and the politicians only talk about the leaky faucet, which is an issue, but it happens to not be as big of an issue as the fire. So, we wind up voting for whoever convinces us that they’re the best person to fix the faucet while no one acknowledges the fire. That’s not rational.
No, there’s no need to advocate that someone not vote, but awareness can lead one to the very rational conclusion that engagement with a broken political process that amounts to a fiction is a waste of time—particularly when there’s a fire lapping at the door. It’s far better to make preparations to escape the flames.