Friday, January 15, 2016
Why Our Economy Requires—And Undermines—Trust
I made a rookie mistake at work this week. I hung wood blocking around thirteen windows, a job that took one-and-a-half shifts, and was made even longer because partway through the process, my supervisor took my pneumatic lift away and gave it to a subcontractor. Therefore I did the job with minimal power tools, and no electricity, standing on a ladder wider than the foundation footing it balanced on, constantly fearing I’d fall and die.
But dammit, I did it! With fifteen minutes to spare, I finished the job. I dragged my tools to the Jobox, signed my time card, and barely pulled myself home for a tiny dinner before collapsing, sleeping for ten hours because I’d exhausted myself doing too much work, often defying gravity, with inferior tools. But even at great personal cost, I finished my job promptly. I felt frankly proud of my accomplishments under adverse circumstances.
Except after all that, I forgot to gather and return the leftover cut scraps. Considering that I performed the impossible, ahead of schedule, I thought this a minor error. But four superiors took the opportunity to stand around the office table, mocking me round-robin style. During my break. They took obvious pride in humiliating me for my inexperience, and the mockery just kept coming. I haven’t hated anybody so much in a long time.
I read Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational over two months apart, with plenty of other reading between. But something really stood out between the two. Konnikova, a psychologist turned journalist, writes that trust is essential to individual success. People capable of trusting others are more able to take risks, delegate authority, embrace new opportunities, and other actions necessary for successful entrepreneurship and career advancement. Trust is a marketable career trait.
Ariely, a pioneering behavioral economist, similarly notes measurable economic consequences of trust. Large-scale growth and long-term planning ultimately rely on the expectation that people will, in the main, behave honorably and look to everyone’s mutual benefit. Economies where people behave with baseline standards of trust and honor, like America’s, flourish. Economies where these traits are lacking, like Iran’s, languish. Ayn Rand notwithstanding, we absolutely need other people. Trust isn’t a luxury, it’s an economic necessity.
American society has witnessed the undermining of public trust in recent years. The refusal of Presidents from both major parties to prosecute the bankers who imploded the economy in 2007-2008 has undercut many citizens’ willingness to trust both politics and economics. No wonder outsider insurgents like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders recently took leads in primary polls. Except many Americans distrust polls so much, polling organizations have reported non-response rates as high as 90% lately.
People alive right now have witnessed the full-scale rollback of Progressive Era gains in workers’ rights, social safeguards, and the shared belief that we should have a base minimum below which nobody should fall. And it’s happened with public connivance. The Republican party, whose voting base is overwhelmingly rural and working-class, floated Mitt Romney for President, and promises to float Donald Trump, on the basic platform that “I’m so rich, obviously I’m competent at everything.”
We face a vicious cycle. We absolutely require trust, because without it, all plans remain small, all opportunities circumscribed by fear. But Ariely demonstrates that, when trust is undermined, it’s gone. Not that lost trust cannot be regained, but especially in large gatherings, where individual contributions remain substantially anonymous—from workplaces to economies—one sufficiently bad actor can literally change the entire landscape. Ten thousand honorable people can spend years putting one person’s damages right.
My experience at work this week probably seems small compared to Lehman Brothers submarining millions of pension funds. But my anecdote captures, in small, the problems facing many working-class Americans. We cannot advance ourselves from abjection without banding together, but we cannot band together without trust. And it only takes one vulgar power play to squander all trust. It took my superiors ten minutes to permanently piss away the solidarity we’d spent ten months building.
One major American political party today openly panders to widespread distrust. And working-class people buy that shit because we’ve had our trust systemically undermined for generations. America’s “win-at-any-cost” economic culture has won adherents from our economy’s biggest losers. This seems paradoxical, until you realize how dependent success is on trust. Radical individualism is the opposite of trust. And we won’t improve, as a society, until we discover how to rebuild the trust we’ve long squandered.