Social Trust

It was the graduate work at Duke long ago – the major in Early Eighteen Century British Literature and the minor in Early Twentieth Century American Literature – that led to the suggestion from many to go see that Woody Allen movie about the screenwriter who wanted to live in Paris in the twenties, and magically found himself there – even if what he found was confusing and unsettling. That movie should have been just the thing, it’s just that it was cartoonish obvious and broadly absurd, which actually may have been the point. Hemingway probably was a pretentious jerk. Malibu, just down the road out here, would have been a better choice for the film’s dreamer, as his fiancée kept telling him. That’s obvious. For a good number of years it was the Friday evening Air France non-stop from LA to Paris each December, for a few weeks of kicking around alone in the city of Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, and they weren’t there. Still the city was fine and the cognac good, as Hemingway would say. It’s just that London in 1727 would be as good as Paris in the twenties – John Gay’s Beggars Opera opened and Alexander Pope was being witty and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels had just stunned everyone. Everyone remembers the little people and the big people and the wise and beautiful horses that make mankind seem grotesque, but there’s also all the odd stuff in the third book. There Gulliver encounters the struldbrugs, the unfortunates who are immortal. They live on but without eternal youth, or even reasonable adulthood. They’re just old and smelly and are considered legally dead at the age of eighty. Be careful what you wish for. Swift was rooming with Pope in London that year, but you probably wouldn’t want to drop in for a visit. They were both snide and acid-tongued fellows.

The present will have to do, even for those of us who are also getting old and smelly, where one of the few pleasures is to think back on times no one remembers – when things were different. What you can remember, first hand, is the present in an odd way – you can think it should be still the present. It’s not Golden Age Thinking if you were actually there. Paris in the twenties is one thing, and London in 1727 another, but there was Pittsburgh in 1957 – and the new raw suburb for those who’d just clawed their way up to the lowest rung of the middle-class ladder but where no one locked their doors, and your father left the keys in the car in the driveway, because no one would steal it, and where neither Boy Scout leaders nor the local priests were child molesters. People even believed what they saw on the short evening news programs and believed what they read in the morning and evening newspapers and the weekly news glossies. Even Hollywood stars were good people, for the most part. There was something in the air then that’s not in air now – social trust. The assumption was that most people could be trusted to do the right thing and anyone that did something untrustworthy was a rare oddball. People even trusted the government, probably because that careful and thoughtful and nice Eisenhower fellow was in the White House. No one was walking around with assault rifles because you couldn’t trust anyone.

It goes without saying that things changed. It’s not just Boy Scout leaders and the local priests – now you can’t trust any of your fellow citizens. Teachers and firefighters and cops have their unions and are, as Chris Christie says, the new welfare queens. Everyone wants your stuff – or at least forty-seven percent of them do, those who want more of the government doing things for them, further undermining any sense of personal responsibility in the masses of these moochers and whiners who love to play victim. As for the current debate about gun control, or at least gun safety, sure, arm all the teachers, if not the students – the world is full of madmen out to kills us all. You have to protect yourself – because no one else will. You can’t trust anyone else to do that – not anyone. That only makes sense, or so they say.

That only makes sense in a world where all sense of social trust ebbed away long ago. What can you do for your kid in such a world? Hand him a semiautomatic and few high-capacity clips full of hollow-points and tell him to trust no one, and be a patriot. That may be absurd, but if enough parents feel that way you don’t want your kid to be at a disadvantage, or dead.

The world had changed. A 2007 Pew Poll shows this:

Social trust is a belief in the honesty, integrity and reliability of others – a “faith in people.” It’s a simple enough concept to describe. But it’s never been easy to figure out who trusts, or why. …

The question of what explains social trust – and why certain societies are more trusting than others – has long fascinated social scientists. Many theories have been advanced – personal optimism; voluntary associations; homogeneous societies; equal opportunities; honest governments – but over the years, not all have stood up to empirical scrutiny. Cross-national surveys have found that the highest levels of social trust are in the homogeneous, egalitarian, well-to-do countries of Scandinavia, while the lowest levels of trust tend to be found in South America, Africa and parts of Asia.

America is sort of in the middle of this scale, and dropping, and the Pew results about us were lumpy:

Education: Some 50% of college graduates have high levels of social trust, compared with 28% of those with a high school education or less.

Social/economic class: Some 50% of those who describe their household as professional or business class have high levels of social trust, compared with 30% of those who describe themselves as working class and 18% among those who describe themselves as the struggling class.

Military experience: Some 46% of men with military experience (either as veterans or currently in the armed services) have high levels of social trust, compared with 35% among men who have never served in the military.

Voting history: People who voted in the last presidential election are nearly twice as likely as people who didn’t vote (40% compared with 23%) to have a high level of social trust.

In short, learn enough about the real world and you don’t end up walking around fully armed, with an itchy trigger finger.

Brad Reid puts it this way:

Modern mobility and increasing individualism inevitably make us strangers. We may have been taught by a parent, with good reason, not to talk to strangers. Of course, we cannot turn back the clock to an imagined blissful time. Nevertheless, social trust is essential to a cohesive society. Without social trust we find ourselves only trusting immediate family and selective tight-knit groups. Even the closest groups have been penetrated by contemporary affinity frauds. In the absence of social trust “the other” is feared or exploited because it is anticipated that the same will happen to us. Whenever we cheat or are cheated, the “bank balance” of social trust declines. It takes radical change to reverse a social situation of competing groups not trusting the motivations of one another. One such radical call for change was to “love your enemies.”

Don’t tell that to the no-compromise Tea Party crowd. Trust only the selective tight-knit group, but consider this:

There can be no social trust or cohesion when both the outward actions and inward motivations are not viewed as credible. If one is cut-off in traffic and especially ascribes the worst motivations to the other driver, road rage may result. Is our social trust declining in the economic and political arenas so that actions are perceived to have resulted from the most malicious of motivations? We hear more public discourse today that impugns motives of “the other.” What is the likely outcome of this trend?

What is the likely outcome of this trend? Read the news, or these days watch the news, or more likely, watch your favorite talking-head explain the news. Expectations are developed there:

It is correct that we take our behavioral cues from what appears normative. Consequently, we must ask what behaviors are considered normative in our contemporary social, political and business environments. Do we expect to be exploited and see evidence of exploitation? …

Individuals with a mass media forum in our society may increase or decrease the expectation of social trust by their actions and statements. Media attention, however, may provide a personal road to fame, power and wealth. An easy way to obtain media attention is to be shocking by essentially declaring that opponents have a “heart … filled with malice.” However, no dialogue or social trust can exist when “the other” is perceived as completely evil.

Well yes, corrosive cynicism pays well. It made Rush Limbaugh a millionaire many times over and it keeps Fox News in the black, in more ways than one.

Reid also mentions this:

The last sentence of the Declaration of Independence states: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Considerable trust in one another is expressed in this sentence.

Those days are long gone, but there are even more recent days that are long gone too, which Joan Walsh, Salon’s editor-at-large explores in her recent book, What’s the Matter with White People: Why We Long for a Golden Age That Never Was – all about her family and how the sixties pitted Americans against each another in new and oddly destructive ways. Everyone has fallen behind economically, except the wealthy, but those on the right blamed the decline on the moral shortcomings of “other” Americans – black folks, feminists, gays, immigrants, union members – and liberals tried, but mostly failed, to make the case that we’re all in this together. It split her family in two. It split America in two. On one side were those who trust. The other side trusts no one.

Now Joan Walsh is at it again:

It was 48 years ago this weekend, Jan. 4 to be precise, that President Lyndon Johnson outlined his vision of “the Great Society” in his 1965 State of the Union address. Although lots of programs remain, his signature effort, and the one that remains strongest and by far the most popular, was the 1965 Social Security Act that created Medicare and Medicaid and expanded Social Security benefits. Outside of the fancy hotels and think-tank offices where cosseted Beltway deficit scolds and shiny “Fix the Debt” flacks convene, those programs are wildly popular, to this day.

Those were exercises in social trust, but set up in very clever ways:

First, in a country with a particular fear of slackers and moochers, the proverbial “free-riders,” they were tied to your work history, with “payroll taxes” that at least partly helped fund your eventual benefits. They’ve come to be called “entitlements,” a term the programs’ would-be “reformers” use to make recipients sound like greedy entitled geezers, because you’re entitled to them: You paid for them (or for part of them). Second, they went to a group we can all empathize with: senior citizens, whether because we have elderly parents or grandparents, or because we’ll eventually be old ourselves (we hope). Finally, they were universal programs that avoided “means testing,” because first Franklin Delano Roosevelt and then Johnson knew that programs that only went to the poor tended to be unpopular, poorly funded and politically vulnerable.

Thanks to those design innovations, Roosevelt once said, “no damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program.” The same goes for Medicare, outside the Randian salons frequented by Paul Ryan and his friends. Ryan’s proposal to replace Medicare with “Vouchercare” is part of what went down to defeat in the last election, just as George W. Bush’s effort to use his 2004 reelection “capital” to privatize Social Security went no place, either.

They did have that we’re-all-in-this-together thing going for them, which had made them bulletproof, so far, but maybe for not much longer:

“Scrapping” Social Security and Medicare aren’t on the agenda right now, but “stabilizing” them is, and most of the mainstream proposals for doing so involve cuts to the program, whether by changing the formula for cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security, or raising the Medicare eligibility age. President Obama is on record supporting the “chained CPI” for Social Security, and he was widely reported to be willing to hike the Medicare eligibility age in his 2011 round of talks to lift the debt ceiling. “Means-testing” Medicare is even more popular, even among Democrats.

Why would Obama do this? Walsh suggests because he still wants some kind of “grand bargain,” which is understandable:

Not only for glory, but to leave our social welfare state broader – as he did with the Affordable Care Act – and more stable than he found it. It’s an admirable impulse; the question is how far he’ll go and exactly what he’ll do to achieve it.

That’s the real problem here:

I expect there to continue to be talk of cuts to Social Security and Medicare, even though voters don’t want them. Pro-cut Democrats won’t call them cuts – they’ll be “tweaks” and “adjustments” to “stabilize” the popular programs. I don’t want to be in the position of arguing that neither program needs “stabilizing,” especially as the baby boom wave ages. But it seems to me even some Democratic reformers are missing what has protected the programs: that they’re universal, they aren’t means-tested (although well-off seniors pay higher Medicare premiums) and they’re tied to work. We should pay attention to what’s kept these programs thriving and popular, and our efforts to “stabilize” them shouldn’t mess with those.

Walsh goes on to cite a study that countries with widely available universal social insurance programs enjoy higher levels of social trust – which leaves us an outlier on all this:

Unfortunately, outside of public education (which varies hugely in quality depending on where you live), Social Security and Medicare are our only large-scale universal programs today. The U.S. has the most rickety public opportunity ladder of any industrialized country. Universal programs for healthcare, childcare, preschool, some form of higher education, workforce transitions and unemployment benefits are all more common and more generous in other Western democracies.

For whatever reason, we haven’t mustered the social trust and political muscle needed to create universal programs for more than just the elderly – universal preschool and higher education, to cite two pressing priorities. Our need to invest more in those areas – and in the young generally – is driving some to suggest that we have a moral duty to trim programs for the elderly to fund programs for the young.

Be that as it may, we seem to be about to wipe out one last area of social trust:

The fact is, at a time when political distrust is rising, especially between leaders of the country’s two main parties, it seems significant – and disturbing – that one widely endorsed area for “compromise” involves our two big universal guaranteed programs, Social Security and Medicare. If universal programs foster social trust, it might be a bad idea right now, as our country is trying to cohere across not only political but racial and ethnic lines, to dismantle our signature universal programs. What if we talked about creating more of them, rather than shredding the ones we have?

Why? That would be because this isn’t 1957 in Pittsburgh. Still, when you dig in, the proposed fixes for what little we have seem absurd:

Many of the proposals to “tweak” the programs involve slicing and dicing populations in ways that add bureaucracy and make little sense. Raising the Medicare eligibility age does nothing about escalating healthcare costs – it merely passes those costs on to other people, either beneficiaries or state and local governments, and it makes the costs higher by removing those people from the well-run, low-overhead Medicare pool. …

Raising the eligibility age for both programs for only some people – the wealthy, say, or people with sedentary, less demanding careers – would take away something else that’s great about the program: There’s far less bureaucracy than in means-tested programs. Means-testing for Medicare might actually cost money, or come close. Raising the eligibility age for people who’ve had high lifetime incomes, as proposed by healthcare management expert Ezekiel Emanuel, puts the government in charge of deciding who’s in need and who’s been profligate with a lifetime of earnings. (Did I really need to send my daughter to college?) Imposing a “chained CPI” but exempting some seniors or building in higher benefits for the very old, again, takes a fairly simple program and makes it more costly, complicated and divisive.

And bureaucracy aside, it’s hard not to notice that the end result of all those moves is to do what FDR and LBJ opposed: to throw more Americans back into the private market, making it necessary that they invest more of their income before they retire and purchase their own health insurance for longer. Markets do some things well. Insuring healthcare for seniors, or guaranteeing a floor of income when they retired, is not among them.

Okay fine, but then she gets to the heart of the matter:

One way I think about the march of human progress is that over time, we’ve managed to extend basic rights and certain privileges once reserved for the rich to the non-rich. Politically, in this country that meant expanding voting rights gradually, from white men who met certain qualifications, to all white men, to black men, to women, and then, with the Voting Rights Act, to every adult. On the material front, it began with little things: a defined period known as “childhood,” safe from compulsory labor, along with basic education. It expanded to a safe workplace. Weekends. Vacations. Temporary social insurance in hard times, and finally, a period in old-age that’s safe from penury. We reduced the power of the wealthy, whether feudal lords or modern CEOs, to command that we work from cradle to grave.

We pretty much stopped there. Laws to prevent discrimination certainly helped people climb out of poverty, but too many people got stuck there and more are returning there every day. Still, the goal now shouldn’t be to sacrifice what we have, but to extend it to more of us.

Perhaps that’s class warfare, or justice, or just a trusting person assuming everyone else is very trusting – a retro view these days, even if it is Obama’s view:

In his first inaugural address Obama said we’d solve more problems “if we could just recognize ourselves in one another.” Maybe this next multicultural generation will develop the social trust to finish the job.

That may be Golden Age Thinking – but it’s better than longing for Paris in the twenties, or the London of Pope and Swift.

Actually let’s go back to London in 1750 and grab a copy of The Rambler – No. 79 (18 December 1750) – where Samuel Johnson says this:

As it is necessary not to invite robbery by supineness, so it is our duty not to suppress tenderness by suspicion; it is better to suffer wrong than to do it, and happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust.

Social trust is everything. Without it there’s every-man-for-himself chaos, or total but terrible freedom if you wish.

Of course freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, or so wrote the man who was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford – and a big fan of the eighteenth century British poet William Blake too. Yep, the eighteen century gave us Pope and Swift and Johnson and Blake, and that Declaration of Independence with those words about trusting and watching out for each other. Something got lost along the way.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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3 Responses to Social Trust

  1. Rick says:

    Just this morning on TV, in the middle of just another news report about the fact that, since Sandy Hook, “assault rifles” have been flying off the shelves, there was a soundbite from somebody to the effect that, “the majority of Americans are responsible gun owners” — at which point I stopped doing whatever it was I was doing and asked myself if that was technically true — that is, do a majority of Americans even own guns?

    So I Googled “percentage of gun ownership” in America, and found that, according to Michael Wolf, an associate professor of political science at IPFW (Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne), in an article published this morning in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, “Most sources show that more than 40 percent of American households own a firearm” — which is to say, yes, a sizeable minority do, but no, not a majority of Americans own guns.

    But my next question was, who are these people who are binge-buying guns right now? Yes, they’re obviously anxious to get ahead of any upcoming new attempts at gun control, but what are they planning to do with those guns?

    Not go hunting, or at least not many of them, according to that same article, which points out that “the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service puts the percentage of people who hunted in 2011 at around 4 percent, so gun ownership goes far beyond hunters.”

    Surprisingly, the article also claims that the much exalted “Right to Bear Arms” is not as big a factor in gun ownership as we might think: “Analysis of the 2004 election studies shows that most gun owners do not defend the right to bear arms as part of a broader embrace of civil liberties. Rather, security and social order issues concern gun owners far more than rights and liberties.”

    So my guess is the people buying these guns are either (a) afraid someone will attack them or their family, so they need a gun for self-defense, or maybe are (b) afraid their government will come and try some funny business with them — specifically, try to take away their guns.

    Both these cases seem to indicate that — and this brings us back to the theme of your column — these are people who are low on social trust.

    I often wonder about that first group, the anti-crime crowd. Do they have personal experience in which they or someone they know were robbed or threatened, maybe with a gun, in which a gun might have helped them?

    Personally, I have not. And although I’ve been warned by gun advocates to never admit this, it’s my understanding that very few, if any, of my neighbors own guns. But rather than making us feel more unsafe, it actually makes us feel more safe to live in a place where people trust each other, and trust the world they live in.

    Of course, it may be worth noting that my area votes strongly Democratic. And yes, while gun ownership is mostly bipartisan, it’s also worth mentioning that, according to the above article, which cites polling by Nate Silver, “56 percent of Republicans own guns compared with only 31 percent of Democrats”.

    Could this be because Democrats enjoy a higher level of social trust?

    As for the people who think that lots of gun ownership is necessary so that citizens not be oppressed by their government, I happened to Google that (“number of guns per capita by country”) this morning, too, and firstly learned that the United States, of course, had far and away the highest rate of gun ownership in the world in 2007 (88.8 guns per 100 people).

    But can you guess which country came in last place on that list, at 178th, with just one tenth of one gun per 100 citizens? Okay, here’s a hint: the low rate was “due to very strict gun control under the Ben Ali regime”.

    Give up? Tunisia!

    You may remember Tunisia as that North African country where, back in early 2011, the citizenry overthrew Ben Ali, and that whole Arab Spring thing got its start — the lesson here being that an armed citizenry is obviously not an absolutely necessary ingredient to overthrowing a tyrannical government, if such a thing is what’s needed.

    I imagine all of that would have come as a surprise to Thomas Jefferson, what with his famous comment about the Liberty Tree now and then needing to be watered by the blood of tyrants and patriots, or whatever. But it seems to me that anyone who would say that sort of whacky thing must have lived in a pretty scary world.


    • Russell Sadler says:

      This panic buying of guns and hoarding of ammunition reminds me of the hoarding of gasoline during the Arab Oil Embargo of the early 1970s. And just about as rational.

  2. Russell Sadler says:

    Great post, Alan. An important passage from Steven Shapin’s magisterial book, A Social History of the Truth:

    “Trust is, quite literally, the great civility. Mundane reason is the space across which trust plays. It provides a set of presuppositions about self, others, and the world which embed trust and which permit both consensus and civil dissent to occur. A world-known-in-common is built up through acts of trust, and its properties are decided thought the civil conversations of trusting individuals. The root of all civility and good manners is therefore the presumption of that basic perceptual competence and sincerity which provide warrants for our conversation as being reliably oriented towards and about the realities upon which we report. The ultimate incivility is the public withdrawal of trust in another’s access to the world and in another’s moral commitment to speaking truth about it: those who cannot be trusted to report reliably and sincerely about the world may not belong to our community of discourse. It is not just that we don’t agree with them; it is that we have withdrawn the possibility of disagreeing with them. The external determinate world is preserved across this great incivility; what is lost is the presumption of a world-known-in-common between the participants of such a rupture. The great civility, therefore, is granting the conditions in which others can colonize our minds and expecting the conditions which allow us to colonize theirs. It is in this sense that a world-known-in-common is part of the moral fabric of ordinary social interaction.”

    page 36. A Social History of the Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England by Steven Shapin.

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