When trust declines, so does the economy

By Jeremy Adam Smith | September 18, 2008 | 1 comment

Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, on the financial crisis:

Hank Paulson didn't blink, so Lehman Brothers went down the tubes. The end of socialized capitalism? Don't bet on it. The Treasury and the Fed are scrambling to enlarge the government's authority to exchange securities of unknown value for guaranteed securities in an effort to stave off the biggest financial meltdown since the 1930s.

Ironically, a free-market-loving Republican administration is presiding over the most ambitious intrusion of government into the market in almost anyone's memory. But to what end? Bailouts, subsidies, and government insurance won't help Wall Street because the Street's fundamental problem isn't lack of capital. It's lack of trust.

The sub-prime mortgage mess triggered it, but the problem lies much deeper. Financial markets trade in promises — that assets have a certain value, that numbers on a balance sheet are accurate, that a loan carries a limited risk. If investors stop trusting the promises, Wall Street can't function.

But it's turned out that many promises like these weren't worth the paper they were written on.

As we reveal in the next issue of Greater Good, social trust is intimately tied to economic prosperity. As economists and sociologists like Pamela Paxton, Michael Kosfeld, and Paul Zak have discovered in cross-national comparisons, countries whose citizens trust each other and their institutions tend to be more prosperous as a result.

Given these findings, it should come as no surprise that decades of declining trust in America have culminated in the financial equivalent of Hurricane Katrina. Reich writes:

It worked great as long as everyone kept trusting and the market kept roaring. But all it took was a few broken promises for the whole system to break down.

What to do? Not to socialize capitalism with bailouts and subsidies that put taxpayers at risk. If what's lacking is trust rather than capital, the most important steps policymakers can take are to rebuild trust. And the best way to rebuild trust is through regulations that require financial players to stand behind their promises and tell the truth, along with strict oversight to make sure they do.

We tell poor nations they have to make their financial markets transparent before capital will flow to them. Now it's our turn. Lacking adequate regulation or oversight, our financial markets have become a snare and a delusion. Government only has two choices now: Either continue to bail them out, or regulate them in order to keep them honest. I vote for the latter.

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About The Author

Jeremy Adam Smith edits the GGSC’s online magazine, Greater Good. He is also the author or coeditor of four books, including The Daddy Shift, Are We Born Racist?, and The Compassionate Instinct. Before joining the GGSC, Jeremy was a 2010-11 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter!


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Congratulations on this post’s selection for inclusion in the November Carnival of Trust, hosted this month by Jim Peterson at


(I happen to agree with Jim’s selection, but that’s not the point).
Thanks for your contribution to the informed dialogue about the subject of trust.

Charles H. Green

Charles H. Green | 8:35 am, November 17, 2008 | Link

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