A Loss of Faith in Government

Last Updated Apr 28, 2010 6:03 AM EDT

I'm at the Milken Global Conference, my third, and I've been trying to detect changes in the attitude of participants, changes in the program, etc. relative to the past two years now that we've moved from recession to what appears to be the beginning of a recovery.

One of the biggest changes I've noticed, and this goes beyond the conference, is the attitude toward government. Republicans have always targeted government as inefficient, bloated, a threat to liberty, and so on, but this is different. The criticism and contempt for government is more widespread, and it's gone beyond a party slogan. Even with many accomplishments under its belt, e.g. health care legislation, and even with the perception of moving forward on immigration, financial reform, and climate change legislation, government is still viewed as ineffective, irresponsible, and unresponsive to people's needs.

Government hurt itself a lot during the financial crisis and subsequent recession, particularly the bank bailouts that began under the Bush administration and continued under Obama. People have lost the sense that government is working on their behalf, that government cares much about them at all. But it seems to care a lot about big financial institutions.

From the perspective of typical households just trying to pay their bills each month, it appears that the players on both sides of the toxic financial bets that brought the economy down have done just fine. The financial titans who lost bets might see the glass as half-empty, but people who work hard everyday -- if they are "lucky" enough to have a job -- see a glass half full of millions and millions and wonder what the so-called financial wizards are complaining about. It's even more perplexing because the many of the titans' (huge) glasses would be completely empty if the government had not used their hard-earned tax dollars to fill the glasses up, even if it is only half-way.

Government has to convince people that it is on their side, but is this even possible? People want contradictory things. For example, people don't want to give up government services. If anything they'd like more government services, but they don't want to pay the taxes necessary to support them -- someone else should do that. If government tries to satisfy the demand for services by raising taxes, by reforming health care to reduce cost growth, by reducing military spending, and so on, people will revolt and toss the politicians out of office. But if problems such as the growth in health care costs are not addressed, the problems will get worse and worse and undermine the government's ability to provide the level of services the public desires.

One of the reasons people are confused about these issues is that they are told confusing things by people that are supposed to be working on their behalf. This won't happen, but politicians could do a lot of good by simply being honest with voters about the challenges we face, and how those challenges can be solved (but only after educating themselves better...). Another way politicians could help is by making sure people understand that although we have some differences, we are all Americans. Painting some groups as un-American because of political disagreements is, well, un-American. And it wouldn't hurt if, when one side tries to bargain in good faith, the other side would return the favor.

To change this, there is a place to start, but it requires politicians to remember who it is they are really working for. This is not a case where some invisible hand is at work that magically transforms what's best for politicians as individuals, or what's best for their political party, into what's best for their constituents or for society more generally. The "Great Political Divide" along with the influence of lobbying money has caused politicians to lose sight of the public purpose they were elected to serve.

This is not a time for government to fail. Problems such as climate change and rising public debt levels due to rapid growth in health care costs are too big for that. Government must find a way to rehabilitate itself if it is going to have any chance at all of meeting the difficult challenges ahead.

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