Team Biden denies we’re in a recession — Americans don’t trust government

Why don’t Americans trust the government and other institutions? Maybe it’s because the government and other institutions aren’t trustworthy. 

There’s certainly plenty of evidence for both the lack of trust and the lack of trustworthiness. And if the trend continues, it bodes poorly for America.

The news is bad on the lack of trust. A recent University of Chicago Institute of Politics poll found that a majority of Americans think that the government is “corrupt and rigged against people like me.” Two-thirds of Republicans and independents felt that way, but things weren’t much better among liberals, 51% of whom agreed. So this isn’t the usual sour grapes from the party out of power — it’s a general sentiment.

Why do people feel that way? Well, that’s a real poser, but I’m going to offer a suggestion: They feel that way because they’ve noticed that the government is corrupt and rigged against people like them.

Those in government live in a world of revolving doors and no consequences. Fail in protecting or serving the public? You’ll likely get off scot-free and land in a cushy private-sector position after your “public service” is over. Then, next time your party is in power, you’ll likely move back into another government position that will set you up for an even cushier private-sector job later.

Gas prices listed at a petrol station in Los Angeles, California on July 19, 2022.
White House officials have denied that the US is in a recession.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

Did you champion a policy that failed spectacularly, spread misery around the globe or got people killed? No matter! The chance that you’ll face anything worse than a critical op-ed is tiny.

As Peggy Noonan says, our society is divided into the “protected” class, which makes policies, and the “unprotected” class that has to live with the policies and their consequences. Your kids may lose their jobs because of green-energy policies; the protected class’ kids will find lucrative positions as green-energy consultants or private-equity partners. Inflation makes food and gas expensive? You’ll feel it, but they will barely notice. War overseas? Their kids won’t be the ones fighting.

And they’ve become shameless. Note this week’s effort to redefine recession before Thursday’s bad gross-domestic-product announcement. Previously, as investment expert Jeffrey Carter notes, a recession meant two consecutive quarters (six months) of economic decline. Now it means . . . something else. 

What else? Whatever is convenient. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen went on TV and said that even if this quarter’s numbers print negative (they did), it’s not a recession because . . . well, just because. As Carter says, “She’s wrong. She knows it. Plus, she told a pretty big fib for a political spin and didn’t do it convincingly. “

When asked to define a recession, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre wouldn’t be specific but said we’re not in one. Or even in a “pre-recession,” whatever that is.

Other administration mouthpieces claimed it won’t count as a recession until the National Bureau of Economic Research pronounces it one, a year or more after the fact. (And conveniently after the midterms, too.) That’s what it did in 2008. The Council of Economic Advisers, Politico reports, is “cranking out blog posts and studies” to try to deny the obvious.

They’ll say anything to retain power. There used to be a certain amount of shame there to limit their excesses, but the political class is utterly shameless now, and people see it.

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen speaks on the state of the US economy during a press conference at the Department of Treasury in Washington, DC, July 28, 2022.
US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the US economy is not in a recession — despite the fact that the latest GDP report showed its second straight quarterly decline.
SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

But the distrust extends beyond politics.

Americans don’t trust institutions in general, according to a Gallup poll conducted last month. After last year’s Afghanistan humiliation, the military — previously highly trusted — took a big hit. Only 5% of people trust newspapers “a great deal” (that many?), and just 2% trust Congress. Nineteen percent trust the police, 15% trust the medical system, 11% trust large technology companies and so on. There’s not much trust out there.

And why should there be? All these institutions have had a bad year. (The police are doing well to hold 19% after the Uvalde massacre, in which cops stood aside while children were murdered within earshot.)

The way you earn trust is to tell people the truth, do the things you promise to do and admit when you’re wrong and do better next time. Lying to people, breaking promises and redefining terms to escape accountability may seem slick to political operatives, but this behavior gets noticed.

Can our nation flourish when most people think it’s basically a big organized-crime operation? I doubt it very much. But who will make our leaders do better?

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and founder of the blog.

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