• Jerry Schuitema

Disruptive distrust

Three critical inferences from the latest global trust barometer.

When a story is repeated often enough, most old hacks will start ignoring it as old news. The public too tires of the refrain and the event quickly fades from the headlines. But occasionally the repetition itself becomes the headline and assumes far greater significance than before. The compilers of the Edelman trust barometer are hard pressed each year to squeeze some headlines out of the trust survey, finding them in annual, country and sector comparisons or shifts in trust between different institutions. So for instance, much has been made of the South Africa’s bottom ranking in trust in government. It has always had this dubious position, albeit as a latecomer (since 2014) to the fold of country respondents. Indeed at 20% this level is 3% higher than when first measured, and the annual drop of 1% is certainly not surprising in the light of load shedding and the State Capture Enquiry.

But globally one comes to an almost frightening picture if one takes a ten year view of the research. That’s about the time that I have been covering this report for Moneyweb, as well as frequent references to this critical issue in my writing in between. The relatively low level of trust in most institutions has for the most part been consistent over this period and probably much earlier, moving from serious to acute to chronic. This gives three critical inferences that can be made and that put the dire state of our economic construct in perspective.

Disruptive and endemic distrust:

Over time we have clearly shifted from lack of trust to endemic and active distrust. When distrust becomes an existential reality humanity can be said to be in a crisis. “If we do not trust one another, we shall all die” says human activist writer, Ariel Dorfman. In the past few years, this distrust has taken the shape of activism on many fronts such as violent protests in parts of the world, including South Africa, France, and From India to Iraq, Venezuela to Algeria, Haiti to Spain, Hong Kong to Colombia, and Puerto Rico to Iran. Millions of people have taken to the streets to demand change, mostly in well organised yet spontaneous and leaderless hordes.

Distrust is the hallmark of the deep polarising of American society, and the national and geo-political tensions that have developed globally in de-globalisation, trade wars, Brexit, and between nations such as U.S. and Iran, or the U.S. and Russia.

Ideologies in question.

Nearly 60% of the Trust Barometer respondents reflected a distrust of capitalism “as it was being practiced.” This is bound to revive the kind of cold war rhetoric that existed before the Berlin wall fell. Nothing can be more counterproductive than people fleeing back into ideological comfort zones and echo chambers of hackneyed platitudes. Perhaps it is time to move beyond the debilitating semantics of capitalism and socialism. There are so many permutations of both in different settings that neither exists in its pure form. Yet the words themselves ignite knee jerk responses based on stubbornly nurtured prejudices.

The Money Crisis.

Like the discussions at the World Economic forum itself, very little serious attention is given in the Trust report to the root cause of most of the global distrust – the development of two economies – one mercantile and industrial, and the other financial. The later has become virtually exclusive, not only fuelling inequality frustrations but starving the real economy of both consumer and productive capital. This was fully covered in my last article “Bracing for a Big Bubbles Burst” and will not be repeated here.

The Trust barometer compilers would do well to broaden their research to the more important existential factors of society. It is one thing to measure trust in Government, business, media and NGO’s, but the real issue of distrust lies in whether people trust statistics such as unemployment, inflation, growth figures and GDP itself, as well as money, markets, prices, investments, stock markets, ideologies, policies, climate, health, education, generations and systems themselves. Above all, do we trust each other?

Trust is a victim of a rapidly changing world. In many respects we are in a place where we have never been but we should not be too afraid of “unchartered waters”, drawing some comfort from history that we have been in unfamiliar places before, and somehow emerged with new approaches and discoveries. This time is no different. But perhaps it is in the scale and depth of questioning all assumptions about economics and about ourselves as a species. The view increasingly being seen is through an evolutionary rather than the traditional reactive quantitative lens – do we evolve or construct on statistical models? This lens is being captured in research directions and discoveries within evolutionary economics and complexity economics, and driven by a number of institutions and scholars.

Reflecting on five or so decades of observing our economic course, I’m convinced more than ever that there is a slow evolutionary and inter-generational shift in our entire socio-economic construct.

I’m equally convinced that what will emerge will be so much better.

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