Across America, Trust is Freefalling

On Main Street in Ventura, CA.
On Main Street in Ventura, CA. | Photo: Snap Man/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Recent studies claim most Americans no longer trust each other. According to recent research, nearly two-thirds of Americans say other people can't be trusted. An Associated Press-GfK survey found that most of us (75 percent) mistrust other drivers, mistrust folks who swipe our credit cards (67 percent), don't trust others on social media (59 percent), and trust politicians only part of the time (81 percent).

Frankly, I'm a little suspicious of an organization that doesn't know how to use the caps key or spell out its name.

According to something called the General Social Survey, our trust levels have fallen precipitously. In 1972, when the General Social Survey first asked if we trusted our fellow man, half of Americans did; which was pretty good considering Richard Nixon and other murky sorts were making headlines with something called Watergate. Now, apparently only a third of us trust our fellow man.

I raise the topic of trust because it comes up all the time, and we must deal with it in the manner we choose.

The other day I was walking along Main Street here in Ventura when I spotted a man sitting on a bench. He was waving his arms and barking oddities. The rest of the world (and I don't blame them) walked quickly past, as if they were G. Gordon Liddy, just summoned to the Oval Office. I stood for a moment, watching. The man bent and picked up a bag of fries, soggy and enormous. There were a lot of fries. He pulled out a handful, more like a softball, and began gnawing around the edges. I am not a private detective, but it looked to me like someone who worked at a nearby restaurant had given him the fries, and not this afternoon.

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There are times when you realize you are luckier than you should be.

I walked up and asked if he would like some money for something to eat.

"Sure," he said. "I haven't eaten in two days."

I looked in my wallet. I had four dollars.

"How about three dollars?"

"Sure," he said, and when I handed him the bills he did something that planted me firmly on the side of the one-third who still trust.

It's true, that almost everywhere we turn, our trust is undermined. At this very moment, my e-mail box has nine e-mails that begin with some version of "Dear Trusted Friend," and, from what I can read without opening them, they are offering me all manner of easy largesse, which I could sorely use. Erik Lim tells me that an airline crash has left me wealthy. Warren Edward Buffett himself is offering me millions. I am tempted to open Warren's e-mail, just to invite him to dinner. He seems like he would be interesting company.

Some studies say it's too late for most Americans to become more trusting. The researchers who conduct these studies claim that a person's trust levels are set by their mid-20's and unlikely to change.

Political and social scientists who study this sort of thing are concerned. Distrust undermines many things; from our politicians' ability to get things done (surprise), to the economic health of our country. Time and money spent building gated communities and producing 200-page legal contracts are time and money that can't be spent elsewhere.

And tail spinning trust becomes self-fulfilling.

Explains one political scientist, "When trust is low, the way we react and behave with each other becomes less civil."

But what about the opposite tack?

I have a bad habit of leaving our garage door open. I am trusting, and perhaps more pertinent, a trifle absent-minded. Since play is what our family does best, we have accumulated an impressive array of toys. One afternoon, I walked out of our house to find our garage door open. I turned to blame one of our two sons, and then realized my lovely wife would see through this, as both of our boys were working. I could have blamed my wife, but any married man sees the problem in this.

Trust me, it was my fault the garage door had been open for most of the afternoon. When I walked in, my surfboard was gone. Of all the boards in our garage (as I said, we like to play), why they had taken the one with the cracked fin was beyond me.

I won't drag this out; I am not paid by the word. With the help of one conniving son, my friend Michael Mariani came into our garage, stole my surfboard, and had it repaired.

When I handed the gentleman on the downtown bench the dollar bills, he counted them carefully.

I was already walking away when he lifted his head.

"Hey," he called out. "Did you know you gave me four dollars?"

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