Keating: Trust in federal government at all-time low

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“Don’t trust anyone over 30” was the hippy chant of the 1960s. In the 1980s, when dealing with the Soviet Union, President Ronald Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.” And the 1990s television show “The X-Files” gave us the conspiratorial, “Trust no one.”

But what about today? Who do the American people trust?

It turns out that government is down, and small business is up.

On April 18, the Pew Research Center released a survey offering some interesting findings not only on the issue of trust and government, but views on a variety of groups.

Pew reports that trust in the federal government is at one of its all-time lows. The Pew analysis noted: “Just 22 percent of Americans say they trust the government to do what is right ‘just about always’ (3 percent) or ‘most of the time’ (19 percent).” Similar lows came in the periods from 1992 to 1995, and 1978 to 1980.

It’s interesting to point out that those two previous lows wound up producing big wins for Republicans at the ballot box. Another reason for Democrats to be worried this November.

But it turns out that the American people are not feeling very positive about a host of groups. The Pew poll asked whether 13 specific groups had a positive or negative effect on the way things were going in the country. Nine of the 13 were viewed as having a negative impact.

At the bottom were banks and financial institutions, with 22 percent saying these had a positive effect and 69 percent negative. That’s not surprising given the credit mess that hit in 2008, the following taxpayer bailouts, and the relentless bashing of banks and Wall Street via the Obama White House and Congress.

But the political class has not profited from kicking around banks. As for Congress, 65 percent say it has had a negative impact on the nation, with only 24 percent saying positive. The federal government in general comes in at 65 percent negative and 25 percent positive; federal agencies 54 percent negative and 31 percent positive; and the Obama administration breaks even at 45 percent-45 percent.

Indeed, government is not faring well among the American people, yet politicians are expanding the size, costs and intrusiveness of government seemingly by the day. Of course, this unprecedented expansion of government could be why views are so negative about government, Congress and the White House.

Beyond the state, other big players are not faring well either. Large corporations are seen as having a negative effect on how things are going by 64 percent, with only 25 percent saying positive. That reflects a longtime populist strain among Americans against “big business,” despite the fact that a corporation cannot become big other than by serving many customers well.

The national news media takes a hit, with 57 percent viewing it as having a negative effect versus 31 percent saying positive. That’s not surprising, given frequent complaints about an inordinate focus on negatives by the press.

The entertainment industry also suffers from 51 percent viewing it as a negative and only 33 percent positive. Again, a longstanding dichotomy exists here of criticisms about gratuitous sex and violence, for example, yet large numbers consuming such entertainment.

Finally among the negatives are labor unions. Since labor union membership is dwindling to insignificant levels in the private sector, it’s not surprising to see a breakdown of 49 percent negative on unions and 32 percent positive.

Only four groups are viewed positively. Higher education does well. Colleges and universities are viewed as making positive contributions by 61 percent, with 26 percent seeing them as negatives. The idea that it’s important to get a college degree apparently holds strong. Interestingly, though, only 27.5 percent of Americans 25 or older had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2007, according to the Census Bureau.

Churches and religious organizations come in strong as well — 63 percent seeing them as positives and 22 percent as negatives. That’s something positive to latch onto when it comes to values, morals and ethics.

But the big winners turn out to be technology companies and small businesses. Sixty-eight percent view technology companies as being positives, opposed to 18% seeing them negatively.

By the way, no word on how “large” technology businesses might be viewed, or if there is any understanding that banks and financial institutions play key roles in providing capital for technology firms.

In the end, small businesses beat all — with 71 percent seeing small firms as having a positive effect, and only 19 percent a negative one.

These views of small businesses, as well as technology firms, reflect the value Americans put on innovation, invention, economic growth and job creation, as all such economic benefits spring overwhelmingly from the entrepreneurial sector of our economy.

The message? Trust entrepreneurs, not politicians and bureaucrats.

Keating is chief economist for the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council. He can be reached at rkeating@sbecouncil.org.