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The Coronavirus Crisis Shows Why, If We Are To Solve Big Problems, We First Need To Rebuild Trust

2020 May 3
by Greg Satell

We’re beginning to see the peak of the Coronavirus crisis in hard-hit urban areas like New York City, thanks to social distancing measures and the bravery and dedication of healthcare workers. Yet despite the progress, you only have to look at Singapore to see that the epidemic can back flare up at any time.

Meanwhile, we’re seeing armed mobs show up at state capitals to protest lockdown restrictions even as Covid-19 hotspots shift from larger cities to rural areas like Albany, GA, Sioux Falls, SD and Gallup, NM. In many ways, these areas are more vulnerable due to higher prevalence of health conditions and less access to medical care.

Clearly, we have a deep problem with trust. Research from Gallup finds that trust in institutions has been declining for decades. A study at Ohio State found that, when confronted with scientific evidence that conflicted with their views, people would question the objectivity of the science. Our social contract is broken. We need to establish a new one.

Disruptive Generational Shifts

We didn’t get here by accident. Our current age of distrust grew out of four generational shifts that have been brewing over the last 50 years. First, and most obvious, are the technology shifts, including digital technology, as well as advances in antibiotics, genomics and agriculture. Generally, these have been positive developments, but have contributed to historically high levels of income inequality, which undermines social cohesion.

The second shift is of resources. We have seen oil’s rise to dominance since the 1970s, which has greatly affected geopolitics over the past half-century, but now may be reversing. The price for oil actually fell into negative territory recently. Coal has largely been displaced by natural gas and renewables, while other resources, such as rare earth elements, are in high demand and subject to supply disruptions.

The third shift is migratory. Since 1970, the share of immigrants in the US has risen from a low of 4.7% to 13.6% of the population, the most since the 1890s. In 2015, the foreign born population in the US totaled almost 45 million, many of which have religious and cultural heritages that often seem strange to their native born neighbors.

Lastly, and possibly most importantly, we are beginning to see a massive demographic shift. Over the next decade, baby-boomers, many of whom came of age during the Reagan revolution, will be replaced by millennials, whose experiences with the Great Recession, debilitating student loan debt and rising healthcare costs, have very different priorities.

So you can see where all the tension in our society is coming from. Americans are seeing their work life disrupted by technology, while they also compete for scarce resources with people who not only look and sound different, but often have very different values and beliefs, and all this is happening in the midst of a massive generational political shift.

Our Prisoner’s Dilemma

In theory, finding a way forward shouldn’t be complicated. We only need to analyze the issues, identify options and build a consensus on what to do. Yet in the early 1950’s, researchers at the RAND Corporation were able to show why things aren’t so simple, through a thought experiment called the prisoner’s dilemma, which involves two suspects being interrogated separately.

Here’s how it works: If both prisoners cooperate with each other and neither confesses, they each get one year in prison on a lesser charge. If one confesses, he gets off scot-free, while his partner gets five years. If they both rat each other out, then they get three years each for a total of six years, collectively the worst outcome of all.

Notice how if each player acts purely out of rational self-interest, the best strategy is to defect. No matter what the other does, each one is better off ratting his partner out. Yet in the pursuit of self-interest, both are made worse off. It’s a frustrating problem. Game theorists call it a Nash equilibrium—one in which nobody can improve their position by a unilateral move. It takes trust.

It seems that we have a similar problem today. For example, in their study of the Tea Party movement, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williams found that the activists, who were mostly older Americans, were not against government spending in general. For instance, they supported Medicare and Social Security. It was the benefits that went to others, who they saw as “freeloaders,” that they found objectionable.

Rebuilding Shared Purpose

It’s not hard to see why we’re so divided in America. 50 years ago, our society was largely homogeneous—white, christian and middle class. Today, however, due to the four generational shifts noted above, we’ve become a patchwork of interests and cultures and that makes it hard to create the kind of trust we need to overcome our prisoner’s dilemma.

For example, the Tea Party activists that Skocpol and Williams studied believed that younger Americans were trying to get free healthcare and didn’t want to pay for it. Younger Americans, however, could point out that they not only already have to pay into the Medicare system that older Americans enjoy, but that they will also have to pay for decades of debt that their elders have accrued (in large part because of Medicare).

Finding shared purpose is even more difficult when race and culture come into play. Many people want to protect and preserve their communities from people they see as having different values and heritage. Many of those protesting the Covid-19 restrictions made clear that one reason they resented the restrictions was because they were being imposed from outside their communities.

Yet if we are ever going to be able to meet the challenges that face us today—and Covid-19 is only one of many—we will need to create a new sense of shared purpose.

Rewriting The Social Contract

The challenges we face today can seem overwhelming, but we’ve been here before. In the 1930s and 40s, we faced a global depression, massive genocides and a world war that claimed the lives of 75 million people. Europe, once the center of western civilization, was in ruins, its people struggling to survive.

Yet out of those ashes we built a new world order and a new social contract. The United Nations created a global forum for solving problems, Bretton Woods established a global financial system and the Marshall Plan rebuilt Europe. In the US, the New Deal permanently altered the role of the public sector. Out of World War II a new vision for public funding of science transformed America into a technological superpower.

These institutions were far from perfect, but they served us well for half a century. However then, as now, we can’t create a better future simply by looking to the past. The public trust has been shattered because our institutions have failed us. Technology won’t save us. Markets won’t save us. We need to save ourselves.

Yet still, I have to believe our future is bright. The coronavirus pandemic has brought about the greatest scientific mobilization in history and inspired a level of collaboration that until now would have been unheard of. The money and effort invested will likely pay dividends far beyond the current crisis. Similar efforts can help us meet our other challenges.

The first step, however, is to reestablish trust. Lasting change is always built on common ground.

– Greg


Image: Wikimedia Commons



7 Responses leave one →
  1. May 3, 2020

    Excellent perspective. One powerful factor in the current lack of trust is the spread of conspiracy theories of all sorts that are designed to promote distrust — and fuzzy thinking. They are seeded by actors with specific agendas, including heads of state. The Rise of Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder tracked this in detail. Consciously spreading distrust and even paranoia is a counterforce to the spread of trust and goodwill. Many intelligent people seem susceptible these days. Trust and the rule of law — the foundations of civilization — are apparently ever fragile.

  2. May 3, 2020

    thanks as always Greg, the concern then is leadership. When the arc of politics now for several decades has been bent in the direction of division, where do we find leaders to rebuild trust?
    Cutting down trust in institutions and leaders, and dividing people into self interest groups has been the play in politics now for nearly 40 years.
    It will take some new leaders with the courage to walk away from the current party politics on all sides which simply play to these themes. Let’s hope we do not waste this crisis and some lean in.

  3. Barry Rabkin permalink
    May 3, 2020

    Interesting use of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. I was thinking that the “Tragedy of the Commons” was applicable to this COVID-19 situation where the health of everyone was the ‘Commons’ and the rioters represented the tragic actions and results.

    What do you think?

  4. May 3, 2020

    Excellent op-ed Greg. Thank you. I believe you could extrapolate that lack of trust in Institutions to many countries around the world… which makes the situation a rather scary one for which the question of how best to address it I am sure is going to ellicit all sorts of proposals…

    From Guatemala, an abrazo and thanks again!


  5. May 4, 2020

    Very true! Thanks for the Timothy Snyder reference. He’s excellent!

    – Greg

  6. May 4, 2020

    I always saw the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Tragedy of the Commons as analogues. I think both fit here.

    – Greg

  7. May 4, 2020

    I see your point, but I think it’s a bit too facile to blame political strategists. In the end, I really do believe, we get the leaders we deserve. We need to do better.

    – Greg

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