Trust in government

I like David Brook’s piece on government and trust this morning.   I have been talking here about a similar but very related phenomenon.  New Brunswickers are far more reliant on government that at any time in the past – over 500,000 get cheques from the government (not literally most through direct deposit).  For every dollar of employment income, the average NBer gets 19 cents of government transfer income.  We are more reliant on government employment, more reliant on government spending on education, health care, etc.

Yet, we don’t particularly like government or trust it to do the right thing (I won’t list off the many policy issues that have roiled people in recent months/years).

This paradox is fascinating to me.

I’m not a big government guy – I don’t hide it.  I have questioned why we need a non-means tested health care system where the richest get the same benefit as the poorest.  I know it seems to be sacrosanct but I never really understood it.  In fact, I don’t really understand the lack of means testing of public services in New Brunswick more generally.  I’d like to live in a world where we were less reliant on government but had assurance it was firmly there when needed.   There are myriad examples – in health care I can get everything from simple blood tests for free but when my friend’s daughter comes down with a very bad type of cancer, he’s out of pocket for drug costs.  Crazy.  I’d rather we all pay for the little crap – tests, doctor’s visits, etc. and pool the money to cover the catastrophic.

But I don’t have a loathing or deep distrust of government.  I think many decisions are made badly but I differentiate between the two.

Just like Brooks, I think government does become beholden to special interest groups – some more directly and others more indirectly.  And like Brooks, I don’t believe the easy convention that is this just about ‘big business’.  He uses the example of the seniors’ lobby but I could reel off dozens.  In fact, I am a special interest group – pushing hard for a set of ideas that, if implemented, will cost the government money and resources.

We need to expect that any person or organization that will benefit or be hurt by the actions of government will attempt to influence policies one way or the other – and these days (read my first paragraph) that means just about all of us – from the CFIB to the CTF to the CARP to the business lobby.

I think we need to have a government that has a clear outline of how it wants to govern and where it wants to take the province (or country).  I would encourage government to diligently limit the impact of special interest while realizing it is a part of the democratic process.  Any lobbying that has obvious pernicious effects on the whole to the benefit of the few should be avoided – even at political cost.

The rest of the lobbying – environmental, seniors’ groups, university advocates, the CFIB, public unions, chambers of  commerce, party donors – whatever – should be expected and placed in the proper perspective.  These voices are jockeying for position out there but the greater good does exist and all the lobbying should be put through the grinder of the greater good.

7 thoughts on “Trust in government

  1. The whole philosophy around trust is fascinating to me and I have too blogged about it with my post entitled Communicating in the Age of Mistrust.

    Another interesting viewpoint point is Edleman’s Trust Barometer. Conducted on a yearly basis, this Barometer provides very interesting commentary on the state of trust around the globe.

  2. You will love this.

    27 New Brunswick taxpayers learned they would have to pay $11 million over a failed job-creation plan involving a Norwegian solar company. The province owes Umoe Solar the money for land and equipment after plans for a $600-million solar panel plant fell through in May 2010. Three months earlier, the federal government had said it would grant the company $3 million to support R & D work.

    12 A bridge elsewhere: New Brunswick taxpayers must cough up $4 million to fix a bridge 3,600 km away. The province guaranteed $70 million worth of loans for Miramichi-based Atcon Group, the general contractor for the $182-million Deh Cho Bridge project in the Northwest Territories. Then Atcon was removed from the project and went into receivership. An audit said the province must repair work done by Atcon.

  3. Isn’t that my point? We pick off these examples and hold them up as the reason why people distrust government. You could have easily picked one of a thousand decisions by government that had a positive outcome. But you didn’t. That doesn’t make the Atcon situation any less important and we need to learn from these mistakes but if the majority of people see government through the Atcon filter – how do you expect it to tackle the big challenges of the day?

  4. I think that we have become, or maybe always were, somewhat of a nanny state. Every time something happens we blame the government and in our second breath look to them to fix it. That is another paradox that bothers me. It conjures up memories of Einstein’s definition of insanity.

    On the other hand I think the government simply gives people a common thread to gripe about…much like the weather…and much like the weather there is not much we feel can be done about it other than complain…hahaha

  5. “I’d like to live in a world where we were less reliant on government but had assurance it was firmly there when needed.”

    Then you are a big govt advocate, I’m afraid, despite your protestations. In any event, the small govt era is over. Those like Brooks (who tends to deal with anecdotes, not data – an approach I find very annoying) are really fine with big govt, as long as they have money. If you have money, govt is a means to protect it; if not, govt is a means to get more of it. Its really a question of who controls govt, not the size of govt. If govt is seen to be controlled by a select few, then trust becomes an issue.

    If you want to learn some more about health care systems, there are some excellent blogs on this subject, among them The Incidental Economist. Basically, you can choose a system that is largely single-payer insurance (most of the western world; what is covered, by the way, is entirely a separate issue) or a system run by the insurance industry (U.S). The former reduces admin costs; the latter has few incentives to hold costs down.

  6. I think there are some interpretations of fact, rather than intent, that distinguish between my views and yours here.

    First, with respect to means testing and payment for small expenses – my feeling is that it ends up being more expensive to set up a means test and payment system than it does to simply cover the health expenses of a few rich people.

    Additionally, I’m pretty sure that charging for small medical expenses results in an increase in the number of expensive problems in the future, as those who value economy over health (whether out of poverty or inclination) skip the needed treatment. We can see this in action in dentistry.

    Second, though it may be the case that government makes mistakes, and is swayed by interest groups, it is not clear that private enterprise is immune to either error or influence, and moreover, when this happens, there is no recourse for the people to change those in charge.

    Recent history is littered huge huge corporate errors and miscalculations, from Enron to Lehman Brothers to Blackberry.

    And the spread of influence within private enterprise is even more rife than in the public sector. “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” is almost a business mantra. The only difference is that the ‘special interest groups’ of the people – environmental, seniors’ groups, university advocates – are uniquely shut out of the boardroom.

  7. “we don’t particularly like government or trust it to do the right thing”

    One more comment on the trust issue, if I may.

    It’s true we don’t trust govt; then again, who do we trust these days? We don’t trust large corporations, religious orgs, or the media either. Why the decline in trust? Is it just a question of repeated performance failures that engenders the lack of trust in all these sectors?

    Here is a recent example of why we can’t trust the local media, even on the most basic of issues [since many of your readers are from Freddy Beach, this might be relevant]. On Jan 9, Daily Gleaner writer Steven Llewellyn authored a story entitled ‘New statistics reveal unemployment rate down in Fredericton in December’. The article discussed the percent unemployment in Fredericton and noted that it had declined over previous months. Good news right? And Fredericton Councillor Steven Chase was ecstatic and optimistic that good things were happening; Chamber of Commerce CEO Krista Ross was equally happy. So what’s wrong with the picture?

    Well, the Statistics Canada Labour Workforce report that Llewellyn referred to also contained data on net job creation during that period. When we compare December 2011 to December 2010, we see that the Fredericton/Oromocto region lost 4300 jobs over the last year. That is a decline of over 6 percent. In fact, the number of jobs in December 2011 was about equal to the number in December 2007, suggesting that we have lost nearly all job growth since that time. Freddy Beach’s brief fling at prosperity seems to be over.

    That should be a huge story. Instead we are treated to virtual silence. Now is that just economic illiteracy on the part of the journalist, or has a decision been made by the local press, local politicians, and local business leaders that there are things that we the people do not need to know?

    Perhaps CBC Radio Fredericton could be expected to do a better job? Sorry, not much there either. In fact, CBC Radio Fredericton’s flagship program Information Morning has ignored the story too. At CBC Radio, apparently, it is now ‘all coyotes, all the time’.

    When you cannot trust the private or public media to responsibly cover the single issue most pertinent issue to the economic health of this region, then we can see why trust is at such a low level.

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