“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
– Chuck Palahniuk
If there’s been one overarching theme of the 21st century so far, it would be the collapse of trust in our traditional institutions.
We’ve grown cynical of corporate America’s exploitations, seen leader figures in organized religion embroiled in sex scandals, witnessed an exodus from curated media in favor of sham websites peddling disinformation, felt the creep of big tech’s data hoarding and even seen hyper-partisanship infest a public health crisis.
How did we get here and where are we going?
There was such optimism and hope as the country crossed over into a new millennium, but nine months in, everything changed when the world’s greatest power was surprised by 19 men hijacking four commercial jet liners armed only with box cutters and, in a shocking spectacle, deliberately crashing those planes into buildings that symbolized our economic and military might. How did the intelligence community and our leaders fail us so greatly?
Predictably, our country was baited into a long and bloody war in which our obligatory retaliations costing trillions in treasury drove them to recruit more suicide bombers to their twisted ideology. We rooted out much of the cancer of extremism, but at a huge cost.
In the process, we sadly compromised our own ideals, exchanging them for a sense of security. Fueling our fear of a violent death gave cover to power-hungry men who unleashed the full power of a police state keeping its own citizens under constant surveillance.
It’s no wonder that so many millennials are cynical. This is the third major economic crisis they’ve experienced before age 25. No wonder many of them feel disaffected and lack confidence in capitalism. We must offer them something they can believe in and belong to, not merely be affected by.
Over the past 20 years, a whole set of institutions failed us. Landmark scandals involved accounting irregularities at huge, successful companies like Enron and WorldCom led to billions in shareholder pensions and stock investments lost. Crooks hid billions of dollars in debt from failed deals and projects. Accountants illegally destroyed documents relevant to wrongdoing. Watchdogs assumed these powerful executives wouldn’t possibly risk losing it all, but greed knows no bounds.
The “poster boy” for that era was Bernie Madoff, a former NASDAQ chairman whose wealth management business was a multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme. In 2009, he was sentenced to 150 years in prison with restitution of $170 billion for reporting fictional profits! There was anger that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission had not investigated him more thoroughly and that a whistleblower had repeatedly been ignored.
Perhaps the mightiest agents of change have been whistleblowers spilling the beans on the powerful.
The “Great Recession” hit after the U.S. housing market, based on high-risk subprime loans, collapsed as interest rates rose from adjustable-rate mortgages.
Excessive risk-taking by banks damaged financial institutions globally. Investor confidence declined and a tightening of credit availability led to plummeting stock and commodity prices in late 2008 and early 2009.
Housing markets suffered and unemployment soared, resulting in evictions and foreclosures. Trillions of dollars in bailouts and stimulus became necessary to offset the decline in consumption and lending capacity, avoid a further collapse, encourage lending, restore faith in the commercial markets, avoid the risk of a deflationary spiral and provide banks with enough funds to allow customers to make withdrawals.
Reformists always promise accountability to restore our hope, but the course correction is only temporary. Eventually, laws get watered down, people look the other way as long as things are good and a lack of enforcement weakens our financial systems and institutions.
Repeated security breaches and exploitation of data privacy has now fueled distrust in Silicon Valley. Digital platforms have amplified divisive voices, unleashing a flood of hate speech elevating conspiracy theories and resulting in a populist distrust of scientific experts.
There have also been repeated charges of anti-competitive practices by the biggest, richest companies.
So here we are, feeling let down by so many of the institutions that used to inspire confidence and a sense of security. Nearly one million Americans a week are still losing their jobs and in just the last few weeks, more than a half-dozen major American companies have announced plans for significant layoffs and buyouts.
We will bounce back like we always do. I still believe in America. I love this exceptional country and its people. But something needs to change so more people feel invested in it and can regain trust.
From the ruins of shattered trust, the opportunity to learn from our mistakes offers consolation.
— Steven Stiefel is a staff writer at the Times-Journal. His column appears in Saturday editions. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.