Trust – a letter to Ross Gittins, who wrote the below article on Trust
18 December 2022
I congratulate you on your article on ‘Trust’. It is the glue that holds society together, and when it is broken there are huge consequences.
Since the first plane hijacking in 1970 checking people onto planes is a growth industry. Years ago you could walk into any office building, take the lift to the top floor and ask the General Manager’s secretary if you could speak to (almost always) him. Now everyone carries tags even to get in the front door or the lift. This may all be related to inequality or only mostly.
But it is also the rise of the manager. The best expose of this I have read is ‘The Political Economy of Health’ by Julian Tudor-Hart. He follows the British NHS from its founding till 1998. At first it was a noble experiment with all those in it paid adequately and trying to give health for all as well as they could. The whole thing was self-governing, and everyone was trusted to procure things as cheaply as possible and look after each other and the patients. Then managers came and asked ‘What is the cost of a day in hospital?’ or’ What is the cost of an X-Ray?’ Some said that it was unwise to ask this, as keeping records that detailed would simply add to costs, which everyone was reasonably sure were as low as possible already. Hart details successive management demands and consequent cost increases until the cost of management became about 35% of the total, without any apparent improvement in the service.
Managers do not trust people to do their jobs, so they insist on KPIs, which then become more important than the job itself, distort the tasks done and kill any initiative that might have been used by the staff. Since the task are all defined to be as simple as possible the staff are de-skilled or not allowed to use any initiative and the managers award themselves a pay rise, so the gap between the lowest and highest paid reaches its current obsene level.
We now have a situation where most people work down to their station rather than up to their ability. We have a huge workforce in security and no one is allowed to use their own initiative beyond their management defined protocols as they pour time into producing KPIs so that they can be checked up on. Management has created immense overheads, even on top of their own inflated salaries. And no one can figure out why productivity growth is stalled! More trust is one solution. I can think of others.
2022: The year our trust was abused to breaking point
Ross Gittins Economics Editor SMH
December 14, 2022
As the summer break draws near, many will be glad to see the back of 2022. But there’s something important to be remembered about this year before we bid it good riddance. Much more than most years, it’s reminded us of something we know, but keep forgetting: the central importance of trust – and the consternation when we discover it’s been abused.
Every aspect of our lives depends on trust. Spouses must be able to trust each other. Children need parents they can trust and, when the children become teenagers, parents need to be able to trust them. Friendships rely on mutual trust.
Trust is just as important to the smooth functioning of the economy. Bosses need to be able to trust their workers; workers need bosses they can trust. The banking system runs on trust because the banks lend out the money we deposit with them; should all the depositors demand their money back at the same time, the bank risks collapse.
Just buying stuff in a shop involves trust that you won’t be taken down. Buying stuff on the internet requires much more trust. Tradies call on our trust when they demand payment before they start the job.
Our democracy runs on trust. We trust the leaders we elect to act in our best interests, not their own. Our country’s co-operation with other countries rests on trust. Of late, our relations with China, our major trading partner, have become mutually distrustful.
The trouble with trust, however, is that it can make us susceptible. And, as Melbourne University’s Tony Ward reminds us, it can be just too tempting to the less scrupulous to take advantage of our trusting nature.
They can get away with a lot before we wake up. But when we do, there are serious repercussions. Much worse, the loss of trust – some of it warranted; much of it not – makes our lives run a lot less smoothly.
The truth is that, as a nation, we’ve slowly become less trusting of those around us. But this year is notable for events where trust – or the lack of it – was central.
It’s widely agreed that the main reason the federal Coalition government was tossed out in May was the unpopularity of Scott Morrison. The Australian National University’s Australian Election Study has found that the two most important factors influencing political leaders’ popularity are perceived honesty and trustworthiness.
Its polling showed Morrison 29 percentage points behind Anthony Albanese on honesty, and 28 points behind on trustworthiness.
By contrast, many were expecting Daniel Andrews to be punished at the recent Victorian election for the harsh measures he insisted on during the pandemic. It didn’t happen. We don’t have fancy studies to prove it, but my guess is he retained the trust of the majority of voters.
The ANU study always asks questions about trust in government. This year it found 70 per cent of respondents agreeing that “people in government look after themselves” and only 30 per cent agreeing that “people in government can be trusted to do the right thing”.
This helps explain why the federal election was no triumph for Labor. The combined primary vote for the major parties fell to 68 per cent, the lowest since the 1930s. Labor’s own election report explains this as “part of a long-term trend driven by declining trust in government, politics and politicians”.
Senior economics writer SMH
Ward reminds us of the benefits of a high level of trust. It reduces “transaction costs” – the cost of doing business. “Profits and investments are higher if you don’t have to spend lots of time and money checking whether other parties are honest or not,” he says.
“People invest more in their own education if they believe a fair system will reward their efforts. If you think the system is rigged, why bother?”
Comparing countries, economists have found strong links between more social trust and higher levels of income. Trust is one of the top determinants of long-term economic growth.
And high-trust societies, with less distrust of science, had better outcomes in tackling COVID. That’s one respect in which we didn’t do too badly this year.