The People’s Choice: Distrust; Collapsing confidence in government is bad news, but there’s a way out; Government has to work better, meaning that it needs to modernize and become more useful in our everyday lives

July 19, 2013, 7:24 p.m. ET

The People’s Choice: Distrust

Collapsing confidence in government is bad news, but there’s a way out


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sat in an elegant room in the Capitol on Monday afternoon, knowing that the body he leads was in imminent danger of a partisan meltdown. A bitter dispute was still raging over a seemingly simple task—the confirmation of presidential nominees. The crisis led him to muse about the broader consequences of what sometimes appears to be permanent congressional dysfunction.

“When I ran the first time, the approval rating of Congress was at 45%,” said Sen. Reid, who came to Washington from his home state of Nevada three decades ago. “Now it’s at 10%. In all the time Gallup has been doing its polling, no institution has ever been recorded at lower than that.”The immediate crisis was resolved the next morning, in a deal between Democrats and Republicans in which the Senate would approve a handful of presidential appointments that had been held up an average of nine months. But there is no guarantee the Senate won’t return to its partisan rut—and air of crisis—this fall.

The problem isn’t simply political dysfunction in Congress but something bigger: a collapse of public confidence in government across all fronts. In the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, just 17% said they have confidence in the federal government, less than half of the 36% found in 1990. In Gallup’s latest poll, as Sen. Reid noted, confidence in Congress has shrunk to an almost comical 10%. The presidency does better at 36%, but that is down from 58% a decade ago.

New bouts of political paralysis, topped off by controversies over the Internal Revenue Service and government surveillance, are making the problem worse. The term “crisis of confidence” may be overused in Washington, but there is no denying that we are in the midst of one. And that shouldn’t make anyone happy, even if you don’t like government. Reversing this trend is, in fact, one of the keys to American progress and international competitiveness in the century ahead.

A government that tries to do too many things and does many of them badly won’t be trusted to perform the key functions—education, security, infrastructure, research—that are essential for the success of businesses and workers alike.

President Barack Obama took note of this the other day in a speech that was widely ignored but shouldn’t have been. He proposed pulling the federal government more firmly into the 21st century by making better use of cutting-edge technology. “We can’t take comfort in just being cynical,” he said. “We all have a stake in government success, because government is us.”

How has it come to this? After all, those of us of a certain age grew up thinking government was filled with smart people who did great things.

Government won World War II, built the interstate highway system, desegregated schools, put a man on the moon, cleaned up the air, built the biggest computers and conjured up the Internet. The brightest Ivy League graduates went to work for the CIA rather than big law firms, and the kind of young propeller heads who now head for Silicon Valley instead beat a path to NASA.

About four decades ago, all this began to change. The crumbling began with Vietnam and Watergate, of course, which together convinced many Americans that the government that did all those wonderful things had become power-hungry and untrustworthy. Jimmy Carter made it worse by sitting in his sweater in a cold White House and telling the public that government couldn’t cure the nation’s woes. Ronald Reagan confirmed and extended the argument: Not only was government not the solution, it was a big part of the problem.

Then the Robert Bork controversy erupted in 1987. The Bork hearings, in which a conservative federal judge was defeated for a spot on the Supreme Court after a vicious debate, were a watershed; they marked the beginning of the end of graciousness in D.C. discourse. “While liberals look at it as an important success, I think it also marked a change in…the sense of fair play and the level of the debate,” says Democratic pollster Peter Hart.

Newt Gingrich soon arose to argue that people in government aren’t simply wrongheaded; they are part of an evil bureaucracy that tolerates fraud in social welfare programs and pursues policies that undermine families. Then, to some, Bill Clinton seemed to validate the image of irresponsible governance with the Monica Lewinsky affair.

For a moment after the 9/11 terror attacks, it appeared that confidence was revived. But it soon dissipated, with two wars that seemed to many Americans either unnecessary or unending, coupled with a searing civil-liberties debate that suggested Republicans wanted big government as much as Democrats did, just for different purposes. The arrival of President Obama offered a second shining moment, but so far he has proved unequal to the daunting task of either making Washington work better or turning around political attitudes.

Through it all, government slowly began doing things it probably should have just left to the private sector or civil society. Worse, the persistence of federal deficits has eroded confidence in Washington’s ability to manage the economy. Just to illustrate: In the 25 years from 1965 to 1980, the annual federal deficit topped 3% of the nation’s gross domestic product just twice. In the past 25 years, it has done so 13 times.

So what can be done to fix this crisis of confidence in government? A few things come to mind:

The deficit has to be managed. It has become a metaphor for a government that doesn’t work. It doesn’t have to be eliminated any time soon—which would be bad economics anyway—but there has to be a sense that it is being tamed intelligently.

Government has to work better, meaning that it needs to modernize and become more useful in our everyday lives. This is what President Obama was getting at in his recent speech. He noted, for example, that the federal government possesses a trove of big data—a commodity increasingly important to businesses, researchers and academics. So it is starting to open up that data to the public online at, which in turn has spawned companies formed to put the data to use.

Also, as Mr. Obama noted, why should an individual or a business have to reproduce the same information every time it deals with a different government agency, when private companies have figured out how to make such information transparent across business lines?

The political system has to be fixed. States need to stop drawing congressional districts that ensure deep and paralyzing polarization by making them so dark red or dark blue that only the most ideologically rigid candidates bother to run. Also, the rules of the Senate need to be changed to curtail the ability of a minority of Senators, or sometimes a single one, to make progress grind to a halt.

Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster who helps conduct the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, says it also would be helpful if Washington’s leaders managed to convey to the country a “sense of shared purpose.”

Oh, and one other thing. An economic boom, he says, certainly would help: “If the economy’s booming, people will say, ‘Hey, things are working.’ It just takes off this nasty edge.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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