The new year will bring the familiar gnashing of teeth over financial deficits, from kitchen table and bar stool to cable news studio and Congressional hearing room. But the deficit that should exorcise us the most is the decades-long decline in the trust we place in our leaders and our institutions.
That trust deficit is the biggest drag on the economy and on the effectiveness of government.
The causes are understandable.
Political leaders misled us (Vietnam War, Watergate, Lewinsky affair, Iraq, Wikileaks, Obamacare rollout, etc.). Business leaders betrayed us (shifting risk to employees for healthcare and retirement, accounting scandals, product recalls, offshoring and outsourcing, etc.). Religious leaders violated our trust (sex scandals, coverups, etc.).
The free market failed us (income inequality, wage stagnation, joblessness, Internet and housing bubbles, bank failures, etc.). In recent years, we found lead in our childrens' toys, salmonella in our peanut butter, and steroids in our sports heroes. Nothing seems genuine and honest anymore.
That alone would be bad enough. But political partisanship has been a kind of flywheel feeding on and nurturing ever higher levels of distrust.
Consider how Americans feel about political parties.
The National Election Survey has been tracking people's feelings about political parties on an imaginary thermometer since the 1970s. People generally feel warmly about their own party, reporting San Diego-like temps in the range of a balmy 75 to 80 degrees.
Not surprisingly, people don't feel as warmly about the other party. Those temps hovered around a chilly 50 degrees for about 20 years. Then, around 1993, they fell by about 10 degrees before plummeting to below-freezing temps in 2008.
This not only makes political discussion more fractious, it also colors how people see our problems. Climate change is either hoax or armaggedon. Inequality is either a problem or the goal. Food stamps are either a crutch or a lifeline. Government itself is either the problem or the solution.
My wish for 2014 is that we break the shackles of this binary view of the world. That we find business, political, and religious leaders who can effect a slow, steady restoral of trust in our elected officials and our institutions.
That would make for a truly happy new year.