06/24/2010 09:32 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Mistrusted, Incompetent Federal Government Cannot Build a Green Economy

In a recent NY Times- CBS News poll, Americans were asked: "How likely do you think it is that within the next 25 years the United States will develop an alternative to oil as our major source of energy?" About 59% said it was very or somewhat likely, and 26% thought it was not too likely or not at all likely to take place. Despite this optimism about technology, most of those polled (65%) opposed a dollar-a-gallon increase in gas taxes to pay for renewable energy development. Apparently the public assumes that business can make this transition without government. That is a risky assumption.

People know that the fossil fuel era is coming to an end, but they are not confident that government has the capacity to manage the transition. They do not think that research and development (R & D) can be stimulated by government, and they probably don't believe that a designated tax would actually be spent on this new technology. Americans' confidence in government and big institutions is at a low point. In our anti-institution political culture, the only time in recent years that we have seen much support for the federal government was in the aftermath of the 9-11 crisis.

There has been a long term decline in trust in government since the Johnson Administration in the mid-1960s. A recent report by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reports the results of the question: "How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right?" When John F. Kennedy was President, over 75% of the public answered that they trusted the government. In the early days of the Johnson Administration it peaked at about 78% and then declined steadily through the Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter years to a low of about 27%. During the Reagan and Bush administrations we saw a recovery into the mid 40's. During the start of the Clinton administration, only 20% of the public expressed any trust in government. This rose gradually back into the mid 40's by the time he left office. At the start of George W. Bush's term in office, trust in government rose above 50% for the first time in a generation, only to decline into the low 20's as President Obama entered office.

There was a brief window after 9-11 when trust in government returned, but the Bush administration was unable to build on those positive, crisis-induced emotions. The Obama Administration has been unable to increase people's trust in government. The Pew study, conducted in March of this year, also focused on trust in several specific government agencies and compared 2010 data with data collected in 1997-1998. According to Pew:

"While job ratings for the Obama administration are mostly negative, they are much more positive than the ratings for Congress; 40% say the administration does an excellent or good job while just 17% say the same about Congress. Federal agencies and institutions also are viewed much more positively than is Congress. Nonetheless, favorable ratings have fallen significantly since 1997-1998 for seven of 13 federal agencies included in the survey."

Favorable ratings fell from:
  • 61% to 40% in the Department of Education
  • 75% to 58% in the Food and Drug Administration
  • 69% to 57% in the Environmental Protection Agency
  • 76% to 67% in the Department of Defense

Only the always unpopular Internal Revenue Service (IRS) seemed to have improved over the past decade with its approval rising from 38% in 1997-1998 to 47% in 2010.

Why does this matter? It matters because as BP is teaching us every day in the Gulf of Mexico, business alone cannot assure sustainability. Of course, neither can government. It takes both. However, the public does not see government as capable and is not willing to raise taxes to invest in government energy programs. The public doesn't trust government institutions and has an increasingly negative view of federal agencies.

Only government is capable of undertaking the long-term scientific research needed to develop the technologies we need to develop a green economy. The private sector is best suited to applying this new knowledge to the production of more sustainable commercial services and products. The private sector, however, is not able to invest enough money to generate all of the fundamental scientific breakthroughs we need. That is the job of federal labs and government-sponsored, university-based research. If the American government is not seen as capable of funding or conducting this basic research, this work will not get done. Or at least it won't get done here. China, Europe and the Arab Emirates might develop such research capacity, but they have a long way to go to catch up with the American scientific research establishment.

As I read the polling data and see the attitude of the American public toward the federal government, I might wince, but as much as I hate to say it, the public's lack of trust in government is a reasonable response to the job done by the federal government over the past several decades. Government has taken on missions beyond its capacity, and since the Reagan Administration, has often allowed ideology to replace best management practices. The government that during World War II mobilized a peace-time nation in 18 months, attracted the best and brightest to the New Frontier of JFK, landed men on the moon in less than a decade, and at one time, even reduced the poverty rate to 10%, now can't even evacuate a city after a hurricane or plug a leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.

For the American federal government to be trusted again, it must become trustworthy. It must develop policies that aren't owned and operated by special interests, and it must develop modern, agile, capable agencies. Developing a green economy requires government action. Before the federal government can take action, it must earn the public's trust. Before it can earn the public's trust, the federal government must increase its competence and organizational capacity.