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Can citizens trust government if falsehoods are part of the story?

The Hill logo The Hill 1/10/2019 Douglas Criscitello, opinion contributor

a large white building: Can citizens trust government if falsehoods are part of the story? © Stefani Reynolds Can citizens trust government if falsehoods are part of the story?

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

While trust in government around the world has been trending downward for decades, trust in the U.S. government now appears to be in freefall as a host of half-truths and downright lies become entrenched in our political system. Playing fast and loose with the facts has long been a hallmark of politicians, so why be concerned with the counterfactual and scientifically dubious logic flowing from Washington these days?

When the leader of the free world cannot be trusted as an authoritative source of information on critically important topics, the world, already a dangerous place where bad things can and do happen, becomes riskier. Consider what would happen if any of the following were to occur: pandemics, financial crises, natural disasters, nuclear accidents, cyberattacks and/or military conflicts. Economists study the likelihood and impacts of these highly consequential but low probability events, called tail risks. Although unlikely, it's bad, really bad, when one of these extreme, end-of-the-bell-curve events occurs.

A homophonic new form of risk known as "tale" risk (whether government officials are telling the truth) appears to be taking hold at a time when the potential severity of actual tail risks is growing. From a supply and demand perspective, there should not be much demand for lies, although voters seem to tolerate and perhaps even demand some. For that reason, there always seems to be an ample supply of lies in the political realm. But it would appear that we're now experiencing a large surplus in falsehoods that are being used to amplify fear and manipulate facts.

So how do we, as a nation, prepare for tail risk events in the current context? How will we respond the next time we're told we're in the midst of one of these unlikely, but seriously bad and dangerous events? Will citizens have faith in the government when there's a deadly infectious disease spreading like wildfire, but vaccines are being rationed and distributed as the government sees fit?

Will taxpayers stand for more Wall Street bailouts during the next financial crisis, particularly as some regulatory safeguards have been relaxed? What about a major cyberattack with the potential to disrupt, if not shut down, whole sectors of the economy? Would we listen to government directives and trust public officials to get us through it? Rallying the public for military conflict presently seems almost inconceivable. All this before even beginning to think about the potential impact of climate change.

While there's no omnipotent solution to rebuild trust in government overnight, elected leaders and government staff need to redouble efforts to prepare for tail risk events. Importantly, governments need to explore new paths to engage citizens in ways that embrace science, technology, innovation and inclusion, essential ingredients for tail risk preparedness and tale risk avoidance.

The United States remains the world's leading provider of scientific discovery and advancement. Notwithstanding Trump administration budgetary proposals to slash spending for science programs, public funding remains strong and universities and other research institutions continue to supply the talent and insights needed to combat tail risks. Technological advances not only help identify and predict tail risks, but also enable the government to respond and engage with citizens in ways that leverage data and electronic resources to generate information and services needed when bad things happen.

Science and technology combine to foster innovation that can lead not only to rebuilding institutional trust but also to establishing new forms of trust. Modern data platforms and the intelligent machines they feed, along with democratizing technologies, such as crowdsourcing and blockchain, suggest a future better able to predict and respond to both tail and tale risks. The need to ensure equity is imperative. Whether fortifying public infrastructure or preparing for the next pandemic, the government must identify ways to care for all of its citizens regardless of socioeconomic status. Citizens must have trust and confidence that government is inclusive when it matters most.

Studying tail risks nearly always focuses on assessing downside risk. No one really worries about future outcomes that may turn out to be dramatically better than expected. But as things stand, prospects for such unexpected positive outcomes are diminishing as downside risks expand. We need to take every opportunity to embrace evidence-based truth and strengthen our ability to respond effectively to emergencies. If not, we may discover the price of tall tales is so high it drives a societal bankruptcy tail risk from which it may be impossible to recover.

Douglas Criscitellois a senior lecturer and executive director of the Golub Center for Finance and Policy at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

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