America's Trust Deficit

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- This century has been tough on my generation.

Economic uncertainty has caused suicide rates to spike among those aged 39 to 64, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By 2010, someone my age was more likely to die by their own hand than in a car.

The highest risk, the report said, was for people like me, in their 50s. These are the middle-management professionals made redundant by the explosion of the dot-com bubble early in the decade and by the housing bubble and Great Recession later in the decade.

I came close to being among those statistics.

After the dot-bomb, as I call it, my income fell from six figures to zero. I had joked during the boom that I would work for nothing. In 2002 and 2003, I did.

We moved our kids into public schools. We made a family pizza our Friday date night. We stopped buying books and went to the library. We stopped traveling, and I worried myself sick about money.

I was lucky. I was blessed with a wife whose employer suddenly began valuing her. Her parents helped, more than I was willing to admit at the time. We got through it.

The CDC report reveals that many others weren't so lucky, and shows just how bad the most recent recession was for my generation. Suicide by hanging or suffocation rose 81% among people my age, but many of us still shot ourselves, too.

In other words, if you want to know why young people don't trust banks or government or business, just look at what trust did to their parents. This may be the biggest deficit our economy has, this lack of trust. Tools like advertising, lobbying and public relations are inadequate to close the gap.

According to a 2011 Federal Reserve report, this lack of trust is also affecting security pricing. Even "rational investors are uncertain about the extent of manipulation," wrote Bo Sun, and this limits public participation in the markets.

The way to a bigger bull market, in other words, leads through trust and markets worthy of trust.

Trust is hard to build, and easy to destroy. This was one of my first lessons in journalism school, way back in 1977. We all have a credibility account, and good work builds it. A single mistake can destroy it. I learned the truth of this in my working life, although it wasn't until this last decade that I learned the account I needed to build and protect was my own, not my employer's.

The reason people like Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway ( BRK.A) are such big celebrities isn't because they're rich, but because they're trusted, and because their actions make them worthy of trust.

When they make mistakes they own them, and when they succeed they share the results. This, more than the size of their bank balances, is what makes them beloved.

In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith defended capitalism by saying it would bend wealthy people toward the common good. A man of rank and fortune, he wrote, "dares not do anything which would disgrace or discredit him" within a common morality.

In what is the closest thing capitalism has to a religious tract, Smith wrote that to the extent that wealthy people care only for themselves, society becomes corrupted, and the wealth of a nation can dissipate. That's the lesson of the last decade, a price that's been paid in middle-class lives, and the sooner the wealthy act worthy of trust, the faster our capitalist system will heal.

At the time of publication, the author had no investments in companies mentioned here.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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