This is a 1924 photo of the registry room at New York harbor’s Ellis Island, which was a gateway to America for millions of immigrants. (AP File Photo)

Why is that people all over the world admire a whole slew of American institutions, at the very time that we seem to be doing our best to destroy those institutions?

That’s the question that my colleagues and I have been asking. It grows out of our GoodWork Project — a large-scale research initiative we’ve been working on for nearly two decades. In an effort to determine what constitutes “good work” in various sectors of American life, we’ve conducted in-depth interviews with approximately 1,500 people, ranging from seasoned professionals to recent immigrants.

Among the things that people have told us they expect to find in the United States: a judiciary where they can get a fair shake; a free press that investigates broadly and exposes wrongdoing wherever it occurs; auditors who probe accounting records and promptly report irregularities; physicians who are not beholden to pharmaceutical companies; colleges and universities where students can study widely, switch fields and not remain indebted for decades; and finally a political system where you can succeed without having to sell your soul to wealthy supporters.

Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

– Margaret Mead

I’m not naïve enough to claim that the United States ever lived up to these dreams fully, but in recent decades we have moved ever further from these ideals. Movement up the social ladder is increasingly unlikely (the 1 percent are becoming entrenched); our courts are increasingly populated by ideologues and under enormous pressure to decide cases politically; the responsible press is being submerged by the blogosphere and compromised by the absurd assumption that news can be gleaned and verified for free; some of our major accounting firms have been revealed to be “on the take”; an ever larger number of physicians are beholden to big pharma; liberal arts education is being squeezed out by high costs and an ill-advised demand for utility and, as for the political system, I need only quote the title of a recent book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.”

So why did conditions sour? And what can we do about it? I’d single out three major contributing factors.

First, the disruptive role of technology. Expertise has been challenged, sometimes legitimately, sometimes not, and this has left much of the population distrustful and more willing to trust the wisdom of the crowd — or echo the noisiest blogger.

Second, a belief, begun with the election of Ronald Reagan, that regulation is always bad, that markets are inherently good, and that every sphere of life is best left to unregulated market forces. If the rich get even richer, that’s just a sign that markets are working.

Third, a smugness, perhaps encouraged by the fall of Communism and the overall rise in GDP in the 1990s, that our institutions are the best; that they will continue to thrive; and that — thanks to American exceptionalism — we don’t need to tend them. After all, according to the old adage: “God takes care of widows, orphans and the USA.”

Since we are dealing with trends that are only decades old, they can and should be reversed. Here’s what our research indicates. Start in childhood, at home as well as school, to instill the values necessary to become a “good” worker and a “good” citizen. As young people enter the professions, veteran professionals of outstanding caliber need to model the highest standards, mentor the most promising novices, and counsel those oriented chiefly toward self-aggrandizement. Finally, we must not hesitate to invoke stringent regulation: tough sanctions for unethical behavior and, when these are not applied or are not effective, laws that penalize those who contribute to the dystopic trends that I’ve described.

When I become despondent about those trends, I take heart from words uttered by anthropologist Margaret Mead that hang over my desk: “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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