The American electorate is angry. In poll after poll, people say they don’t trust Congress and they don’t trust the president. They’re fed up with state and local governments. They hate Wall Street moguls and insurance companies bureaucrats, and they’re ready to “throw the bums out” in any election available.

Yet at the same time, they want Social Security; the want Medicare; they want health insurance and disaster relief for the Gulf and assistance rebuilding after hurricanes, floods and wildfires. They want their roads plowed, their garbage picked up and the police to come as soon as they’re called.

Some say these opinions or attitudes are contradictory, even hypocritical; that you can’t have it both ways.

Politicians, policy makers and pundits offer “reasonable” explanations for and responses to the mess we’re in — most merely sentimental claptrap and cynical efforts to exploit widespread confusion — and are flummoxed when people respond with still greater anger.

I don’t see any contradiction at all. I don’t think this anger is illogical or self-contradictory in the least.

I think it’s very easily explained by one word — jobs. People aren’t angry with government. They want government; they want government programs that work and are accountable for producing the results they were designed for.

People are angry with government jobs and the people in them who are not producing results and seem immune to efforts to impose accountability.

It’s the same as with banks and auto companies. People don’t hate banks. They hate bankers who won’t give them new loans and refuse to renegotiate the ones they have.

People don’t hate autos. They love autos. But they do hate auto executives and workers who are bailed out after doing a lousy job, bailed out in ways the people don’t understand and know will never be available to them.

There is across the land a growing perception that there are two types of job. The first is the regular business job that used to pay the bills and support a modest lifestyle. This type of job has disappeared and doesn’t seem to be coming back anytime soon.

For many over 50, the realization is becoming increasingly clear that these jobs will never come back. And for many just entering the labor market, the realization is becoming increasingly clear that they may never get one of these jobs in the first place.

The other type of job is the government job. It seems immune to economic conditions and, with each new revelation, seems to be costing those not in the government more.

Billions of dollars in unfunded pension liabilities that will add to our tax bills for decades. Methods for gaming the system that inflate salaries and provide those in the know with cozy deals that would never pass the straight-face test if held up for general approval.

Congressional exemptions from provisions of health care legislation. California municipal officials with million-dollar annual pensions.

Examples of using the government rather than being served by the government are front page news on a daily basis.

The primary reason for our anger (and the reason that government jobs are increasingly put in the same mental pigeonhole as Wall Street jobs) is our basic sense of fair play.

Both government and Wall Street jobs are increasingly seen as the exclusive bailiwick of insiders. “Those guys,” we are convinced, “get deals not available to the rest of us.” And, just to twist the knife a bit more, we are paying the bills.

People don’t begrudge Steve Jobs his wealth — we buy the gizmos he makes. But people do begrudge Goldman Sachs and Citibank theirs because we’ve picked up the tab for their losing bets. That’s just not fair.

As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “And so it goes.”

But must it go that way? Why waste a good batch of anger?

The real issue before us this election cycle is not why we’re angry, but what we’re going to do with it. If it degenerates to the juvenile anger of a five year old — smash the bad toy — we will hurt only ourselves.

If, in cutting government jobs, we cut the government programs we want, we may feel better, but we lose.

If, on the other hand, our anger becomes the constructive motivation of a grown-up — I’m just not going to let those guys highjack my government — then we have hope for a bright future.

If we substitute fact and results-driven management systems for the rules now governing government jobs, our anger will have been productive. 

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at: [email protected]