Saturday, April 2, 2011

Elizabeth Warren on avoiding regulatory capture

One of the things we griped about in The Economics Anti-Textbook was the lopsided nature of economic power which spills over into the pollution of the political system, all dutifully ignored by the standard textbooks, except in one place. There's typically some brief discussion of how regulatory agencies trying to deal with monopoly power have a tough time because they can be 'captured' by those they are trying to regulate.
   This now-you-see-it-now-you-don't treatment doesn't damage the overall impression students take away of the absence of business power and how one might possibly think of the economy as if it consisted of a lot of perfectly competitive markets. But it fits nicely into a subtext of 'governments often screw up and make things worse' that starts with the examples of government 'interference' in competitive markets.
    An interesting case study to watch will be the evolution of  The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, located within the Federal Reserve System. Quoting from the NY Times summary of it, the Bureau
was created in response to complaints about deceptive or abusive practices by banks, credit card companies and mortgage brokers. The issue rose in prominence after the credit crisis of 2008, when thousands of Americans lost homes they had bought under mortgages they had either not understood or been misled into signing.In its official language, the bureau was created to "implement and, where applicable, enforce federal consumer financial law consistently for the purpose of ensuring that all consumers have access to markets for consumer financial products and services and that markets for consumer financial products and services are fair, transparent and competitive.

   Elizabeth Warren, a law professor at Harvard, is the interim head of the Bureau. Recently I read Paul Krugman's comment "Elizabeth Warren is not Jesus", and read his link to Yves Smith's Naked Capitalism blog entry "The Elizabeth Warren Rorschach Test". Smith writes that 
The Administration was keen to get her inside the tent to neutralize her. The fact that the Wall Street Journal and some quick-trigger Republicans are doing their thuggish best to intimidate her should not be mistaken an indicator that she has become effective despite the odds. It has far more to do with their pettiness and paranoia than with her ability to escape the shackles this Administration has put on her.
    For various reasons, I've never heard Warren speak (aside from her illuminating appearance in Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story). So this snowy April morning, I settled down in front of the computer to listen to something longer, in this case, her Mario Savio Memorial Lecture given at UC Berkeley last November.

   Warren's lecture (which starts at minute 26 followed by a question and answer) was deeply impressive. Her ideas about how to design a regulatory agency from the beginning to make it hard to capture were really interesting and must frighten those who make large profits by ripping people off. No wonder their hirelings are yapping at her heels.
   Warren also strikes me as someone that it'd be mighty tough to "neutralize". Paul Krugman's right though. She's not Jesus; she's better than Jesus, who after all made all kinds of fake claims about the product he was selling. She doesn't put up with that kind of thing.


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