Monday, August 2, 2010

Landmark Half-Measures

This is just the latest of the Obama (and Congress) half-measures that have been widely labeled as "historic", "unprecedented" and "landmark".  I'm referring to the Financial Reforms Bill signed into law on July 21st.

It started with the $800B economic stimulus package of Feb. '09 that Paul Krugman warned even at the negotiation stage as being very inadequate,and reiterating these concerns after Congressional agreement. His fears of a stalled recovery have been realized.  Next we had the Afghanistan surge of troops, but with delays and declaration of a withdrawal starting in July 2011 - signaling intentions to embolden the enemy though leaving some leeway.  Then of course there's the health care overhaul of Mar. '10 but without even the public option, leave alone the far more appealing and cost effective "Medicare for all" (aka "single payer") push.

Which brings me back to the financial reforms law.  It is huge and complex, yet leaves almost all the important safeguards against a meltdown to be put in place through subsequent regulations by government agencies.  That's great for bankers and their lobbyists who can get all the loop holes and escape clauses inserted while working with regulators.  If they can win over hundreds of lawmakers, why not a few dozen regulators behind closed doors?  Krugman points to further timidity by the Obama team - they are even dithering over nominating an obviously great fit like Elizabeth Warren to head the new consumer financial protection agency.

But that's not all.  Regulations can be changed by successive administrations, without further legislative oversight.  That means that even if the present crop of  regulators do their job well and insert the right checks and balances, all this can be undone by a future Bush clone who assumes the Presidency.  Knowing this, even the Republicans beholden to bankers and supporting them may not be quite so upset with the new law.  And as seen in the current crisis, it can take many years for the negative consequences of lax oversight to surface, while banks can start to profit almost immediately.

This means that a future regime that loosens regulations that unfairly helps banks can benefit from their patronage.  Yet such an administration can quite possibly escape (or at least get the benefit of the doubt for) the blame for planting the time bomb that causes a financial disaster on a successor's watch.  

Other instances of the Obama and the Congressional Democrats collectively lacking courage are in enacting effective energy legislation, and perhaps immigration reform.  In energy we couldn't even have the weak cap and trade system passed, leave alone a stiff gasoline tax that can fund alternative fuel development as espoused by Thomas Friedman for years.

My take even on Obama "victories" is generally of his doing a lot when cornered into having to act, yet without doing enough.  It's almost like trying to save half the patient.  And it's not a question of being a centrist, but being ineffective.  I believe his taking the lead and acting more vigorously and decisively on contentious issues would help rather than hurt the Democrats in the 2010 mid-term elections.  It would not only rally his disheartened Democratic base, but also win the respect of more independents. 

But some initiatives did work well.  The response to the H1N1 "swine" flu epidemic was good overall, and overestimating the demand for the swine flu shots and the resultant oversupply was much better than if they'd underestimated it.  On the gulf oil spill the Obama team could have acted faster and forced more skimmers to be mobilized, including those from other oil companies.  But it did force BP to pay into a $20 billion fund despite Republican condemnation and appointed Kenneth Feinberg to administer compensation (with luck speedily and impartially) from it.   

Hopefully they can build more upon these types of successes in the time to come.

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