Deregulation: A Short History

September 20, 2008

It is generally acknowledged that the lack of effective regulation of our financial intuitions, and the blind eye that the Bush administration turned to the excesses and wanton profiteering of that economic sector, were primary causes of the recent near meltdown.  We are suffering the greatest financial crisis since 1929 when we were last dramatically reminded of the need for regulating this area.

The Great Depression marked the end of a Republican epoch in which the party had dominated the office of the presidency since before the turn of the century.  In the 1920’s Republican presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover had famously kept the the government out of the way of business and enjoyed the benefits of an economic boom based on speculation in financial markets.  The Great Depression called for the need for reforms and the institution of regulations to curb the profligacy that inevitably attends opportunity.

The Democratic Party was voted in to rein in the excesses of Wall Street and to protect the everyday person who suffered the consequences of its reckless profiteering.  A system of safeguards and oversight was created to assure that such catastrophe would not happen again.

In the 50 year period that followed the two Republican presidents that were elected safeguarded and contributed to the post depression-era safeguards.  Eisenhower did battle to check the Pentagon’s insatiable need for money and Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency among other things.

In 1980 the pendulum began to swing back, as it has throughout our history.  (Arthur M. Schlesinger wrote a great book about this called “The Cycles of American History.”  These cycles usually last about 30 or 40 years, or so.)

The current frenzy to deregulate dates back to the Nixon years, where talk began, although on a limited scale.  Carter was a proponent of deregulating or loosening the regulation of a few industries, but Reagan made it an ideological theme.    In order to do this he needed plausible support from the people whom the regulation was ultimately intended to protect.  He used a variety of bumper sticker type slogans like “getting the government off our backs.”  He created theatrical hypothetical villains and was celebrated for titling his lance at these windmills.  He mixed this in with cutting taxes to create enough populist appeal to undertake the removal of many restrictions imposed by government.   Thomas Frank explored this phenomenon in more recent years in a book called “What’s the Matter with Kansas.”

Bill Clinton carried the lust for deregulation where Reagan dared not tread.  Reagan did not think that he had the political currency to attack the whole welfare system.  Clinton, as a Democrat, was able to do this.  Banks and investment firms had been separated since the Great Depression but Clinton oversaw the revocation of this section of the Glass Steagall Act in 1999 with his signing of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Services Modernization Act.  (That is the same Gramm who is McCain’s chief economic adviser.)

Reagan began the wholesale changes in the media. After several other tinkerings in 1987 Reagan abolished the Fairness Doctrine which had been a cornerstone of media regulation.  It required media to air both sides of an issue if they presented one view.  It was this that legalized, if you will, the Rush Limbaugh phenomenon.  The Democrats were caught by surprise while right wing people raced to fill the media with their views.

It was Clinton’s signing of the Telecommunications Act on 1996 that really fueled this radicalization of the air waves by opening the doors to the monopolization of media outlets by a very few corporations.   Clear Chanel began gobbling up radio stations and broadening Rush Limbaugh’s reach.   Published or transmitted opinion became servant to the interests of fewer and fewer companies.

Historians will devote much attention to the similarities between the Bush administration and those of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover in the 1920’s.  There was the same disregard for the oversight function of government and the same obeisance to business interests.  For this crisis to occur all we needed was a captain asleep at the wheel during the late stages of the deregulation frenzy.

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The Economy: Pouring Gasoline on Fire?

September 18, 2008

The United States does not have enough money to sustain its own activities.  For reasons that I did not understand, nor apparently Alan Greenspan, rather than curb our country’s excesses we went into historic levels of indebtedness.  Our foreign debt has more than quadrupled and our total national debt is over three trillion dollars.

This previously unknown level of debt quite predictably caused the dollar to weaken.  As the dollar fell we have made a variety of efforts to prop it up but the weight of our debt has been too much for the interim measures we have undertaken.

While our leaders were focused on a war we entered into for reasons that have never been adequately explained by our leaders, they did not mind the store at home so that reckless lending practices were allowed to metastasize.  This certainly artificially sustained the economy for a while and just as certainly these practices were unsustainable over the long haul.  They were doomed to fail with fluctuations in the real estate market and like all houses of cards a tremor would be ruinous.

For reasons the Bush administration can best explain we were caught unprepared.   We have been forced to take measures that will be hard for our economy to endure if they are successful in stemming the current disaster.  At a time when we are borrowing money almost as fast as we can, the government is committing its resources to propping up its financial and insurance institutions.  This diversion of funds that are already inadequate to meet expenses will add to our sorry state of indebtedness.

The second measure that we are taking is to print more money.  Yesterday the Federal Reserve announced that it will be dumping $56 billion into the economy.  When you print the stuff that is pretty easy to do. This however will contribute to the downward spiral of the value of the dollar.

I have commented, after reading Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine,” that the United States really has been taking on the attributes of many South American countries.  It has a diminishing middle class; the polarization of wealth distribution is greater than it has been since the beginning of the industrial age, before the first timid implementation of the restraints complained of by Republicans.

Like our neighbors to the south we have promoted the power of the executive to a greatly heightened level. We have reduced oversight of private financial activity while loosening restraint on governmental activity with respect to its citizens.  Like South American countries we have gone deeply in debt and our financial institutions are not stable.  Similar to them our currency is falling.

The current measures to cure the crisis are not the smoke and mirrors approach that we have adopted in the past. At the same time if they avert disaster they will leave us with an economy in worst condition than we thought it was in before the crisis.  In short we will bring the crisis in the wings that we already knew about a few steps closer to center stage.