Lofchie on Financial Reform Platforms

When considering financial regulation (and regulation generally) and their expressed attitudes towards the financial system, the two platforms are positioned almost diametrically in opposition. It is necessary, therefore, to say something about the parties’ views of the role that government should play both in providing employment and in the role of private enterprise. The Republican platform is based on the standard position that private enterprise is to be strongly encouraged and is generally preferable to governmental enterprise. By contrast, the Democratic platform is largely about governmental spending and enterprise; including, for example, government spending on infrastructure: drinking water and waste systems, climate change initiatives, education, industrial energy efficiency, broadband networks, health care, child care, care for the aged, housing, supporting groundbreaking research and so on. The Democratic platform supports such spending not only at the federal level, but also at the state and municipal level. While the summary above does not fully include these spending initiatives, it would not be possible to assess the Democratic position on financial regulation and the direct conduct of financial activities by the government without that context.

The focus of this discussion is on financial regulation. The Republican platform, provides little in the way of ambitious new plans. It is, at its core, completely skeptical of regulation, describing all of it as a “tax.” This is obviously not true: good regulations are necessary for growth because they keep market participants honest. Advocating for the abolition of the Internal Revenue Service, as the platform does at one point, seems to be a wholly unserious proposition. That being said, it is all a matter of perspective. If one believes that our current system of financial regulation is more in need of pruning than of fertilization, then such unseriousness is a bit of welcome relief from the unseriousness of our current debates.

The Democratic platform, by contrast, is breathtaking in its ambition. It is not possible to ignore the extent to which the Democratic platform envisions a substantial replacement of the private financial system by government-owned financial enterprises. A notable example: the platform advocates the idea that the Postal Service should provide “basic” banking services. While the only such service that is expressly mentioned is check cashing, the platform strongly suggests that such services would also include deposits and lending. In addition, the platform would establish an “independent, national infrastructure bank” to, among other things, “provide loans and other financial assistance for . . . multi-modal infrastructure projects.” (What in the world does that mean?) Then there are also the half dozen or more other loan and investment services for which the platform makes provision. The platform seems to intend that the Postal Service would enter into direct competition with community banks. It would seem to be the strong, albeit implicit, belief of the drafters of the Democratic platform that the government would be successful in not only community banking but in a whole range of investment banking-type activities.

The Democratic platform spends a fair amount of time demonizing all those who work in financial services as part of a hostile and criminal operation. Perhaps those who are in government should be a bit more modest given that the number of senior government officials who have been convicted of financial crimes is fairly substantial. That said, the supposedly corrupt “revolving door” between financial regulators and the financial industry seems to be overstated if not completely fictional. Where is the evidence that anyone at the SEC has been negatively influenced by their previous job? Whether or not the authors of the draft platform have any genuine goal in that regard, the effect of the assumption will be the same: preventing knowledgeable individuals from working for financial regulators. If being ignorant of how markets work should be considered to be such an asset, then perhaps financial regulators should be selected randomly from the phone book (though a lottery drawn from a list of academics might yield even more candidates with this particular asset).

Much of the detail of the Democratic platform is either unserious or intellectually incoherent. What does it mean to protect the independence of the Federal Reserve Board, but to make it more representative? If the Board is to be more “representative”; i.e., reflecting the popular will, what is the purpose of its independence? Likewise, is it absolutely necessary that “every Republican effort to weaken” Dodd-Frank must be stopped – i.e., that it is wrong to reassess the 2,000-page statute after six years of operation in order to gauge its failures and successes? Does anyone really believe that Dodd-Frank is such a perfect work of art that any attempt to revisit its contents is a form of desecration? The politicization of every issue makes it impossible to have a rational discussion about financial regulation.

Interestingly, there are some areas of agreement between the Democrats and the Republicans in their political platforms. Both express skepticism of international trade (both single out China) and both are opposed to “too big to fail” (which seems to be the regulatory equivalent of supporting the baking of apple pie).

It is perhaps unfair to critique political platforms given the general understanding that they are for the most part meaningless monologues that will be ignored by the soon-to-be elected officials. Nonetheless, even if they are not directly actionable documents, they do influence the parameters of the debate that is to come, and thus it seems appropriate to treat the documents as significant.