recommended daily allowance

14 May 2009

This Bill Moyers interview with Simon Johnson and Michael Perino about the Pecora Commission and its relevance for today is very very good, and anyone interested in the financial crisis who also has the slightest bit of interest in history should check it out. (A transcript is helpfully provided for those who don’t want to sit through an hour.)

At one point Johnson and Perino got into a bit of a disagreement over whether financial products should be labled like food products:

SIMON JOHNSON: Let me put it this way, Bill, 150 years ago, I could have stood outside your studio on the street of New York and sold anything in a bottle and called it a medicine, okay? Quack medicine is what it was called. And it could have been, you know, good for you or bad offer you or it could have killed you. And it would– I could have done it. I would have done it, right? People did it.

Now that’s illegal. You go to prison. There are serious criminal penalties for selling things that you claim are medicine that are– that are not medicine. And obviously we argue even about very fine distinctions of how good is this for you under what circumstances? The same transformation will take place, I am sure, over the next 150 years for financial products. I’d like to bring it forward a little bit and have it happen in the next couple of years.

MICHAEL PERINO: I’m not–

SIMON JOHNSON: I think that change of view of, you know, to what extent can the consumer decide for himself or herself, to what extent do you need protection, guidance, very strong labels on products? I think that we’ve changed many ways we think about things as we modernized our economy looking over the past century. But the financial products, not so much.

MICHAEL PERINO: If you look back at the history, the first securities regulations were not federal regulation but state regulation. They were called the “blue sky laws.” And the “blue sky laws” were exactly the model you’re talking about. The “blue sky laws” were what were called merit regulation. And the idea behind merit regulation is that there will be a state regulator who will look at the quality of these securities and will determine whether they are appropriate or not to sell to investors in that state.

It’s a model that federal securities regulation rejected because the view was, you know, do we really want to be in a position where some bureaucrat is deciding what’s an appropriate risk for an investor to take? Or are we better off with the progressive model, a model that Brandeis wrote about in his famous book called “Other People’s Money” where he says, No, we don’t need to be regulating the substance of this. What we need to rely on, in his phrase, is sunlight, electric light, he says, is the best policeman.

It’s too bad that Johnson didn’t point out that Perino, who’s doing a biography of Pecora and presumably has gotten into the relevant history – Other People’s Money was reprinted around the time of the Pecora hearings and first came out in 1913-4 following a similar, but less famous, set of hearings on banking conducted by the Pujo Committee in 1912 – apparently missed the part later in the same chapter that the “sunlight” quote is drawn from where Brandeis wrote (under “Publicity as a Remedy”):

Now the law should not undertake (except incidentally in connection with railroads and public-service corporations) to fix bankers’ profits. And it should not seek to prevent investors from making bad bargains. But it is now recognized in the simplest merchandising, that there should be full disclosures. The archaic doctrine of caveat emptor is vanishing. The law has begun to require publicity in aid of fair dealing. The Federal Pure Food Law does not guarantee quality or prices; but it helps the buyer to judge of quality by requiring disclosure of ingredients. Among the most important facts to be learned for determining the real value of a security is the amount of water it contains. And any excessive amount paid to the banker for marketing a security is water. Require a full disclosure to the investor of the amount of commissions and profits paid; and not only will investors be put on their guard, but bankers’ compensation will tend to adjust itself automatically to what is fair and reasonable. Excessive commissions—this form of unjustly acquired wealth—will in large part cease.

In other words, the clock has already been running for nearly a century on the effort to label financial products. The question isn’t whether we’ll get it in a few years or in a century; it’s whether it will take another century.

Advertisements

following leaders

29 January 2009

0.2:

Fifty-five Bostonians, including the president of Harvard, A. Lawrence Lowell, signed a petition accusing Brandeis of lacking the “judicial temperament.” It was the kind of campaign that could get people muttering that if those guys didn’t like Brandeis, maybe he was no good.

teotaw-brandeis-chart

One of Brandeis’s allies drew up a chart pointing out that the fifty-five anti-Brandeisians all belonged to the same clubs, worked in the same State Street banks, and lived in the same neighborhoods. As Walter Lippmann wrote, “All the smoke of ill-repute which had been gathered around Mr. Brandeis originated in the group psychology of these gentlemen and because they are men of influence it seemed ominous. But it is smoke without any fire except that of personal or group antagonism.”

_______________

2.0:

What is this thing?

We often describe LittleSis as an involuntary facebook for powerful people, in that the database includes information on the various relationships of politicians, CEOs, and their friends — what boards they sit on, where they work, who they give money to. All of this information is public record, but it is scattered across a wide range of websites and resources. LittleSis is an attempt to organize it in a way that meaningfully exposes the social networks that wield disproportionate influence over this country’s public policy.

I’m not sure if you can create maps, graphs, trees, and charts on Little Sis right now, but hopefully it will be possible to do things like this in the future.


indirect sunlight

2 August 2008

The Senate has never been a model of efficiency – and in some ways was specifically designed not to be – but this continues to be absurd:

Under current rules, Senate offices must print out their campaign finance reports, which lawmakers store electronically, and mail them to the Sec. of the Senate on Capitol Hill (the reports must be postmarked, though not received, by the specific deadline). The Sec. of the Senate then scans them and emails the digitalized versions to the Federal Election Commission. The FEC posts the non-searchable images online, but also prints another set of hard copies, which are driven to the offices of a government contractor in Virginia; the contractor then keys the information back into the computer in its final, searchable form.

The process takes between four to six weeks, experts say, and costs taxpayers roughly $250,000 per year.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The House moved to mandatory electronic filing at the start of 2001. The Senate was exempt at the time (and remains so) because that law applied only to those filing directly with the FEC. (The Senate, recall, files first to the Sec. of the Senate.) Searchable House records are available online almost immediately after members file.

[Note: Some sections of the linked article seem to imply that the forms are unavailable to the public until they are put into a searchable form. I don’t think that’s true. The page images are posted on the FEC website relatively soon after the forms are filed. The scans are often of poor quality and sometimes it’s hard to make out certain numbers or letters, but they’re still viewable. It’s a real pain to deal with, though, and certainly a deterrent to those who want to do an intensive analysis of the data. Some filings are hundreds of pages in length.]

So why hasn’t the Senate followed the House’s example?

Supporters of the move to electronic filing have long wondered why any lawmaker would oppose the shift. After all, the bill doesn’t demand fuller disclosure, simply speeds up the process. Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit campaign-finance reform advocate, said that, in tight election years, that could be reason enough. “A lot of times in politics, timing is everything,” McGehee said. “This is about control of information.”

That sounds right to me. The impression I’ve gotten from following this election* fairly closely is that the way political reporting works, particularly election reporting, a lot of stories come out very quickly after the campaign finance reports are filed (the big reports are filed quarterly). Many of these are aggregate numbers stories – “took in X, has Y cash on hand” – but there are other stories about candidates’ ties to particular donors or candidates’ expenditures on things like ads or legal representation (like when a candidate is, say, under investigation or even indictment, not that recent members of Congress have had this problem). But after enough time has passed, the filings start to go stale: they lose the immediacy of “news” in the sense of “breaking news.” The information they provide might still be incorporated into a later article but the reporter will not be able to write: “FEC reports filed today/yesterday reveal…” Moreover, the delay in processing becomes increasingly important as election day nears:

In 2006, for example, voters in six of the 10 tightest Senate races had no access to third-quarter contributions — those donated in July, August and September — a week before the election. In 2004, 85 percent of third-quarter contributions were unavailable to voters in all Senate races, CFI [Campaign Finance Institute] found.

And anyway, how often is someone helped electorally by the information in their own campaign filings? I can think of Obama’s small-donor success, but not much else. So for candidates with potentially damaging information in their reports there’s an incentive to keep things the way they are. And because it’s not always clear beforehand what information could cause trouble, that’s a potentially large group.

Meanwhile, just as proponents of electronic filing can claim that the change would not entail any new disclosures, opponents can claim that they’re not against disclosure (they’re just against applying the latest technology to existing requirements). Plus, because these kinds of campaign process issues don’t get much attention – I bet most of you have stopped reading this post – and probably don’t sway that many votes, the cost of opposing the change may not be all that high.

That said, some of the opponents’ tactics have been more complicated than simply saying “no”:

Though a Senate bill would modernize the chamber’s disclosure process, GOP opposition has stalled it for more than a year. Most recently, the delay was caused by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who objected to the bill when he wasn’t permitted to attach a controversial amendment. Ensign’s addition would have required groups that file complaints with the Senate Ethics Committee to disclose their donors — something charities and other non-profits are often loathe to do.

“It’s basically a poison pill amendment,” said Craig Holman, a campaign finance lobbyist at Public Citizen.

There may be legitimate arguments in favor of requiring certain types of non-profits** to disclose their donors, but the restriction of disclosure requirements to only those groups that file complaints makes this attempt to pit transparency against transparency look transparently disingenuous.

————————————————————————-

*This is the first cycle I’ve followed this closely. In 2006 and 2004 I relied mostly on the mainstream news and a small number of political blogs.

**Here’s a story on 501(c)(4)s, if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s mostly an overview and not an explicit argument in favor of disclosure requirements, but it does give you a sense of why it would not be crazy to think that those kinds of groups should make their donor lists public.


clean finance

16 June 2008

I’ve never followed New York politics, so when the Eliot Spitzer scandal broke, I didn’t know much about Spitzer’s earlier career. I was in New York at the time and I followed the coverage fairly closely for about a month – just until a little after it stopped being a major story. Today I was catching up on some old New Yorker reading and I came across this, which I didn’t see mentioned in any of the post-scandal stories I read:

Perhaps the most significant support came from his family. The 1994 campaign had been funded in large part by a $4.3-million bank loan that Spitzer took out, using as collateral some apartments that he owned; he told the press that he was servicing the loan with his own income. In 1998, a few days before Election Day, in a nasty race with the incumbent, Dennis Vacco, he admitted that he had been paying off the bank with a loan his father had given him on generous terms. In effect, he’d received a $4.3-million campaign donation from his father, which is well in excess of family donation limits, and lied about it. (The Board of Elections declined to investigate.) Michael Goodwin, a columnist at the News, asked Spitzer why he’d lied, and Spitzer told him, according to Goodwin, “I had to”—a phrase that Spitzer’s detractors have lorded over him ever since, as a kind of shorthand for a streak of dishonesty and hypocrisy. (Spitzer says that he doesn’t remember any such conversation.) Nonetheless, after a hotly contested recount, Spitzer won.

From earlier in the article, which came out in the December 10, 2007 issue, when it looked like he’d have a full term in office:

Spitzer’s agenda, broadly and loftily speaking, is to make the workings of Albany more transparent: to disentangle the corrosive influence of the special interests and to combat, if not eliminate, the nest-feathering that flourishes in the dark. Campaign-finance reform is an essential part of this.

That said, had he been successful in this reform it probably would have been a good thing, whatever the details of his own past campaigns.