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Weekly Audit: Ending the economic status quo

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by Zach Carter, TMC MediaWire Blogger

The banking lobby still holds enough sway inside the Beltway to torpedo sensible consumer protection rules, even after releasing a flood of predatory mortgages that kicked off the current economic crisis. On issues ranging from payday loans to subprime mortgages, the banking industry continues to successfully defend itself against new regulations that would protect the consumer. As if that weren't outrage enough, the finance lobby has also joined other corporate interest groups to fund misinformation campaigns that smear unions and block wage growth.

As Mary Kane explains for The Colorado Independent, the push to rein in predatory mortgage lending appears to be losing steam on Capitol Hill. An extremely complex mortgage reform bill that is conciliatory to the finance lobby passed the House last month, angering consumer advocacy groups. Among the problems: the bill pre-empts many stronger state predatory lending laws and protects the Wall Street investment banks that gorged themselves on mortgage-backed securities.

Consumer protection shortfalls are not limited to messy mortgages. Lagan Sebert and David Murdoch detail the payday loan industry's continued assault on U.S. consumers for the American News Project. By offering small loans, typically in amounts ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, payday lenders target consumers who need money for basic necessities, then charge them outrageous interest rates (as in, above 700%).

For years, newspaper editorials have denounced payday lenders for systematically exploiting the most vulnerable members of society, including members of the U.S. military, who are often targeted as a result of their reliable paychecks. The solution to the problem is as simple as the business is repulsive: Capping annual interest rates on all consumer credit products at 36% would make this kind of predation impossible.

Nevertheless, the payday loan industry has been able to escape a regulatory crackdown via an intense and sustained lobbying effort. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., is now parroting payday lending lobbyists. Since payday loans are supposedly paid back within a matter of weeks, Dodd and the payday lending lobby say that it's unfair to hold them subject to the same standards as a 30-year mortgage.

The argument is insane. No bank would ever get away with charging a 36% interest rate on a mortgage. Even the most predatory subprime mortgages didn't have interest rates anywhere near that high. But Sebert and Murdoch go further, highlighting a report from the Center for Responsible Lending which found that payday lenders make 90% of their revenue from borrowers who do not pay their loans off on time. The loans are structured to be so expensive that consumers become trapped into making payments for the long-term, often spending thousands of dollars over multiple years to get out from under an initial loan of just a few hundred dollars.

Dodd has received major campaign contributions from the banking industry, but sometimes the lobbying effort is much more subtle. Several major corporate lobby groups have united under the misleading moniker of "Alliance to Save Main Street Jobs" to finance shoddily researched projects that defend the interests of the executive class in economic policy. An Alliance for Main Street Jobs report written by Anne Layne-Farrar has received quite a bit of attention for its claim that the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) would kill 600,000 jobs by making it easier for employees to organize. Several major news outlets have cited the allegation, including Fox News, MSNBC, The Wall Street Journal, and CBS News. As Art Levine reveals for In These Times, however, this research relies on completely meaningless statistical trends and disingenuous research design that render its findings utterly hollow.

Corporate executives are not afraid of EFCA because they think it will kill jobs or disenfranchise workers. They are afraid because it will empower workers to fight for living wages and provide safe working conditions—things that leave less money around for big executive bonuses at the end of the year and give workers a greater say in how companies operate.

In some respects, EFCA also represents the other side of the predatory lending problem. It is important to ban abusive loans, but it is just as important to make sure people are paid fairly for their work to ensure they don't need to seek out shady credit just to make ends meet.

When so many brewing legislative battles relate to the economy, it's easy to forget about the programs that have already been enacted. Some of the tax cuts included in the economic stimulus package were aimed at fostering investment in low-income and minority neighborhoods—a worthy goal. But as Michelle Chen notes for ColorLines, the program has some significant flaws. Chen highlights a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) which found that minority-owned community development entities are largely being excluded from the program, with approval rates about 67% lower than other applicants. The GAO could find no reasonable explanation for why minorities were not making the cut, especially when some recipients of the tax credits have a history of consumer exploitation. Capital One Bank, for instance, is receiving $90 million of these tax credits, despite its long history of abusive subprime credit card lending.

There have been some successes this year in the push for an economy that answers to workers and consumers. Much of the stimulus bill is designed to make sure important jobs don't disappear during the recession, and Sen. Dodd's credit card reform bill passed both chambers of Congress by comfortable margins and included some very strong improvements. But we know what caused the economic crisis: stagnant wages and predatory lending. A true recovery will have to empower workers and protect consumers, both of which will require breaking with the corporate status quo.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy.

Visit StimulusPlan.NewsLadder.net and Economy.NewsLadder.net for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter.

And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out Healthcare.NewsLadder.net and Immigration.NewsLadder.net.

This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.

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