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Weekly Audit: Protect consumers, not Wall Street

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The economy is still getting worse. Foreclosures are surging above last year’s epic highs and the unemployment rate marches upwards every month. As the misery grinds on, Wall Street lobbyists and their allies in Congress are pushing hard to distract the public from the real causes of the current global economic crisis. Corporate America is trying to pin the blame for our empty pocketbooks on President Barack Obama and the phantom socialist menace, and cable news pundits are taking the bait.

As David Korten explains in a blog post for Yes!, this surge of distractions is a conscious political strategy designed to sabotage reform. “Wall Street’s greatest fear is that the public might demand Congress and the president shut down the casino,” Korten writes. “Any issue that shifts attention away from Wall Street and pins the blame for job loss and mortgage foreclosures on President Obama works in its favor.”

The banking lobby is kicking and screaming over President Obama’s plan to overhaul consumer protection in finance. As a result, the battle over the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) has become the most heated economic controversy in the nation’s capital, even though the issue isn’t controversial where ordinary citizens are concerned.

The existing hodgepodge of bank regulators completely failed to stand up for consumers as the housing bubble grew and burst. Our current bank regulators are charged not only with consumer protection, but safety and soundness regulation, which basically means making sure that banks don’t fail. Preventing bank failures often means protecting bank profits, even when those profits come at the expense of communities. Instead of relying on the same inept and conflicted agencies, consumer regulation of credit cards, mortgages, student loans, payday loans should be funneled into a single, new agency with no other priorities: The CFPA.

As Greg Kaufmann details for The Nation, recent economic history isn’t stopping Wall Street’s favorite lawmakers from pushing against the CFPA. Kaufmann highlights some of the most outrageous comments from a hearing on the CFPA last week. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) claimed that if the CFPA had existed a few years ago, there would be no ATMs or frequent flyer miles. David John, a researcher from the Heritage Foundation, said that employees of the new agency would spend too much time trying to find their new desks to actually do any regulating. Bank lobbyist Ed Yingling tried to erase the last ten years with his claim that “no real case has been made” for better enforcement of consumer protection in banking.

These are not serious arguments. They are intentional distractions designed to kill an obviously productive policy. Kaufmann’s headline says it all: “Do They Take us for Schmucks?”

But loudmouth Republicans like Hensarling aren’t the only politicians we need to keep tabs on. Plenty of lawmakers on the Financial Services Committee won’t stand up and make crazy speeches about ATMs, but will still go to bat for Wall Street behind the scenes. As I emphasize in a piece for AlterNet, with outsized Democratic majorities in both chambers of commerce, conservative, pro-Wall Street Democrats pose just as great a threat to our economic security as loony Republicans.

If you think that sounds pessimistic, consider Ralph Nader, who Matthew Rothschild profiles in The Progressive. Nader knows corporate America has its hands on nearly every lever in the U.S. political system. Lobbyists don’t just hurl money at lawmakers, they spend tremendous sums on misleading advertisements to sway public opinion. Rothschild quotes from a recent speech Nader gave on his current book tour. He argues that progressives don’t just need concerned citizens on our side. They need concerned citizens with money to counter the flood of corporate cash in the political system.

“There is a poignance in listening to Ralph Nader these days,” Rothschild writes. “Here is a man who, for the last 45 years, has hurled his body at the engine of corporate power. He’s dented it more than anyone else in America. But he knows it’s still chugging, even more strongly than ever.”

Even when lawmakers talk tough about Wall Street, it’s not obvious what’s really going on. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) recently rolled out an extremely ambitious plan to overhaul the bank regulatory system. It has very little common ground with Obama’s plan, and in some respects would be an improvement. Obama’s plan is very strong on consumer protection and not much else. But Dodd’s plan is so ambitious, it seems like a politically impossible waste of time, one that could easily delay reforms into next year. Dodd wants to consolidate all four bank regulators into a single agency to prevent a race to the bottom and strip the Federal Reserve of all of its regulatory responsibilities. They aren’t bad ideas, but they have absolutely no political momentum. Dodd has been holding hearings on the financial crisis since 2007– he could have started pushing for this plan a long time ago. By introducing it so late in the process, major legislative delays seem inevitable. The longer it takes to pass a regulatory bill, the more time the bank lobby has to water it down. Writing for Mother Jones, Nick Baumann suggests this may be exactly what Dodd intends.

“Maybe getting it done by 2010 isn’t the point. Dodd is up for reelection that November. If he manages to win by talking populist while raising money from Wall Street, he’ll have plenty of time afterward to figure out what to do next.”

For now, the economy is still absolutely horrible. Writing for In These Times, David Moberg translates the statistics from the government’s most recent unemployment report and deciphers some recent polling on the economy. Things are bad, and people know it. Many economists believe the recession may have technically already ended. The Gross Domestic Product, a statistical measure of the country’s economic output, may no longer be declining. But the unemployment rate keeps going up. It was 9.8% at the end of September.

Moberg notes that if the rate counted the long-term unemployed who have given up looking and people who want full-time jobs but settled for part-time work, the unemployment rate is a staggering 17%. Over one-third of the 15.1 million would-be workers encompassed by the 9.8% unemployment rate have been out of a job for at least six months. Voters overwhelmingly believe that government policies have helped Wall Street, while just 13% think the government has given a lot of help to the average working person.

Economics and politics are inextricably linked. To strengthen our economic foundation, we need policymakers who are willing to stand up to corporate America and corporate media and serve the citizens who elect them.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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