Reprinted without permission. Happy anniversary Glass-Steagall repeal
He got it right last time.
Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, was one of eight senators who stood up to oppose the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act in 1999. That repeal, which was signed into law by President Clinton exactly 10 years ago today, broke down the barriers between commercial banking and investment banking, and led to the growth of behemoth financial firms that were able to take enormous risks with impunity, because they were "too big to fail."
"I think we will in 10 years' time look back and say we should not have done this," Dorgan said back then. The video of his speech has become something of a cult favorite for wonks -- ten years, a $700 billion bailout and a major financial crisis later.
Washington has an odd habit of listening to the people who consistently get such things wrong, and ignoring the ones who get them right.
So today, on this solemn anniversary, how about listening to this guy? What does he think we should do now?
"Three things," the senator told me in an interview. "One is to separate investment banks and FDIC-insured banks. Second, prohibit FDIC-insured banks from dealing in risky financial instruments on their own proprietary accounts... And third, abolish 'too big to fail.' If you're too big to fail, you're too big. Too big to fail is what I call no-fault capitalism."
All in all, it's a much more forceful agenda than his party leaders -- including his president -- are advocating.
Why isn't the administration at his side? "You'd have to address that question to the administration," Dorgan said. He did, however, express disappointment. "I would like to see them more aggressive on this issue."
But he's still hopeful. "We don't have any bill on the floor of the House or the Senate to evaluate," said Dorgan, who is not on the Senate's Finance Committee. "My hope is that we'll get a piece of legislation that will restore that separation."
Dorgan said he hasn't yet taken a position on the administration's proposed Consumer Finance Protection Agency, but "clearly there needs to be consumer protection. The question is how."
Also, he said, "I think you have to regulate hedge funds... You have to have transparency on these financial instruments."
And then there's the whole issue of accountability. "It's one of the most frustrating things," Dorgan said. "We essentially have had modern-day bank robbers -- except that they wore gray suits and not masks -- and there's been no accountability for it."
Dorgan has repeatedly called -- fruitlessly -- for a federal task force to investigate and establish accountability for the crisis. What's needed, he said, is an agreed-upon "master narrative" for the story -- and then prosecution of any criminal activity.
Dorgan, who is finishing up his third term in the Senate, is also an author. His latest book, published in May, is titled: "Reckless! How Debt, Deregulation and Dark Money Nearly Bankrupted America and How We Can Fix It".
In it, he writes about the government's obligation to right the tilted playing field of modern free-market capitalism, which currently favors the major players over regular folk. He writes:
Every day we see energy speculators, war profiteers, managed health-care providers, media propagandists, and/or financiers given some unfair advantage over the average consumers and taxpayers, and the cumulative effect of the American people watching selfishness prevail over the public interest has been an undermining of the public's trust in government.
This "anything goes" approach to capitalism has injured the very economy we have aspired to create. It is a philosophy that corporations and markets can be counted on to police themselves....
I'm a big fan of the free-market system. I don't know of any better method of allocating the goods and services. But in a free- market economy it is not unusual to see the big interests pitted against the little guy. When they are allowed to run unchecked or to rig the system, the big interests have the potential to drag down the very economy they need to remain stable and healthy. That is why it is so important we fight for a new era of reform and change to put our country back on track -- giving working people and small businesses the voice and the power to make the changes necessary.
This is not about a liberal or conservative philosophy. It is about making sure our economy and the free-market system work for everybody.
"There's no question the system is rigged against the little guy," Dorgan told me. "The bigger interests have a lot more information. They jerry-rig the system so that they always win."
"I think that has to be one of the lessons that comes out of this experience," he said, noting that it's been "one of the most expensive lessons in the history of our country."
As for what motivated him back in 1999, Dorgan said: "I just felt that merging the risks of investment banks with FDIC-insured banks was going to cause very expensive problems for the taxpayers of the country. And it turns out that's exactly what happened."