Topic: Regulatory Studies

“A Real Regulator”

Sunday’s Meet the Press had a fascinating colloquy on securities regulation, revealing Washington’s immense capacity for self-deception.

David Gregory set up the story, on which CNBC’s Erin Burnett commented:

MR. GREGORY: … I want to stay in New York and something else that has rocked Wall Street beyond the economy, and that is Bernard Madoff. Big money man, investment man who was the darling of Wall Street for many, many years. Now it turns out he ran a giant Ponzi scheme and billions have been lost, from the small investor to, to Jewish organizations and, and philanthropies across the country. Steve Pearlstein, who writes about the economy for The Washington Post, wrote this: “With the Madoff story, it is now revealed that the masters of the universe aren’t just too clever by half—they’re not that clever at all. For years, they not only allowed themselves to be bamboozled by a con artist but also willingly and enthusiastically served as his market agent, offering friends, relatives and favorite charities the opportunity to invest with their good pal, Bernie Madoff. (So much for the idea that wealthy individuals and ‘sophisticated’ institutional investors don’t need the protection of government regulators.)” Was anybody watching?

MS. BURNETT: It, it is incredible, because there had been credible complaints brought to the SEC that said along the lines of, “This is too good to be true. You don’t get these sorts of consistent returns.”

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MS. BURNETT: And they didn’t do anything about it. But they’re—you know, I was talking to Mort Zuckerman, the New York real estate man, earlier this week, and he had lost $30 million in one of his charities that was invested with Bernie Madoff. And he said, “I didn’t even know who the guy was. I had given my money to somebody else who actually”…

MR. GREGORY: Right.

MS. BURNETT: …”entrusted the entire $30 million to one guy, a guy I’d never heard of, and then I get a letter finding out that it’s completely gone.” So you’re talking about some very sophisticated people who were completely duped, and maybe some of them should have been doing more due diligence. Some of them were trusting that role to others…

MR. GREGORY: Right.

MS. BURNETT: …who had a fiduciary responsibility to do it. But there’s no question we need a real regulator.

“[W]e need a real regulator.”

Ms. Burnett, the SEC that failed to prevent this is a real regulator.

When regulators fail to address a problem ahead of time, when they regulate inefficiently, when they hand their rulemaking organs to the industries they are supposed to oversee, those are all the actions of real regulators. That’s what you get with real regulation.

What Burnett meant when she called for a “real” regulator, of course, was “the regulator I can imagine.” The regulators people imagine are foresighted, interested only in the public good, they’re resistant to lobbying, and they run efficient organizations. But these characteristics are simply imaginary.

Watching discussions like these, you come to realize how legislation and regulation thrive on self-deception and the appeal to ego.

Thousands of people come to Washington and stay because they believe that they can design the ideal regulatory system. They think they know how to write a law or a regulation that works for everyone, that protects consumers, that doesn’t pick winners and losers in the marketplace, that doesn’t make the glaring errors that we see month in and month out on Sunday morning political shows.

(If only voters didn’t elect the wrong guy. If only lobbyists didn’t ‘corrupt’ the system. If only, if only, if only … .)

Alas, we’re stuck with real regulators. They fail, and when people rely on them, the failures of regulation are magnified. (Not that Mort Zuckerman should get his money back from anyone other than Bernard Madoff. No bailout.)

Libertarians and pro-Washington people (for lack of a better term) have the same goals: honest, transparent marketplaces, productive economies, healthy and happy people. The difference is that Washingtonians strive to defeat human nature rather than harnessing it, and they build a bigger and bigger machine for doing that, sometimes calling it “real regulation.”

Law and Disorder in Philadelphia

This mini-documentary does a great job of capturing how the drug war is wreaking havoc in our cities.  Police engage in a futile game of cat & mouse with low level “corner boys.”  Gang members kill one another over turf (drug sales territory).  And the chasm between the ordinary residents and the government (police, prosecutors) is palpable.  The police are frustrated by the lack of citizen cooperation.  Witnesses and victims do not come forward with information, for example.  But there is little mystery here.  If the police cannot protect witnesses from retaliatory attacks, coming forward is practically suicidal.   Criminals oversee a thriving black market drug trade while policymakers dither about drug courts and “Plan Colombia.”

Excellent work, Mr. Theroux.  These festering problems are too often ignored by our MSM.  Americans get excessive coverage of OJ Simpson, Natalie Holloway, and Caylee Anthony.  For scholarly work on the drug war go here, herehere, and here.     If you liked this mini-doc, be sure to check out The Wire.

Obama Transition Transparency: A Good Start

The President-elect’s Change.gov Web site announced a new feature on Friday, called Your Seat at the Table: “The Obama-Biden Transition Team will be hearing from many groups over the next several weeks. On this page, you can track these meetings, view documents provided to the Transition, and leave comments for the team.”

Says a memo from transition head John Podesta, itself posted online, “[A]ny documents from official meetings with outside organizations will be posted on our website for people to review and comment on.”

This is a very good start at transparency. John Wonderlich at the Sunlight Foundation wonders what this might look like across the entire executive branch. If the default rule were online disclosure of documents submitted to government agencies, that would make a big change in the conduct of the public’s business.

There are many dimensions of transparency, of course. Along with openness in political and regulatory processes, we should also have openness in functional information, and in results. Where is the money going? What are we getting in return? Answers to these questions can validate or invalidate government programs in ways never before thought possible.

Wednesday at noon, we’ll be having a policy forum here at Cato entitled: Just Give Us the Data! Prospects for Putting Government Information to Revolutionary New Uses. Ed Felten, Gary Bass, and Jerry Brito will discuss how access to government data in useful formats might revolutionize public oversight.

Register here now.

David Hyman Now Blogging at Volokh Conspiracy

Fans of Cato adjunct scholar David Hyman – you know, the guy who claimed that Medicare is a tool of the devil – will be happy to know that he is now blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy.

Hyman’s inaugural post – the first in a series on capping non-economic damages in medical-malpractice cases – can be found here.

And seriously, he was just kidding about that whole Medicare/devil thing.  Honestly.

Larry Summers on Employer Mandates

President-elect Barack Obama has named former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers to head his National Economic Council.  Obama also wants to require employers to offer health insurance to their workers.

It is therefore instructive to recall what the head of Obama’s National Economic Council has written about employer mandates:

Economists have generally devoted little attention to mandated benefits- regarding them as simply disguised tax and expenditure measures. Uwe Reinhardt’s reaction is probably typical: “[Just because] the fiscal flows triggered by mandate would not flow directly through the public budgets does not detract from the measure’s status of a bona fide tax.”

Suppose, for example, that there is a binding minimum wage. In this case, wages cannot fall to offset employers’ cost of providing a mandated benefit, so it is likely to create unemployment….

Mandated benefit programs can work against the interests of those who most require the benefit being offered…

If policymakers fail to recognize the costs of mandated benefits because they do not appear in the government budget, then mandated benefit programs could lead to excessive spending on social programs. There is no sense in which benefits become ‘free’ just because the government mandates that employers offer them to workers…

It can plausibly be argued that mandated benefits fuel the growth of government.