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It's the Deregulation, Stupid

Democrats from Carter to Clinton helped roll back the government's regulatory power, but as the economic crisis deepens, "regulation" is no longer such a dirty word.

| Fri Mar. 28, 2008 3:00 AM EDT
Speaking at Cooper Union in New York City on Thursday, Barack Obama went where few Democrats have dared to go in the past quarter-century: He made a case for more regulation. As part of a speech on his economic platform, Obama depicted the current economic crisis as a consequences of deregulation in the financial sector. "Our free market was never meant to be a free license to take whatever you can get, however you can get it," he said. "Unfortunately, instead of establishing a 21st century regulatory framework, we simply dismantled the old one—aided by a legal but corrupt bargain in which campaign money all too often shaped policy and watered down oversight."

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This is quite a statement from a candidate who's received $6 million in campaign contributions from securities and investment firms, just slightly less than rival Hillary Clinton, who cashes in at $6.3 million. Obama's criticism was sharp, but his six-point plan for rebuilding a regulatory structure was short on both details and teeth, and relies on the Federal Reserve, which is like having the fox guard, well, the other foxes. Still, his use of the r-word signals what is at least a rhetorical departure for a party that has been running from regulation for decades.

Obama isn't the only one. Last week at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, chair of the powerful House Financial Services Committee, also argued that years of banking deregulation were in part responsible for creating the subprime mortgage crisis and the larger economic downturn, which he didn't hesitate to call a recession. He talked about the need to impose more "discipline" on investment banks, requiring a higher level of capitalization and transparency. Frank called on Congress to consider establishing a "Financial Services Risk Regulator" that would have "the capacity and power to assess risk across financial markets" and "to intervene when appropriate."

Such a proposal may seem like too little too late in a month when the likes of Bear Stearns crumbled to dust, yet, like Obama's speech, it suggests a small shift in what has long been the dominant position of the Democratic Party. Without entirely eschewing the sacred myth that the free market always knows best, some congressional Democrats are envisioning a more direct role for the federal government in carrying out economic policy and imposing rules and restrictions on banks and brokerages. Calls for increased oversight of financial markets come at a time when the Federal Reserve System, the quasi-public institution that is seen as the fulcrum for managing the economy, is losing credibility, what with its failure to predict or head off the current crisis and its ineffective and controversial responses once it arrived. Americans are beginning to look elsewhere for leadership on these issues. As the economy continues to decline, some voters may finally start asking their government to rein in Wall Street. And some Democrats may finally be willing to veer out of lockstep in the party's long march toward deregulation.

Deregulation has been the mantra on both sides of the aisle since the late 1960s. Long gone are Democrats like Michigan's Phil Hart who, as chair of the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee, held hearings on the concentration of economic power in the United States, and proposed expanded government regulation of everything from the oil and auto industries to pharmaceuticals to professional sports. Hart believed that because wealth and power were concentrated in the hands of such a small number of corporations, the market economy had become no more than a facade. In this context, what would bring about lower prices and greater productivity and innovation was more government intervention and regulation, not less.

Hart got a Senate building named after him, but his warnings about the threat of unbridled corporate power and consolidation went unheeded. Instead, the rush to deregulation began, first in the transportation sector. Efforts begun under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford came to fruition under Jimmy Carter, who hired deregulation guru Alfred E. Kahn to head the Civil Aeronautics Board, the widely loathed agency responsible for regulating the airline industry. Senator Ted Kennedy and his then aide, future Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, embraced deregulation as a consumer issue, and with their support, Kahn quickly worked his way out of a job: The 1978 Airline Deregulation Act dissolved the CAB and removed most regulation of commercial airlines. Carter also signed into law bills deregulating the railroads and the trucking industry.

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