The scene in lower Manhattan yesterday evening was remarkable. A broad swath of union locals and community organizations brought out their members. Students from colleges around the country walked out to join them. Workers from offices and retail outlets in the area spilled out into the crowd. The result was thousands of people—one count put it at 15,000—from all walks of life making one clear point to the world: it’s time to build an economy that works for everybody, not just for the super rich. The inspiring scene is being repeated in big and small ways around the country, as many movements converge around this simple idea.
The scene yesterday was also reminiscent. It looked refreshingly like the early moments of what became a global mobilization to stop Western powers from launching a war in our names. Our elected leaders ignored the vocal majority back then, plowing ahead with a war that, among other tragedies, has helped create and prolong the economic disaster gripping us now. The question is whether today’s leaders will listen to the people they represent or, once again, ignore them.
And to be clear, there are quite specific measures of whether our representatives are listening. Today, the Senate Banking Committee approved the nomination of Richard Cordray to lead the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But his nomination isn’t expected to get much further than that, because Republicans have vowed to block it in the full Senate until the bureau is stripped of any meaningful power. When asked about the growing protests this morning, President Obama answered by pointing to Cordray’s stalled nomination and highlighting it as a key pressure point. I’ve been critical of the president’s handling of the nomination, but he’s correct about this much: The new consumer watchdog couldn’t be more crucial to creating change in this economy, which is precisely why the financial sector and its congressional colleagues have fought so hard against it.
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The Chamber of Commerce spent $17 million lobbying against the consumer protection watchdog in the first quarter of this year alone, as Ari Berman reported in a Nation article that is essential reading for understanding the fight for financial reform. That alone should offer an indication of the threat the bureau presents to business-as-usual financial predation. It is the sole piece of meaningful reform to emerge from the current economic crisis.
Thanks to the Occupy Wall Street movement, a lot of folks are plugging into the financial reform discussion for the first time. The banking lobby and its supporters in Washington like to stress how complex the debate is, no doubt in order to keep new people from joining it. But it’s actually quite straightforward: Prior to this July, there was no regulatory body in the federal government tasked with making sure that the products banks and other financial players sell are safe and fair. The banking reform law of 2010 created one in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an idea spurred by Elizabeth Warren.
Why is this crucial? Because a primary cause of the current crisis is the existence of shady, predatory financial products that enrich a very few while burying everyone else in crippling debt. The payday lending industry, for instance, generates an estimated $30 billion a year for people at the top of our economy, through small loans with triple-digit interest rates that keep poor people trapped in a cycle of debt. Not coincidentally, its stores swarm low-income and working class communities of color in particular—places that have long been deprived of legitimate lending and thus are particularly vulnerable to the predatory version. That’s just one corner of the financial market. This set up—dishonest, debt-trap products that generate huge profits by taking advantage of people made vulnerable by decades of neglect—recurs throughout the financial industry, from credit cards to car loans.
So the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is tasked with ferreting out and stopping this abuse—or at least bringing it to light. The banking lobbyists succeeded, during the 2010 debate, in making the bureau institutionally weak compared to other regulators. It must answer to a board comprised primarily of the very same regulatory agencies that refused to intervene when many people warned that the subprime boom threatened homeowners and investors alike. Still, the banks couldn’t kill the new watchdog altogether, so now they’re working hard to finish the job and kill it in all but name. They’ve convinced Republicans to hold Cordray’s nomination hostage until the White House agrees to strip the bureau of any meaningful power.
There is a sadly long list of reforms we must fight to win if we are to reverse the process that amassed our nation’s wealth in the hands of 1 percent of its people. But getting someone inside the financial industry who’s looking out for all of us, rather than for the industry is a good start—and it’s an urgent, right-now battle. Banks are dreaming up and deploying new products to take advantage of the very economic crisis they’ve created. Every day we go without a fully functional consumer watchdog is another day they get toward that goal.