Financial Reform Doing Surprisingly Well

Readers of Haley Edwards’ big piece on Dodd-Frank (by my lights the best piece of journalism in 2013) know the extent to which the financial reform deck is stacked against the reformers. There’s the imbalance in resources, courts that were stacked with conservative holdouts, and probably worst of all an attention imbalance. Wall Street had billions upon billions to burn on lobbying and lawsuits, while reformers had table scraps and a few disgruntled ex-financiers.

A betting man would have put money on the banks.

But sometimes things work out better than one expects. Mike Konczal has quite a nice piece in the New Republic today about how financial reform has gone from near-death in 2012 to stronger than anyone dared hope today. Elizabeth Warren, some fearless academics, and a loose coalition of dedicated reformists were part of it. But also, Wall Street was its own worst enemy:

The successes of 2013 were partially driven by the failures of Wall Street in 2012. The multi-billion dollar trading losses from JPMorgan Chase known as the “London Whale” changed the dynamics for financial reform in a way that took a year to realize. JPMorgan had been leading the charge against reform, arguing that the effort was over-harsh and destructive, and that Wall Street had already cleaned up its act on its own. Indeed, the big concern in 2012 was that Wall Street would convince enough moderate Democrats that Dodd-Frank had gone too far in certain respects, and that Congress would stop regulatory action before it was even completed. This fell apart right alongside the multi-billion dollar losses in JPMorgan’s position.

This (and the 2008 crisis itself, of course) is the kind of thing that convinces me that cyberpunk dystopias are rather unrealistic, at least given our current grade of humans. Not because of any lack of rapaciousness at the great supranational corporations, but because the these huge banks keep making the most colossally boneheaded mistakes. Without the state there to provide last-resort backing, they’d clearly destroy themselves and everyone else inside a decade or two.

Konczal also points out that small left-leaning advocacy groups have been punching far above their weight:

Though small compared to Wall Street and the right, groups like Americans for Financial Reform and Better Markets show up extensively in the comments on the Volcker Rule. In the final rule, there are hundred of references to the detailed comment letter the Occupy the SEC group sent. These groups didn’t exist before the crisis, and their existence is a major piece of what makes solid final rules happen.

Occupy the SEC! And they said Occupy Wall Street didn’t accomplish anything. Nice works, folks. Paul Krugman comments:

You should by no means imagine that Wall Street is on the run, or that the cause of real reform is triumphant. But we have just seen that it is indeed possible to be too cynical about the political process: sometimes good ideas and good people manage to rack up a victory or two against the big money.

That’s fair. Enormous financial and legal resources are important, yes, but they aren’t a trump card against inspiration, belief in one’s mission, and hard work.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.