Remembering that People are PeoplePosted: March 20, 2016
It is sometimes too easy to be jaded and cynical, and to write people off as merely a product of their affiliations and past lives. This especially applies to public figures and how we think about them. When I say easy, I mean cognitively easy: we think of a person and what they stand for in a way that challenges our world view the least and fits neatly into a narrative we had already started writing. Rewriting, or adding digressions and nuance to the story, is too time-consuming. I am as guilty of this as anyone. In many cases, the judgement is actually correct, and more often than not it is borne out by an abundance of evidence.
But every so often, I need to be reminded that people are people, and that they can be complex and difficult to label. Their motives are not so simple, and not so impure as we might have first thought. This realization doesn’t automatically render individuals great, nor does it wipe the slate clean. But it is an antidote to thinking of the world as a static and stark chess board, where everyone plays a single role for a single side, never changing.
The first example is Neel Kashkari, the Goldman Sachs banker picked by Treasury secretary Hank Paulson (and former Goldman Sachs banker himself) to “administer” the Troubled Asset Relief Program (more commonly known as TARP). It was never clear to me what his job was precisely, or whether he was particularly good or bad at it: but members of Congress were not happy with it or the turn TARP had taken after being passed under the spectre of a harsh financial collapse. Recall the famous hearings, where Kashkari was asked by Rep. Cummings: “Is Kashkari a chump?”
After going back to the world of finance and working for Pimco, he then ran for governor against Jerry Brown in California (we know the outcome there). His ads made him sound like any other ostensibly fiscally conservative Republican. Low taxes, less government, etc. Nothing remarkable, interesting, or particularly thoughtful.
Then, surprisingly, he was picked as the next head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. I don’t think he was qualified or should have been picked for that position, in which he will occasionally be asked to vote on monetary policy that impacts the entire economy, but I’ll leave that for others: Brad DeLong and others summarize the issues and his views well.
But then, in February, he gave his first major speech. It was all about ending Too Big To Fail (TBTF). Here are his policy prescriptions:
- Breaking up large banks into smaller, less connected, less important entities.
- Turning large banks into public utilities by forcing them to hold so much capital that they virtually can’t fail (with regulation akin to that of a nuclear power plant).
- Taxing leverage throughout the financial system to reduce systemic risks wherever they lie.
Sounds like the Bernie Sanders plan. It’s not clear that breaking up large banks into smaller banks is a good solution (nor do I understand how one enforces them to be less connected than if they were part of a big entity with a large capital base). Nor do I think TBTF is something you can regulate away. The tax on leverage is probably a good idea (a financial transaction tax), and large banks have been forced, thanks to Basel III and Dodd-Frank, to hold significantly more capital. Stress tests carried out by the Treasury have also pushed towards this.
But all of this is a long way of saying I was surprised by the speech. Probably it went into territory that’s not really standard (and maybe not appropriate) of a newly-appointed Federal Reserve Bank president, at a time when there’s unprecedented scrutiny by outsiders to politicize the Fed. And the usual caveats apply, especially when dealing with an aspiring politician: this could simply be an attempt to change his public perception rather than a sincere belief in the kind of financial regulation he talks about. Only time will tell. But it certainly did not sound like a Wall Street banker.
The second example is Tom Wheeler, FCC chairman since 2013. Ars Technica had an in-depth interview entitled “How a former lobbyist became the broadband industry’s worst nightmare.” Tom Wheeler had served as a chief lobbyist for the cable and telecommunications industries prior to his appointment. Few had expected him to be anything but a friend to those industries, and progressive were unhappy with his nomination.
Fast forward to 2016, and he has largely acted as an opponent to the telecommunications and cable industries in their ambitions to consolidate and monopolize. Famously, he led the charge to destroy the proposed merger between Time Warner and Comcast. Most recently, he has pushed for rules requiring cable companies to conform to a single standard in cable boxes, thus allowing customers to purchase rather than lease the boxes at extraordinary rates (to the tune of $20 billion annually, or $231 for the average customer). The entire interview is worth reading. There is even a reference to The Master Switch by Tim Wu, a definitive text on monopolies in the information industries of past and present from the man who coined the term net neutrality.
Wheeler’s tenure has been consequential. But looking at his resume, you might have thought he would reach different decisions on a number of important issues. Sometimes people can surprise you. It’s worth remembering that.