Size matters

Big banks escape effective regulation; plus DOMA and "prison reform"
By EDITORIAL  |  July 14, 2010


If the United States does not suffer a death wish, then it must be saddled with a streak of masochism as wide as the Mississippi River. This self-critical and despairing observation was triggered by a story and headline in the July 14 New York Times: "Financial Reform Bill Limps Toward Vote."

Not quite two years ago, the nation was in the midst of the greatest financial catastrophe of recent years. You remember. It began with the forced sale of one investment bank, Bear Stearns; triggered the bankruptcy of another, Lehman Brothers; prompted the government takeover of what was then arguably the world's largest insurance firm, AIG; caused a stock market panic; wiped out life savings; lead to a plague of mortgage foreclosures; saddled the nation with punishingly high unemployment; and stalled the economy in its still-ongoing recession. Remember? Some call it 9/15.

The good news is that it appears a welcome form of financial regulation might indeed squeak through the Senate. The sad news — a pessimist might say the bad news — is that while there is no doubt that something is better than nothing, the current legislation stops short of addressing the perils posed to the national economy by a financial system that concentrates great wealth in a very few hands. (Massachusetts senator Scott Brown receives applause for his bipartisan support. But few stop to think that the price of his support is to further water down already diluted reforms. There is no doubt that Brown is a slick operator.)

Since the Clinton administration on through the Bush years, the financial oligarchy that is popularly known as Wall Street has magnified its influence and extended its power to a mind-boggling degree. The largest 20 financial conglomerates have upped their control of American financial assets from 35 to 70 percent of the total. The nation's six largest banks now control assets equivalent to 60 percent of the gross national product.

It is not just that the financial reform — ably steered by Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank and Connecticut senator Chris Dodd, both Democrats — is barely sufficiently rigorous to meet current requirements; it is also not targeted to the future. Wall Street moves faster than Washington. Without constant revision, they may soon be out of date. And until the huge concentrations of corporate financial wealth are broken up and tamed, the nation will be at their mercy and in the shadow of uncertainty.

A blow to DOMA
When US District Court Judge Joseph Tauro ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal law that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, was unconstitutional because it violated the Massachusetts's sovereign ability to define marriage for itself, Tauro not only fired a shot that was heard around the nation, he also reminded the world that the battle for marriage equality began here in the Bay State.

As Deirdre Fulton points out, Tauro's ruling applies at the moment only to Massachusetts, but could be extended through appeal to apply to all of New England. There is a twist, however. If Tauro's decision were to be upheld by the US Supreme Court, it could, according to some legal scholars, provide a basis in the future for challenging a wide range of federal social programs. Nobody ever said that change, let along progress, would be easy, but Tauro's legal precedent is at least extremely encouraging.

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