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Gitmo, Free Markets and Red Tape

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

            It’s all downhill from here for fans of irony. We’ve already enjoyed the most ironic news story of the year.

             “The Obama administration would quickly send home six Algerians held at the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but for one problem: The men don’t want to go,” reported the July 10 edition of The Washington Post. “Given the choice between repatriation and incarceration, the men choose Gitmo, according to their lawyers.”

            This is amusing, in part simply because it reminds us that the controversial detention center remains open. After all, in one of his first actions as president Barack Obama had declared it would be closed by January, 2010. Moreover, there’s no sign it will ever close.

            But it’s downright hilarious because of the way candidate Obama described the facility when on the stump in 2008. Guantanamo represented a “sad chapter in American history,” he opined. It was “a legal black hole” and “a false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus.”

Obama wasn’t alone. During the Bush years, the words “Guantanamo Bay” were a verbal talisman. They could be deployed at any time to wound a sitting president, and the speaker never had to explain why Gitmo was bad or what he’d do to replace it.

The idea that Guantanamo might be a decent place, that detainees might actually prefer American custody to being repatriated, never seemed to come up. Yet that’s the reality, and the joke’s on the president.

Of course, Gitmo isn’t the only powerful verbal talisman out there. An even mightier word looms large in the debate over financial reform. It’s the word “regulation,” and it’s bandied about as if it contains the answers to all our national problems.

“All these years of deregulation by the Republicans and the absence of regulation as these new financial instruments have grown have allowed them to take a large chunk of the economy hostage,” says House banking committee chair Barney Frank, as quoted in “13 Bankers” by Simon Johnson and James Kwak. The book attempts to explain the 2008 financial meltdown, but ends up being little more than a valentine to the idea that regulation is good.

To return to Frank’s quote: What deregulation, exactly contributed to the meltdown? And, more important, what regulation would have prevented it? The congressman didn’t answer those questions, because he doesn’t need to. The point back then (the quote is from March 2008) was to lambaste the Bush administration.

Fair enough; he’s a politician, that’s what politicians do.

But Johnson and Kwak ought to go much further. To their credit, they trace many of the problems in the American banking sector back to the Clinton administration. And they admit that regulatory policies remained mostly unchanged from Clinton to Bush and remain mostly unchanged today under Obama.

But the authors are enamored with the idea of using “regulation” to fix the banking system. “If the problem is simply and clearly stated—establish limits such that no bank is too big or too important to fail—it can be solved by people with access to the right data about the financial system,” they write in their book’s final chapter.

So how big would be too big to fail? “This will require a technical formula that goes beyond the scope of this book,” they write.

Ah. They do note, however that “the limits should be set by Congress, with sufficient expert input, and then enforced by regulators.”

But there’s no reason to assume members of Congress would be able to understand financial markets or make smart decisions. See Frank’s quote above, or any of the 2,000-plus page bills that lawmakers have foisted on Americans in recent years.

Further, Johnson and Kwak undermine their own argument. “The idea that we can simply regulate large banks more effectively assumes that regulators will have the incentive to do so, despite everything we know about regulatory capture and political constraints on regulation,” they write.

Yet, oddly, their answer would be to give more power to regulators and lawmakers. Good luck with that.

In a world where lawmakers and regulators had perfect information, it’s possible that they could design a flawless system to oversee financial markets and protect consumers. Of course, if they had such perfect information, they’d probably leave their government jobs, trade based on it, and make a fortune.

            Here in reality, the free market is the answer. It isn’t perfect. Nothing is. But, like Guantanamo Bay, it’s the best possible answer to a difficult problem.

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