I’m pretty convinced that the term “crony capitalism,” as deployed by the right, is useless as a political or analytical tool. I keep a close eye on how conservatives talk about financial reform, and according to the right, Dodd-Frank is crony capitalism. Oh noes! But what does that mean, and how can we stop it? Here’s a fascinating case in point: two AEI scholars with different publications argue that we need to stop Dodd-Frank from enabling crony capitalism, and then proceed to describe two opposite, mutually exclusive sets of problems and solutions.
First, a good test question: The Federal Reserve recently required that the largest firms have a greater capital surcharge than had been originally proposed. Is that cronyism?
Here’s one story, from James Pethokoukis in ”Fighting the Crony Capitalist Alliance”: “our highly concentrated and interconnected, Too Big to Fail financial system […] gives a competitive edge to megabanks.” How is that? Regulators create incentives for big banks to take on risks “such as investing in mortgage-backed securities and complex derivatives.” Banks are the size they are, and do the activities that they do, because of the actions of regulators.
So how do we combat this problem? According to Pethokoukis, we should “substantially raise the capital requirements for Too Big To Fail banks” to limit risk. Even more, “such capital requirements might well nudge the biggest banks into shrinking themselves or breaking up.”
Here’s another story, from Tim Carney’s “Anti-Cronyism Agenda for the 114th Congress”: Dodd-Frank is cronyism because “[e]xcessive regulation is often the most effective crony capitalism.” What’s worse is that Dodd-Frank designates the biggest firms as Systemically Important Financial Institutions (SIFIs), meaning that they pose a systemic risk to the economy. Those firms are put under more regulation, but it’s obviously a cover for a permanent set of protections.
So what should we do? According to Carney’s agenda, Congress should “open banking up to more competition by repealing regulations that give large incumbent banks advantages over smaller ones.” Well, which regulations are those? “Congress should repeal its authority to designate large financial firms as SIFIs.”
Note that though these are from the same institution and carry the same banner of fighting “cronyism,” these agendas are the exact opposite of each other. For Pethokoukis, the important goal is identifying the largest and riskiest institutions and putting aggressive regulations on them, with capital requirements set high enough that they could fundamentally shrink those banks. For Carney, it’s important that we do not identify any firm as too large that it is risky for the economy, and thus increase their capital requirements, since doing so just encourages cronyism — indeed, it is the logical conclusion of cronyism. Don’t regulate the largest firms with more attention or care; just don’t do anything to them.
In the Pethokoukis version, the financial sector poses a real threat to the stability of the economy, and as such special efforts should be made to prevent failure and handle failure when it does occur. His answer is, essentially, to do more. In the Carney version, there’s no real danger outside the government’s interference, or at least not a danger that is worth a policy solution. His answer is to do nothing, except repeal what regulation already exists.
And, crucially, for Pethokoukis, the recent increase in capital surcharges for SIFIs are a good idea; for Carney, they enshrine the problem by working through the SIFI framework, and are a bad idea. How can a policy agenda be built around such a “cronyism” framework?
There are other problems with “cronyism” as described here. Pethokoukis blames cronyism for the concentration in the financial sector in the last few decades. However the previous argument had been that the size and geographic restrictions that prevented this concentration before the 1990s are the real cronyism. Dodd-Frank blocks a single financial firm from having liabilities in excess of 10 percent of all liabilities, benefitting smaller firms at the expense of larger ones. Is that cronyism or the opposite? Cronyism can’t just be “things turned out in a terrible way when left to the markets.”
As Rich Yeselson notes in a fantastic essay on New Left historians in the recent issue of Democracy, the Gabriel Kolko-inspired stories about how regulations evolves (stories that influence Carney) are monomaniacally mono-causal. So just quoting CEOs’ statements to the press about Dodd-Frank constitutes analysis, as the regulations must obviously flow from elite desires through their captured lackeys in the state.
But Dodd-Frank is more complicated than that – look at the effort to stop the CFPB from starting, or the epic battles both between and within regulators, the state and consumers over derivatives. Carney’s top-down inescapable vision of how reform works leaves no room for the contingency of actual efforts to fix a broken system. In turn, this leaves us with no way to actually critique what Dodd-Frank does. Worse, it conflates fighting “cronyism” with an agenda of laissez-faire economics, liberty of contract, and hard money, sneaking in a three-legged stool of reactionary thought through our concerns about fairness.
Actual cronyism is a real problem, but I’ve seen no evidence that it adds up to a systemic criticism of our economy as a whole. Instead, we need a language of accountability, benefit and power in how markets are structured. Without this, we’ll have no working compass for reform.