HOW EASY TO FORGET, HOW HARD TO CHANGE
We all forget unless we are reminded. The past is simply stored away, along with all its lessons and resolutions – unless the present nags at us to keep its memories alive.
So who is nagging us now about financial reform, collectively, as we are clawing our way out of The Great Recession? As The New York Times reminded us Saturday on its front page (See “A Year After the Cataclysm, Little Change on Wall Street”), and as The Wall Street Journal noted Friday on page 16 (See, “Finance Overhaul Falters as ‘08 Shock Fades”), we seem already to have moved onto other things.
To be sure, the finance industry doesn’t want to remind us. As it strives to get back to business as usual, it doesn’t want to shake our faith in its capacity to generate profit. It doesn’t even seem particularly interested in reminding itself. The faith it had in the rational market may be diminished, but it’s faith in its own competitive savvy is just as robust. And that cannot be a source of confidence for the rest of us.
Our politicians never had much enthusiasm for restraining those who funded their campaigns – and, besides, they are now almost entirely focused on health care reform. If they lack motivation, to begin with, surely it would be asking too much for them to take on the health care and financial industries at the same time.
And the public simply wants prosperity and jobs to return. Locking the door on future excesses is not foremost on its mind – if they ever clearly understood what reforms are needed.
The newspapers, of course, do reflect back to us daily what we are doing and not doing, though, like the broadcast media, their primary focus is always on the new events and issues coming up. They are easily distracted.
Public officials should be concerned – deeply concerned – as they know the problems best and they will be blamed if another meltdown occurs. But as Gretchen Morgenson reminds us in today’s Times, their previous record is hardly inspiring: how can we “believe that regulators who snoozed during the credit bubble will be alert to emerging problems on their beats when the next mania begins.” (See “But Who is Watching Regulators?“) She proposes a new oath of office for regulators in which they pledge greater accountability, putting the public interest above their own. But, at best, that proposed reform will be added to the list of other proposed reforms – and nothing much will change.
The Journal’s Friday article reported that last week in London, “Mr. Geithner implored policy makers to continue fighting for tougher financial regulations in their own countries. ‘We can’t let momentum for reform fade as the crisis recedes,’ he pleaded.” But “imploring” and “pleading” strongly suggest that he is having trouble getting through. And that wasn’t even in Washington or New York.
What we don’t know we know about memory is how powerless it is all by itself — and how hard it is to change.