Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Blankfein Makes the Argument for Heavily Regulating Banks

Imagine a world in which the air that we breathe -- that's right, that air all around you -- wasn't freely available. Let's say it's held in "air reservoirs" and pumped into our airtight houses. Whenever we go outside, we have to take compressed air in tanks because the normal atmosphere can't support life. And we all get used to living this way -- okay, it's a bit inconvenient, but everyone gradually adjusts and life goes on.

How do you think, in such a world, air would be "regulated"? With the same light hand we would use for regulating the sale of frivolous items, such as lawn gnomes and chia pets? Ah, dumb question. Of course not. Air would be the most regulated commodity mankind has ever known. There would be frequent quality checks for air contamination, strict rules about pipes that carried the critical air supply, regulations about every aspect of the portable air tanks that we depended on.

Why? Simple. Without air, we die. This is a life and death matter.

Abstractable principle: the amount of regulation appropriate for an activity (or commodity, or whatever) should be in some direct proportion to how vital it is. Without breathable air, the entire human race perishes. So clearly, there will arise a lot of rules surrounding the proper reserves of air, how it will be supplied to the population at large, what quality is acceptable, and so on.

By this same argument, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein believes that the financial industry should be heavily regulated. Because, well, it is the vital lifeblood for our economy. Credit is the "air" that businesses, large and small, need to survive. If you don't believe me, here he is, hotly telling a reporter that you can't compare bonus-seeking bankers to coal miners striking for better wages in the 1970s. Because the bankers happen to be involved in something much, much more important:
"I’ve got news for you," he shoots back, eyes narrowing. "If the financial system goes down, our business is going down and, trust me, yours and everyone else’s is going down, too."
Sounds pretty grim. Sounds like an industry that's really, really vital to our economic health. Sounds like a pretty convincing argument for a new, much more intrusive, regulatory regime. U.S. Congress, all you guys have to do is connect the dots for Mr. Blankfein now. He's made the argument for you.