Spitzer As Senator?

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NOVEMBER 15, 2008

Spitzer As Senator?

Ben Smith has an intriguing proposal: If Hillary becomes secretary of state, appoint Eliot Spitzer to replace her.

I like it. Say what you will about the guy, he knows a thing or two about taming Wall Street excesses. And, as luck would have it, he shares some thoughts on the subject in tomorrow's Washington Post:

The new president's team must soon get to the root causes of the mistakes that have brought us to the economic precipice. Yes, we have all derided the explosion of leverage, the failure to regulate derivatives, the flood of subprime lending that was bound to default and the excesses of CEO compensation. But these are all mere manifestations of three deeper structural problems that require greater attention: misconceptions about what a "free market" really is, a continuing breakdown in corporate governance and an antiquated and incoherent federal financial regulatory framework. ...

No major market problem has been resolved through self-regulation, because individual competitive behavior doesn't concern itself with the larger market. Individual actors care only about performing better than the next guy, doing whatever is permitted -- or will go undetected. Look at the major bubbles and market crises. Long-Term Capital Management, Enron, the subprime lending scandals: All are classic demonstrations of the bitter reality that greed, not self-discipline, rules where unfettered behavior is allowed.  ...

Today's balkanized regulatory framework for financial services no longer matches in any way the needs of a fully integrated global financial system. The divisions of the past -- commercial banking vs. investment banking vs. insurance vs. hedge funds vs. private equity -- have become distinctions without a difference. But these old boxes and formalities still determine how entities are viewed and regulated. It should surprise nobody that capital found the crevices in the regulatory framework. That is what capital is paid to do. But we failed to respond with a regulatory framework flexible enough to plug the leaks.

We do not need additional fragmented areas of federal regulation to handle hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds or derivatives. We need a unified approach that addresses the underlying issues: what kinds of leverage we wish to tolerate, how to measure risk, how much disclosure various trading products should provide. We cannot survive with the current system: the SEC, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Fed, the Office of Thrift Supervision and on and on. We must go from the Rube Goldberg structure we now have to a sleek iPod design that is cleaner, has better operating software and may even look good.

For what it's worth, the piece ends with this somewhat poignant personal note:

Although mistakes I made in my private life now prevent me from participating in these issues as I have in the past, I very much hope and expect that President Obama and his new administration will have the strength and wisdom to do again what FDR did.

To which I'd respond: Do Spitzer's mistakes really disqualify him from serving in the Senate? The evidence suggests not.  

--Noam Scheiber

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