The campaigns to stop the Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) are providing a valuable glimpse of what the upcoming elections could look like, now that the corporate checkbooks have been unleashed. A cornerstone of Obama's financial reform programs, the goals of the CFPA are simple. They include forcing credit card and mortgage companies to explain costs, benefits and risks of financial products to consumers in plain English, allowing consumers to compare products and make sound decisions.
As the Consumer Product Safety Agency prevents us from giving our kids toys with lead paint in them, or hair dryers that will blow up in our hands, the CFPA will prohibit marketing and lending practices that are "unfair, deceptive, or abusive." It will limit the banks from using our accounts to take the kinds of unethical risks that led to the current crisis, preventing future financial meltdowns.
Basically, the CFPA will watch our backs.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are being poured into lobbying efforts to defeat the CFPA by the American Banking Association, the US Chamber of Commerce and the American Financial Services Association, the business lobby for mortgage lenders and credit-card companies. They know what they are doing. They should -- they're writing checks for the best, most thorough market research, and the brightest minds from the advertising community.
Stopthecfpa.com, one of their web sites, opens with a video of a woman lying awake in bed at night. A voice - a soothing voice, taken straight out of an Ambien ad - tells you Americans are worried. An agency to protect consumers, it says, will harm small businesses. It will take away jobs. It will "make an already bad economy worse."
Huh? An agency that insists on more ethical lending practices is going to hurt small businesses? Can anybody explain how that is going to work? No. But the woman in the commercial has such a nice voice..... it kind of lulls you into relaxing about it all. Just leave it all up to us. The CFPA is bad for you.
Another ad, called "Make it Worse", has Mona, the new female version of Joe the Plumber, saying that if the CFPA is brought into being, "my cabinet shop business will cease to exist." No one seems able to tell us exactly how that's going to happen, except that if credit card companies can't bury their terms in incomprehensible jibberish and double your interest rate when they feel like it, somehow this means small businesses won't get credit. I don't really get the logic. But we all like the little cabinet shop, right? We don't want to harm it! That guy looks a lot like my neighbor. And this music is making my heart speed up. I don't like this. I think it should be stopped.
If you don't take the time to study what the CFPA actually is, these tactics work. The corporate advertising and marketing agencies have been at this for a long time. They've had many practice runs - selling us cigarettes, sending us running to "ask our doctor about" drugs we never thought we needed before, and even more effectively, getting us to walk into the poll booths and defeat any ballot issue having to do with taxing windfall oil profits or creating clean energy.
They learned well, over the last elections, that if you give it the right tone of voice, and hit at the underlying anxieties with just the right buttons, the facts will quickly take a back seat to doubt, confusion and fear. With nearly unlimited funds, they can run the message, over and over and over and over again. Eventually, think of the CFPA and you think "big government." "Make things worse." "Lose sleep." "Cabinet shop shut down."
Trying to come against such a force and speak up for the facts can feel like running a bicycle at a Sherman Tank.
We have a lot, however, in our favor. People inherently don't want to be run by corporations. They like having the freedom to think their own thoughts. Eventually, they get the cigarette ads off the television and they quit smoking. When they have a choice, they buy a hybrid because it feels good for the environment.
But this fight, starting with the CFPA and moving forward, will take numbers.
We have examples where enough bicycles, well organized, did bring down a Sherman Tank.
And we have the Internet -- one arena where the people can level the playing field. We know that the hyperlink has the power to subvert hierarchy. We blog, we connect, we share links. We form coalitions. We act. We've got Facebook pages. Digg. StumbleUpon. We tweet.
By beating the bushes we can flood the Senate Banking Committee with emails and phone calls demanding that they watch our backs by establishing the CFPA, and not allow this agency to be flattened by bank and credit card company funding. We can remind them that contrary to what some may think, according to our Constitution they work for us, not the banks and Wall Street institutions. We can let them know that we are still paying attention.
We have until next Monday before the Senate Banking Committee starts rewriting the language on the bill for the CFPA. The time is now to get every network in motion.
Check out www.mainstreetbrigade.org to get the information. And get on your bike.
Follow Mary Wald on Twitter: www.twitter.com/marywald