Politicians often have a lazy relationship with the truth. Everyone knows that these folks will say damn near anything to get elected. The Romney-Ryan ticket has put new luster on this homespun truism, revealing a brave new world of lying -- beyond Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and the echo chamber -- that will mean trouble for America if the GOP retakes the White House in November.
In my field, the same tendency takes the form of liar loans, exotic schemes to securitize mortgages, robo-signing and other creative distortions. From that admittedly specialist perspective, the connection is clear as day: Mitt Romney is the poster child of big business expediency, where truth is less important than closing the deal. And if he gets elected we'll see a reprise of the Wild West days that ended in the 2008 crisis.
Romney is the perfect candidate for the truth-free zone where politics and real life intersect. We all know facts are no longer sacred. (As a matter of fact, a major cable news network has been hiring people to write them since at least 2008.) The truth is no longer something politicians stretch. They game it. Get enough people to repeat something enough and you make it true.
We saw this happen with the "birther" movement and with all those Glenn Beck groupies who know (for a fact) that Obama is a secret Muslim and that he spent $200 million a day on his trip to India. We saw it with the death panels. (It's not just the anti-Obama crowd. Remember the as of yet undiscovered WMD in Iraq? But that was then, and it's worse now.)
Of course there are many ways to lie, and when Romney says he will balance the budget with a 20 percent across-the-board tax cut, he is repeating a subtler sort of lie. It's the non-answer lie. "Trust me," he says. "I'll tell you later." It's the political equivalent of a liar loan. It worked for the mortgage companies (or did for a while), and it seems to be working for Romney.
The non-answer lie really depends on that lazy relationship with the truth. My job as a consumer advocate is all about finding the right answers for consumers, and telling the truth. Want better credit? Then you have to face facts. Romney would not agree.
When it comes to taking unfair advantage of consumers, a lazy relationship with the truth is a financial predator's best friend. That attitude fostered laissez-faire deregulation in the first place. The conservative mantra, "Get the government out of our lives," is shorthand for, "Trust us, we can self-regulate and protect you," and it has always been a business-speak lie. Translated into Middle (Class) English, here's what it sounds like: "Hand over your wallet."
The deregulation movement cleared the way for the exotic mortgages and liar loans that polluted the securities market and caused investment houses to crumble requiring massive taxpayer-funded bailouts in order to prevent total financial apocalypse. Truth be damned. Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL), the Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, put it best: "In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks." Now, he wasn't lying. That's what the Republicans think. For those of you who do not speak Paleo-conservative, Bachus was saying that "pro-consumer" equals "anti-business." This is, of course, "pure marlarkey." Legitimate business is best served by the regulation of scam artists and those seeking an unfair advantage in the marketplace.
The truth matters, and even though the Obama administration has done a lousy job of selling its accomplishments, it has done a lot to restore some truthiness to the truth. For instance, the Credit CARD Act, which was enacted in 2009, ushered in a new era of transparency and a more level playing field -- laying out the rules of the game and offering a pathway to accountability for institutions and consumers alike.
Despite the culture of obstruction that arose after President Obama's historic win, the CARD Act did something very important. It opened the black box of institutional secrets and dirty tricks. Banks and credit card companies can longer move due dates, change rates on the fly, pump up fees at a moment's notice, or jack up rates on existing balances, except under three very specific circumstances, or for reasons unrelated to the specific customer's account. What's more, if they do roll out rate and fee changes, they have to give consumers more lead time so they can find acceptable credit alternatives.
Another true thing happened under Obama the Obstructed. The Dodd-Frank Act became law, which, among other things, created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The CFPB brought a host of new consumer protections and is all about raising the level of financial literacy in the nation, which is woefully inadequate. It created a federal agency that consolidates the regulatory and rule making authority of seven other agencies. This provided a simple vehicle to file individual complaints. It created an agency that studies various consumer-facing industries and issues reports, promulgates rules and regulations where appropriate, analyzes consumer practices and products and attacks those deemed harmful to the public. It ends the ability of banks to gamble with consumer accounts and brings order to a system that was in rodeo mode. It also regulates several industries infamous for predatory practices and truth-bending like debt collectors and payday lenders and outlaws practices like compensation incentives for mortgage brokers who lured consumers into exotic loans.
In other words, while Romney and Ryan spin fuzzy math, hawk distortion after distortion and lie by attrition, the Obama administration continues, on a daily basis, to be engaged in an extremely rigorous relationship with the truth.
Romney is Bachus's dream candidate. He is a true "pro-consumer means anti-business guy." His opposition to the CARD Act is well publicized. His opposition is based on a worldview seen through the prism of the American Bankers Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce where middle class Americans don't matter.
What if Romney captured the White House? Besides repealing Obamacare, he has vowed to kill Dodd-Frank. Then he backed off and indicated that he was gunning for only the parts of it that seemed anti-business (like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), and then, in the first debate, he magically softened his tune and was against only some regulations, stating that business wanted and needed some regulation. The only thing missing here is Paul Ryan washing already-clean pots for a photo-op in an empty soup kitchen.
This is the truth as seen through a kaleidoscope. It's the truth of a guy who's used to closing deals. Romney is the boss who shows up at a meeting and asks his team what he needs to know to close the deal. But in this instance, we're talking about the governance of history's greatest democracy, not some pump-and-dump scheme that sacrifices middle class America on the altar of an offshore bank account. What Romney doesn't get is that there's no deal to close here. America is not for sale. We need a leader, not a closer.