The so-called Volcker Rule for policing (ha!) banking practices, approved by a huddle of federal regulating agency chiefs last week, is the latest joke that America has played on itself in what is becoming the greatest national self-punking exercise in world history.
First of all (and there's a lot of all), this rule comes in the form of nearly 1,000 pages of incomprehensible legalese embedded in what was already a morbidly obese Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform (ha!) and Consumer Protection (ha!) Act of 2012 that clocked in at 2,000 pages, not counting the immense rafts of mandated interpretations and adumbrations, of which the new Volcker Rule is but one. These additions were required because the Dodd-Frank Act itself did not really spell out the particulars of enforcement but rather left it to the regulatory agencies to construct the rules -- which they did with "help" of lobbyist-lawyers furnished by the banks themselves. That is, the lobbyists actually wrote the rules for Dodd-Frank and everything in it, which means the banks wrote the rules. Does this strain your credulity? Well, this is the kind of nation we have become: anything goes and nothing matters. There really is no rule of law, just pretense.
The Volcker Rule was a lame gesture toward restoring the heart of the Glass-Steagall provisions of the Banking Act of 1933, which were repealed in 1999 in a cynical effort led by Wall Street uber-grifter Robert Rubin and his sidekick Larry Summers, who served serially as U.S. Treasury secretaries under Bill Clinton. Glass-Steagall was passed in Congress following revelations of gross misconduct among bankers leading up to the stock market crash of 1929. The main thrust of Glass-Steagall was to mandate the separation of commercial banking (deposit accounts + lending) from investment banking (underwriting and trading in securities). The idea was to prevent banks from using money in customer deposit accounts to gamble in stocks and other speculative instruments. This rule was designed to work hand-in-hand with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), also created in 1933, to backstop the accounts of ordinary citizens in commercial banks. The initial backstop limits were very modest: $2,500 at inception, and didn't rise above $40,000 until 1980. Investment banks, on the other hand, were not backstopped at all under Glass-Steagall, since their activities were construed as a form of high-toned gambling.
The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 was about 35 pages long, written in language that was precise, clear, and succinct. It worked for 66 years. Banking during those years was a pretty boring business, commercial banking especially. It operated on the 3-6-3 principle -- pay 3 percent interest on deposits, lend at 6 percent, and be out on the golf course at 3 p.m. Bankers made a nice living but nothing like the obscene racketeering profits engineered by the looting operations of today. Before 1980, the finance sector of the economy was about 5 percent of all activity. Its purpose was to allocate precious capital to new productive ventures.
As American manufacturing was surrendered to other countries, there were fewer productive ventures for capital to be directed into. What remained was real estate development (a.k.a. suburban sprawl) and finance, which was the enabler of it. Finance ballooned to 40 percent of the U.S. economy and the American landscape got trashed. The computer revolution of the 1990s stimulated tremendous "innovation" in financial activities. Much of that innovation turned out to be new species of swindles and frauds. Now you understand the history of the so-called "housing bubble" and the crash of 2008. The U.S. never recovered from it, and all the rescue attempts in the form of bail-outs, quantitative easing, zero interest rates, have turned into rackets aimed at papering-over this national failure to thrive. It is all ultimately linked to the larger story of industrialism and its relationship with the unique, finite, fossil fuel resources that the human race got cheaply for a few hundred years. That story is now winding down and we refuse to pay attention to the reality of it.
The absurdity of Dodd-Frank and the Volcker Rule in the face of that is just another symptom of that tragic inattention. The baroque prolixity of these statutes must have been fun for the lawyers to construct -- thousands of pages of incantatory nonsense aimed at confounding any attempt to enforce decent conduct among bankers and their supposed regulators -- but it does nothing to really help us move into the next phase of history.
James Howard Kunstler is the author of several books, including The Long Emergency, The Geography of Nowhere, and the World Made By Hand novels. For more of his writing, visit kunstler.com.