THE BLOG
09/16/2010 05:46 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

From Whom Do Students (and the Rest of Us) Need Protection?

Its just a small article in the WSJ, but it says so much about the problems we face: "Cuomo Probes Cards' School Ties" discusses how Andrew Cuomo, New York's attorney general, candidate for governor, and a former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is investigating how credit card issuers are marketing their cards to students. It also mentions that he sent a letter to New York colleges urging them "to adopt policies that will help students limit the amount of debt they take on before graduating."

What's wrong with this picture? One can say that it's a bit odd that a HUD Secretary during the debt-fueled housing bubble's inflationary period is admonishing anyone about debt. Ditto an official of a state in terrible financial shape. Perhaps it's a bit offensive that someone who picked as his father a New York governor doesn't realize that for many students debt is a necessary evil, allowing them to obtain a higher education they otherwise would not.

All of this being said, what I find most troublesome is that a government official in his official capacity is seeking to influence individuals' private behavior. We can all agree that for new graduates, all else being equal, less debt is preferable to more, and that no one should be induced by fraud or deceit to incur debt. It makes sense for Mr. Cuomo to address whether any of this debt results from dishonest marketing practices. Beyond that, however, what we see reflects what has gone wrong -- and needs to be fixed -- in our economy.

Mr. Cuomo is concerned not just with genuine dishonesty, but also with "conflicts of interest in the student lending industry" on account of contracts between card issuers and schools, as well as with total amounts of debt. Credit card debt is credit card debt whatever relationships may give rise to it, and there is nothing dishonest about a card issuer entering into a contract with a school, sports team or otherwise for joint marketing efforts, as long as such efforts do not involve misrepresentation .

It is up to individuals to manage their own financial affairs and up to parents to teach their children before they go off to college about responsible spending and borrowing. What we see here is a microcosm of our economy of the last decade. Too many individuals are knowingly engaging in irresponsible financial behavior and doing great harm to themselves, while too many parents disavow the obligation to properly school their children in such matters. When problems mount the government, which has made a mess of its own affairs, jumps into the middle, suggesting that peoples' problems are the result of 'them' -- greedy card issuers, mortgage brokers, investment banks -- and proposing or imposing rules that will make life more difficult for responsible people and perhaps the entire economy. That is, these efforts to reign in the debt of young people may result in reduced credit availability for those who need it and responsibly use it.

Can anyone say 'Consumer Financial Protection Bureau?' The efforts of its champion, Prof. Elizabeth Warren, are likely to and may already be reducing credit availability, causing the recovery to stall.

For the sake of everyone, we need to have politicians who are honest about the role of government and individuals and emphasize the unpopular truths around individual responsibility, especially for younger people. The Andrew Cuomo's of the world do us a huge disservice when they advocate governmental action to protect people from their own folly.