By Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger
While the poor judgment of top-level officials at Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget frequently makes the news, there is another, unrecognized economic crew doing terrific work: Officials at the Department of Labor are restoring workers' rights after nearly a decade of neglect.
To top it all off, President Barack Obama appears ready to make another set of strong, though less high-profile, economic appointments that will help rein in Wall Street excess.
As Esther Kaplan documents in a masterful piece for The Nation, the Department of Labor (DoL) has been transformed from an agency that enabled corporate excess to one that holds companies accountable. In less than a year, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and her team of deputies significantly leveled the playing field between ordinary workers and high-flying executives.
For decades, when conservatives have attempted to confront social problems, they've relied on the mantra of enforcement. If we had more cops, we'd fix everything. But as Kaplan documents, under President George W. Bush and his Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, the DoL simply stopped enforcing worker protection laws. From wage theft to mine safety, the Department essentially allowed corrupt employers to do anything they wanted.
That neglect has already ended. Armed with a budget of just $1.5 billion--that's roughly 0.2% of the Troubled Asset Relief Program--Solis and company have cultivated a list of economic accomplishments that seemed impossible when they took office. As Kaplan details:
"Facing badly depleted enforcement ranks, Solis hired 710 additional enforcement staff, including 130 at OSHA and 250 for the crucial wage-and-hour division, upping inspectors by more than a third. Another hundred will come on next year to staff a crackdown on the misclassification of millions of employees as "independent contractors"--a dodge to avoid paying taxes and benefits--a move that has set off enormous buzz on business blogs. Her team took a plunger to the stagnant regulatory pipeline, moving forward new rules on coal mine dust, silica, and cranes and derricks. She restored prevailing wages for agricultural guest workers and is poised to restore reporting rules on ergonomic injuries."
Fixing the Fed
Obama also appears ready to make another slate of strong economic appointments at the Federal Reserve, an agency stuffed with free-marketers who helped engineer both an economic catastrophe and resulting bailouts. Obama's rumored picks--economists Janet Yellen and Peter Diamond and bank regulator Sarah Bloom Raskin--are aggressive about making the economy work for everyday citizens, as I emphasize for AlterNet.
If Congress passes financial reforms similar to what Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) has proposed, the Fed's regulatory responsibilities will actually expand, despite its failures over the past decade. The Fed has never effectively regulated anything and it's not very concerned with unemployment as an economic problem.
That makes Obama's pending slate of officials who prioritize bank regulation and broader employment very important. Raskin, in particular, stands out with her strong record as a state banking regulator. If Obama ultimately nominates her, she'll be the first pure regulator ever appointed to the Fed. The potential picks don't make up for Obama's reappointment of bailouteer Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve Chairman, but they do show that the President is capable of sound judgment.
Strengthening the Dodd bill
But the strength of Obama's potential Fed nominees doesn't justify the weakness of Dodd's financial regulation bill. As Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now! reveal in interviews with economist Robert Johnson and ColorLines Editorial Director Kai Wright , the bill leaves plenty to be desired. Dodd is currently making the rounds and declaring that his bill will end the abuses giant banks deployed against the broader economy, but the truth is, the bill has largely been gutted by bank lobbyists. Here's Johnson:
"We're engaged in a Kabuki theater right now, hoping the material is too complex for the American people to understand, declaring victory, and yet basically encoding into law current practices of the banks. Every one of your listeners should ask the question, given this legislation, if the President, House and Senate pass it, will we be in a place where AIG couldn't have happened, Lehman Brothers couldn't have happened, Bear Stearns couldn't have happened, and, more importantly, nine, ten percent unemployment caused by the banking crisis couldn't have happened? I argue this bill does very little."
The importance of trust-busting
So Dodd's bill needs to be substantially strengthened as it moves through the Senate. But there's plenty of other economic work to be done outside of Wall Street. As Barry C. Lynn and Phillip Longman explain for The Washington Monthly, the steady expansion of corporate monopolies has resulted in a fundamentally unstable economy.
The U.S. simply does not create jobs at the rate it once did, and companies aren't held accountable to market forces like competition. Many of our monopolies are hidden, as Lynn and Longman note. Macy's and Bloomingdale's seem like competitors, but they're owned by the same holding company. The same dynamic holds true in auto manufacturing, banking, pet food, health care and IT. Consumers think they're choosing between competing goods and services, when in fact they're shopping in different divisions of the same corporate Goliath.
All hope is not lost. As Laura Flanders emphasizes for GRITtv, the passage of health care reform proves that the Obama administration and Congress can make substantive progressive changes when they put their minds to it. The question is whether Obama is willing to limit his economic accomplishments to lower-level issues, or go big and take on the deep-pocketed corporate campaign contributors.
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