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Which Candidate's Better On The Financial Crisis?

This Paul Krugman column gets the political economy of the financial crisis exactly right:

America came out of the Great Depression with a pretty effective financial safety net, based on a fundamental quid pro quo: the government stood ready to rescue banks if they got in trouble, but only on the condition that those banks accept regulation of the risks they were allowed to take.

Over time, however, many of the roles traditionally filled by regulated banks were taken over by unregulated institutions — the “shadow banking system,” which relied on complex financial arrangements to bypass those safety regulations.

Now, the shadow banking system is facing the 21st-century equivalent of the wave of bank runs that swept America in the early 1930s. And the government is rushing in to help, with hundreds of billions from the Federal Reserve, and hundreds of billions more from government-sponsored institutions like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Home Loan Banks.

Given the risks to the economy if the financial system melts down, this rescue mission is justified. But you don’t have to be an economic radical, or even a vocal reformer like Representative Barney Frank, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, to see that what’s happening now is the quid without the quo.

Last week Robert Rubin, the former Treasury secretary, declared that Mr. Frank is right about the need for expanded regulation. Mr. Rubin put it clearly: If Wall Street companies can count on being rescued like banks, then they need to be regulated like banks.

But will that logic prevail politically?

Not if Mr. McCain makes it to the White House. His chief economic adviser is former Senator Phil Gramm, a fervent advocate of financial deregulation. In fact, I’d argue that aside from Alan Greenspan, nobody did as much as Mr. Gramm to make this crisis possible.

Both Democrats, by contrast, are running more or less populist campaigns. But at least so far, neither Democrat has made a clear commitment to financial reform.

Is that simply an omission? Or is it an ominous omen? Recent history offers reason to worry.

In retrospect, it’s clear that the Clinton administration went along too easily with moves to deregulate the financial industry. And it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that big contributions from Wall Street helped grease the rails.

Last year, there was no question at all about the way Wall Street’s financial contributions to the new Democratic majority in Congress helped preserve, at least for now, the tax loophole that lets hedge fund managers pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries.

Now, the securities and investment industry is pouring money into both Mr. Obama’s and Mrs. Clinton’s coffers. And these donors surely believe that they’re buying something in return.

Let’s hope they’re wrong.

I haven't seen much evidence that they are.

The tradeoff facing Democrats is that Clinton's economic advisers probably have more experience dealing directly with financial markets, but they're also the people who helped deregulate Wall Street in the 1990s, laying the groundwork for some of our current problems. Most of Obama's advisers aren't as tainted by that experience. But he's collected roughly as much Wall Street money as she has. And, from what I hear anecdotally,* he seems to do better among hot shot hedge-fund and private-equity fund managers, who can be even more averse to financial-market regulation than the older, stodgier investment banker types who favor Hillary. So, like Krugman, I don't see any real advantage for Obama on this issue.

*My former TNR colleague Clay Risen wrote a great piece about the candidates' respective Wall Street supporters last year. But, given that our archives were subsequently vaporized, the best I can do is point you to this LaRouchie summary of his piece.

--Noam Scheiber