Here’s a bit of career advice: Don’t be a whistleblower. It’s a thankless job, with few rewards.
Just ask Harry Markopolos, a financial analyst and forensic accountant. He spent nearly 10 years providing documentation to the SEC that Bernie Madoff was running a Ponzi scheme. What did he get for his troubles? A pat on the back, having to testify before Congress, and a book deal.
Why was the SEC so lax on Madoff? There were other indications, although none were as thorough as the ones prepared by Markipolos.
Chances are it’s because most of its high-ranking members were either former employees of the lucrative financial industry, or had high hopes of leaving the SEC for a higher-paying job.
When government agencies fail in their duty to regulate an industry because of this close tie, we get regulatory capture.
In some cases, it gets so bad that government employees who try to do their job (or whistle blow on those failing to do theirs) end up being fired and blacklisted.
That was the case of Gary Aguirre, who was wrongfully terminated for trying to investigate possible insider trading charges. It took four years of legal battles, but in the end Aguirre got a wrongful termination settlement of $755,000. It certainly didn’t hurt that the allegations proved true.
Unfortunately, this problem isn’t just limited to the financial industry.
The Mineral Management Service allowed dozens of companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without first getting environmental impact statements as required by law. MMS reports on offshore drilling highlighted the benefits of offshore drilling and downplayed the rising number of spills.
Were it not for BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill, we’d still be in the dark to some of the practices of the MMS.
In Japan, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency approved extensions without significant review. In 2006, they relaxed standards that allowed plant operators to perform their own inspections.
One month before an earthquake and tsunami ravaged the country, this agency approved a 10-year extension on the oldest reactors at the Fukushima plant.
Whatever form the next crisis takes, regulatory capture will play a substantial role.
So long as regulatory agencies can ignore the law in exchange for smooth relations and perks from the industry they’re supposed to regulate, we’re in a dangerous position.
Clearly, we don’t need more laws and regulations. If we simply enforced existing laws, we’d probably find we could do away with a lot of regulation.
But don’t tell the Obama administration. The current president has been more aggressive than his predecessor in punishing whistleblowers, most recently with an ATF agent who exposed a gunrunning scheme.
Getting rid of excessive regulation and compromised regulators would do wonders to get America’s economy back on track. Letting bad institutions fail instead of receiving bailouts would help reduce systemic risk. Reward individuals for having the moral courage to come forward, rather than penalize them.
Until we do, there will always be another crisis brewing. It won’t always be financial, and it won’t always be predictable.
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