AMERICANS love to laugh at ridiculous regulations. A Florida law requires vending-machine labels to urge the public to file a report if the label is not there. The Federal Railroad Administration insists that all trains must be painted with an “F” at the front, so you can tell which end is which. Bureaucratic busybodies in Bethesda, Maryland, have shut down children’s lemonade stands because the enterprising young moppets did not have trading licences. The list goes hilariously on.
But red tape in America is no laughing matter. The problem is not the rules that are self-evidently absurd. It is the ones that sound reasonable on their own but impose a huge burden collectively. America is meant to be the home of laissez-faire. Unlike Europeans, whose lives have long been circumscribed by meddling governments and diktats from Brussels, Americans are supposed to be free to choose, for better or for worse. Yet for some time America has been straying from this ideal.
Consider the Dodd-Frank law of 2010. Its aim was noble: to prevent another financial crisis. Its strategy was sensible, too: improve transparency, stop banks from taking excessive risks, prevent abusive financial practices and end “too big to fail” by authorising regulators to seize any big, tottering financial firm and wind it down. This newspaper supported these goals at the time, and we still do. But Dodd-Frank is far too complex, and becoming more so. At 848 pages, it is 23 times longer than Glass-Steagall, the reform that followed the Wall Street crash of 1929. Worse, every other page demands that regulators fill in further detail. Some of these clarifications are hundreds of pages long. Just one bit, the “Volcker rule”, which aims to curb risky proprietary trading by banks, includes 383 questions that break down into 1,420 subquestions.
Hardly anyone has actually read Dodd-Frank, besides the Chinese government and our correspondent in New York (see article). Those who have struggle to make sense of it, not least because so much detail has yet to be filled in: of the 400 rules it mandates, only 93 have been finalised. So financial firms in America must prepare to comply with a law that is partly unintelligible and partly unknowable.
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