Sunday, July 22, 2012

Why You Can't Fix Government from the Inside

Neil Barofsky, the former special inspector general for TARP, is out with a new book, Bailout. In it he details how difficult it was for him to get his job done. Gretchen Morgenson has an overview of the book:
His story is illuminating, if deeply depressing. We tag along with Mr. Barofsky, a former federal prosecutor, as he walks into a political buzz saw as the special inspector general for TARP. Government officials, he says, eagerly served Wall Street interests at the public’s expense, and regulators were captured by the very industry they were supposed to be regulating. He says he was warned about being too aggressive in his work, lest he jeopardize his future career.

And so Mr. Barofsky, who formerly prosecuted Colombian drug lords as an assistant United States attorney in New York City, is schooled in the ways of Washington. One telling vignette comes early on in his book, when he is advised by inspectors general in other agencies about how to do his job.

As Mr. Barofsky writes, he had assumed that his assignment to oversee TARP meant that he should be fiercely independent from the Treasury Department, and vigilant against waste, fraud and abuse. But after canvassing other inspector generals for guidance, he writes, he learned of different priorities: maintaining and possibly increasing budgets, appearing to be active — and not making enemies.

“The common refrain went like this,” Mr. Barofsky writes. “There are three different types of I.G.’s. You can be a lap dog, a watchdog or a junkyard dog.” A lap dog is seen as too timid, he was told. But being a junkyard dog was also ill-advised.

“What you want to be is a watchdog,” he continues. “The agency should perceive you as a constructive but independent partner, helping to make things better for the agency, so everyone is better off.” He also learned, he says, that success as an inspector general meant that investigations come second. Don’t second-guess the Treasury. Instead, “focus on process.”

Thus the collision course was set between Mr. Barofsky and a crew of complacent, bank-friendly Treasury officials. He soon discovered that the department’s natural stance of marching in lock step with the banks meant that he had to question its policies and programs repeatedly to ensure that taxpayers weren’t at risk for fraud and abuse.

“The suspicions that the system is rigged in favor of the largest banks and their elites, so they play by their own set of rules to the disfavor of the taxpayers who funded their bailout, are true,” Mr. Barofsky said in an interview last week. “It really happened. These suspicions are valid.”
It's unlikely that Barofsky undersands the grave problems of moral hazard that TARP created. Or how far away TARP is from a free market solutions, but his book provides an important object lesson about what really goes on in Washington D.C. That is, in this glimpse, we see how posers pretend to be conducting investigations, and brickwalls exist for those who actually think they are going to be able to investigate and change things.


  1. Sounds like Mr. Barofsky would be a terrific guest for the Robert Wenzel Show.


    1. AMEN to that. I second that motion.

  2. Barofsky is very accessible. For instance, he engages his followers on Twitter and demonstrates personality, while most ex-gov types that rose to his level merely engage a select few from their bubble, if anyone at all. I suspect he might go for it, and it would make for a good interview. (Would not worry about him hanging up.)