Regulators Were Appointed to Be Asleep at the Wheel

Question: What can we learn from the recent financial crisis?

Robert Engle:
Right. So, I think we’ve learned a lot from this crisis.  And I think one of the things is kind of what we’ve been talking about.  That when firms take a lot of risk, to some extent, they’re taking risk beyond what they feel themselves.  In other words, when large companies take on risk, then they impose risks on the rest of the system.  And these are systemic risks and these systemic risks we never used to think were really that important, but as soon as we recognize how the financial sector – the risks the financial sector takes on can impact the entire global economy, we realize that those risks needed to be controlled for the social good.  And reduced the systemic risks. 

So we have a new push to understand systemic risk, where it comes from, how do you measure it, how do you regulate it.  And the financial regulation that has been discussed for a year in the U.S. and which is about to be put into place, I think, and which is being discussed in Europe and everywhere, the focus is very much on systemic risk that those are the risks that you want to spend most of your regulatory time worrying about.  So that leads us to regulating more carefully the largest or the most systemic risky companies and institutions.

Question: Is deregulation effective for financial markets?

Robert Engle: I think we’re fooling ourselves if we think that regulators are going to be able to outsmart the bankers.  So, the task of designing regulatory reform is trying to make more or less foolproof regulation and that’s one of the advantages of the systemic category where, if you can **** that some smaller number of banks or financial institutions are the ones to worry about, then you can give them more scrutiny and more attention, you don’t have to have rules that apply to everybody.  And I think that you can do sort of what the Fed has often done, which is said – called “leaning against the wind.”  In other words, if you think that there’s too much risk being taken and that the financial sector is being super heated, you can actually increase the capital requirements at that point. 

When Greenspan, who’d had no appetite for regulating risk thought that things were getting out of hand, he coined the phrase “irrational exuberance” to cover it.  But all he had was talking points.  And with this new regulatory environment there would be more than talking points, there would be things that could be done.  I do think that the reason the regulators were asleep at the switch in part was because we have had so much success in the U.S. history with deregulation, it’s done valuable things for the trucking industry, for airlines, for telecommunications.  We’ve expanded deregulation, gotten government out of one sector after another and I think that the Greenspan approach and the Cox SEC were in that tradition of let’s deregulate and see what these markets do.  And one of the things they immediately observed is that these markets took off.  But they took off by taking more and more risk, which it turned out to be risks that the taxpayers were really taking. 

So I think what we’ve learned is that deregulation is not as effective in the financial sectors where at least it can’t go as far in the financial sectors as it has I some of these other sectors, and so I think while they were asleep at the switch, I don’t think it was really just the regulators that were asleep at the switch, I think that they were appointed to be asleep at the switch.  And that Congress, Congressional Oversight wanted them to be asleep.  And so that it was really across the board.  It was just not that the regulators missed it.  They were appointed to not do anything. 

Question:
Will Americans post-financial crisis be smarter investors?


Robert Engle:
I think they’re more cautious.  On the other hand, that was true in 2003 also, when they had run up the internet bubble in 2000 and 1999, and then all of a sudden it blew apart.  So, people were cautious for a while, but then they jumped on some other bubbles.  We had an energy bubble, and then we had the banking bubble, and those – and I guess the housing bubble.  So I’m not really sure whether Americans are going to be better investors.

Recorded May 25, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont

Buoyed by past deregulation successes, Congress didn’t want Wall Street regulators to interfere before the crash.

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Supreme Court to hear 3 cases on LGBT workplace discrimination

In most states, LGBTQ Americans have no legal protections against discrimination in the workplace.

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Supreme Court will decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to gay and transgender people.
  • The court, which currently has a probable conservative majority, will likely decide on the cases in 2020.
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