Speech of Commissioner Bart Chilton before the Ouachita Speakers Series
November 7, 2013
Good evening! Thank you, Wilbur (Smither), for the invitation and for the introduction. It’s great to be with all of you tonight. I’m excited for a few reasons, one of which is to break out of my often very specific issue-oriented agenda.
Thank you for the shout out in the introduction regarding my book Ponzimonium: How Are Scam Artists Are Ripping Off America; it was written as an educational piece, to help folks appreciate the enormous number of scam artists out there working 24-7-365 to rip people off. I wrote about con artists that over the years impacted tens of thousands of people by stealing hundreds of millions of dollars. We will talk about a range of characters tonight, but the folks in the book are particularly slick fraudsters, masters of illusion and deception and outright criminals. They are not the topic of tonight’s speech, but suffice it to say, they live on—even right here in River City—and I simply felt a responsibility to share with folks some simple things they could do to help identify a swindle. We can talk more about that in the Q&A period if folks would like.
One thing Wilbur did not tell you in his introduction is that I am one very fortunate fellow. You see, I’m told a large inheritance from a distant relative that I didn’t even know I had, is coming my way. Also, my email address won a lottery worth several million (although I’ve not entered any contest). It is a good thing I’ll be getting all that cash because a woman wrote about her botched surgery in Peru. Now that I’m newly rich, there’s an obligation to help her out. She’s in tremendous pain and needs cash to have another surgery and get healthy. She says she will be “forever indebted” to me once I help out, so it sounds like a good trade! I thought these and other emails seemed suspicious, and I had a reasonable responsibility to check them out, but as it turns out, I’m also a beneficiary of a scam fraud fund for folks who have been robbed by schemers of one sort or another. They just need a bunch of personal information and my bank account numbers and I’ll get the money due to me. So, I’ve got that going for me.
I hope to have a bit of fun this evening and cover a good bit of substance. We will talk a little about government and politics, about business and technology, and about what we all can do that might be a little different, to help rebuild a civil society. So, let’s do the Barry White, and “…get it on”.
Some of you may have seen this recently. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 60 percent of Americans say every Member of Congress should be fired—fired. Did anyone see that? Who said we don’t need Donald Trump in government! “You’re fired!”
The polls aren’t treating President Obama much more kindly either. His job approval ratings are only 41 percent as of this week, one point off his all-time low of 40 percent in 2011. His disapproval rating is a record high 52 percent, 1 point short of his highest disapproval rating of 53 percent. If you want to contrast and compare or look at more details, go to Gallup’s website at gallup.com. For example, the lowest job approval for President George W. Bush (43) was 25 percent. The highest was 90 percent. Anyone want to guess when he hit 90 percent approval? Yep, just following 9/11.
We had a unified, shared vision after 9/11: We were determined to survive, to find the perpetrators and to be stronger than before because of the experience. U.S.A., USA, USA! Oh, and we pretty much agreed that terrorists are despicable, there is that. But, we were really into the Proud To Be An American, Born In The U.S.A. patriotism.
It would be awesome if we could have that shared vision again, maybe even get behind our politicians and think that the large majority of time they were doing a respectable job. We could look upon them, regardless of political party, as leaders. Ah, to return, “…now to the thrilling days of yesteryear!” That would be “grrreat!”
While we can’t go back, it seems perfectly reasonable to expect more decorum, more respect, more grace and courage under fire. And we should expect and demand more collaboration and teamwork on behalf of the nation, because it is “grrreat!”
We need more strong, accountable leaders. I’m fortunate, as many of you are, to have seen some terrific leaders—leaders of all political stripes, leaders who enjoyed the trust of the American People.
Fairness Doctrine & Reasonable Responsibility
So, let’s talk about it. Today, certainly, it seems like constant bickering, doesn’t it? In “fairness” it’s from all sides. And, the media plays a significant role in the present quagmire. Some of you may recall the Fairness Doctrine, which has a history dating back more than 60 years. For the majority of years in our lives, it was the law of the land and appropriately led us to conclude that we could “trust” what we saw on TV. It required all holders of broadcast licenses (radio and television) to present controversial issues of public important in a manner that was—in the opinion of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—“honest, equitable and balanced.” The goal was to assure that folks heard competing sides of an issue from news segments, editorials or public affairs shows.
What many people don’t realize is the FCC stopped enforcing that reasonable responsibility requirement in 1987, and a little over two years ago, removed all the language regarding the Fairness Doctrine from its books. So, all taglines and branding efforts aside, “fair and balanced” are self-ascribed values these days. “News” can now be a three-ring circus of entertainment. “Hurry, Hurry, Hurry, see the silver-tongued-devil speak out of both sides of the mouth, all the while not losing the smile.”
And it is nonstop! No more “Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light” at 1 a.m. Today’s 24-hour television programming has bred embellished rhetoric. That war of words is worrisome because it creates intolerance. The line between advocate and thespian has been so badly blurred most Americans are in a fuzz about what is actually taking place.
As a result, many of those on the right see the left as wimpy weasels weakening the fiber and footing of our founding fathers. On the left, many see the right as self-righteous swine, swigging 80-proof bottles of patriotism and behaving badly. They have one thing in common. A lot of them hate each other. They hate each other. It is sad state of affairs that so many Americans dislike other Americans and have little tolerance for diverse opinions.
I’ve watched the discourse deteriorate dramatically in my own 30 years in politics and public service. I witness it today in Technicolor and Dolby Surround Sound, travelling and speaking with people all across the nation. Plus, I receive a lot of email from people who are very angry. (Although to be fair, in the last two days, I’ve never received more nice emails from people.) But I’ve received many emails from folks who are irritated with me, or my Agency, at the government, the banks or just plain distraught in general. And think about the emails that say this or that dreadful thing about politicians. Some may be true. However, many of them seem crazy, because they are crazy. But, many people believe them.
It seems like a reasonable responsibility that when people receive an email that seems really bizarre, they check it out, certainly before they forward it to anyone and potentially perpetuate false information. I’m not suggesting that will get any president or Congress to a 90 percent job approval, but it can’t hurt the state of affairs. “Come on and dream, dream along.” What have we got to lose by fact-checking?
There are a couple of places folks can go to do this very easily. Here’s the one I like best: factcheck.org. They will call foul on anyone for incorrect information. They are nonpartisan and not-for-profit and serve a real consumer advocacy function. They are my sort of peeps. They monitor TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases in order to reduce the dishonesty and confusion and increase clarity in American politics.
Another place to go is PolitiFact at politifact.com. They use a “truth-o-meter.” If you really are not telling the truth, they term it “pants-on-fire.” For example, the chain email which stated that “Congressional lawmakers earn their salaries ‘FOR LIFE,’ which for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi would add up to $803,700 Dollars (sic) a year for LIFE including FREE medical care.” That’s pants-on-fire false. Undoubtedly it contributed to the average blood pressure reading that week, but nonetheless pants-on-fire false.
Ann Coulter, the political commentator said, “No doctors who went to an American medical school will be accepting Obamacare.” A blogger posted “Obama Declares November National Muslim Appreciation Month.” Betsy McCaughey, a former Lieutenant Governor of New York said, “Obamacare will question your sex life.” Those are all pants-on-fire falsehoods. Yet, people repeat these things, and it increases intolerance—as well as ignorance.
Here’s another two from right here in Arkansas. Congressman Tom Cotton says Senator Pryor voted for “special subsidies” for lawmakers and staff in Congress so they’re protected from Obamacare. He also said, “The health care marketplaces have no privacy protections.” Both statements are false, according to PolitiFact.
And before anyone thinks I’m here as an evangelist for the Democratic Party, I will voluntarily adhere to the Fairness Doctrine. Van Jones is a host of CNN's Crossfire; he’s on the left. He said that only “1 percent of candidates that (the National Rifle Association) endorsed in 2012 won”. That’s false. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said the United States “stood alone in the war in Iraq”. Pants-on-fire false. President Obama said, “We have doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas”. That too, is false. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said, “If I have affordable coverage in my workplace, I’m not eligible to go into the marketplace…It’s illegal.” That is Democrat pants-on-fire false, according to PolitiFact.
Anyway, you get the picture. There is a war of words in American politics and a few of the folks out there shoot blanks sometimes, some more than others. So, let’s hope people look to unbiased sources to get to the truth, not those with an agenda—hidden or otherwise. We can’t take responsibility for the nutty things folks say, but it is certainly reasonable that we take responsibility for what we say or pass along. We can, as a valued friend says, be “system busters” and stop, or at least slow, the war of words by the politicians.
Wall Streeters & the Decade of Deregulation
Let’s move to another area of inquiry—the Wall Streeters. You know: “Some say money is bad for the soul, bad for the rock, bad for the roll, bad for the heart, bad for the brain, bad for damn near everything, of yeah!” (Sammy and Van Halen were on fire.) But, I don’t believe that “…the love of money is the root of all evil,” nope; “Money Makes The World Go Round.”
Some of you may have retired from Wall Street. Others have friends or maybe kids on Wall Street. I deal with these folks all the time. There are very smart people in the financial sector. I know and like many, even most of them. At the same time, there have been some, umm, how do we say it—issues.
The economic collapse in 2008 was due, according to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, to both Wall Streeters and a lack of appropriate laws, rules and oversight by regulators. I call it a Decade of Deregulation promoted by a group of folks called the Free-Marketeers.
Sure, we want free markets, but utterly free markets with no rules or regulation whatsoever don’t work out so well. That’s what took place in 2008. There were hundreds of trillions of dollars being bet that were not regulated whatsoever—zero zippity zilch regulation. Wall Street was making bets upon bets upon bets that bundles of things, like home mortgages, would fail. There was no agreed-upon valuation of what these things were worth. As a result, we saw firms like Lehman Brothers bite the dust. Lehman was over-leveraged 30 to one in their last statement. No economist in the world would think that was reasonably responsible. Then the collapse hit. That was fun . . . not!
In 2010, Congress approved and the President signed into law the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Regulators have made some good progress in implementing the requirements of the law, but there is still more to be done.
At the same time, we’ve seen more malfeasance in the financial sector than ever before. Hardly a day goes by when we don’t learn about some illegal activity. That’s got to change. Larger fines need to be imposed and when folks do the crime they should do the time, not just pay the fine. There needs to be a culture shift on Wall Street. I’m not so sure all the Wall Streeters got the memo (or that there were enough memos) that told people “You’ve got to change your evil ways, baby . . . This can’t go on, Lord knows you got to change.”
We can’t solve that problem by passing another law or regulation. Government can’t effectively regulate ethics or morals. But, the top executives and the boards of directors can instill in these firms, core values—and reasonable responsibilities—about what they should, and should not do. And if they cannot, we need to go back to our nation’s business schools and start discussing curricula electives versus requirements.
I’m optimistic this is changing, and it’s high time it did.
Without getting too in-the-weeds on how markets have changed, I do want to mention technology.
We know how scary-complex things have become in our own world, with iPhones and droids. It’s tough to keep up with all that technology going on in our personal lives. Sometimes, many folks feel left out as technology surpasses their ability to work with it. Well, that’s taking place in markets too, and regulators can’t keep up. See, you aren’t alone. However, I’d bet it doesn’t make you feel much better that regulators don’t have the same technology as traders and we don’t have enough people keep up with what the tech savvy financial wizards are doing.
I term these market participants called high frequency traders “Cheetahs” because of their incredible speed. They are faster than Speedy Gonzales…because they are Cheetahs, not mice! Here’s how fast they go, they can trade many times per second. A millisecond is 1,000 parts of a single second. That’s fast.
What all that means is that when things go wrong, and we’ve seen things like the Flash Crash of 2010 where the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 1,000 points in 20 minutes, they go wrong in a huge honking hurry.
Guess what, these traders aren’t even required to register with our Agency, test their programs, or install kill switches. I’ve been working on those things and hope for changes next year.
I’m reminded of an Albert Einstein statement. He said, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Think about that, technology has exceeded our humanity.
Technology is a good thing—even grrreat—but it needs to be monitored. Just like when Wall Streeters, after the Decade of Deregulation, were left to their own devices, so too are the Cheetahs. That needs to change before we see another major market meltdown. And I hate to say this, but mark my words, if we don’t do something; there will be another meltdown like the Flash Crash.
Think about how things are so very different than they were 20 years ago. How about 40 years ago? How do you think things will be different in three or five years, or ten 20 or 30 years? It’s actually sort of fun to contemplate if you can let your mind wander and wonder. Try it in bed as you are going to sleep. I’m a big believer in using our dream states for cool things like that. Really, try it. Think about what the world will be like in 20 years. What should people plan for in the future?
Let’s talk specifics so you can see what I’m suggesting. Twenty years ago, we knew computing technology was going to get better, “you better, you better, you bet.” Things would be lighter and have more capacity. We knew information would available on the web. But it wasn’t a reality yet. It was a question of how and when?
Today, we know that climate change is taking place. It will be addressed. It’s sort of like the debt ceiling; there is simply no other reasonably responsible thing to do. So, how will climate change be addressed? I know, I know, there will be worldwide carbon credits being traded in the years to come. It’s already happening in the European Union and other places. Richard Sandor, the father of financial futures in Chicago started an environmental climate exchange years ago. That is, in part, how we addressed acid rain. Anyone hear about problems with acid rain lately? Nope, because a free markets approach—trading acid rain credits—took care of it. Mr. Sandor championed the effort to get a law in place that would move carbon trading forward and take our place as a nation in the endeavor to right the wrongs of the last hundred-plus years of atmospheric degradation. There was bipartisan support for this. Senator McCain was a supporter! Then, however, we just got slowed down, candidly, due to politics in and the aftermath of the 2008 elections.
Like computers and the web, on climate change, we just don’t know exactly when or how it will be addressed. But, it will happen, we have no other option if we want to save the planet.
(And BTW, if you aren’t down with the “climate change is real part,” with all due respect, seriously, go back and read this speech later and follow up on the fact-checking section. Maybe try nasa.gov. Thanks for your attention and reasonable responsibility.)
Searching for insight into when changes may occur or how they will be manifested will give us an upper hand on changing its course—faster or slower, this way or that way.
So, how do we deal with the things that are to come, in our dreams or in reality, or both? If we are good, they come in both, right? How do we deal with “Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes.”
Remember the old Byrds song adapted from the Bible? “To everything—turn, turn, turn, There is a season—turn, turn, turn, And a time for every purpose under heaven.” Let’s talk about change and changes.
It’s so easy to persist in resisting change. People like their routines. Change can mess them up. Think Cheryl Crow singing “A Change” with her great tone, “Hello it’s me, I’m not at home, If you’d like to reach me, leave me alone…” and then the chorus, “A change would do you good.” (She’s fabulous, and has a new country album.)
If we expect change and ready ourselves to adapt to change, that’s a great starting point.
Oscar Wilde, the cultural commentator from the late 1800s said, “To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect”. He made that statement about expecting the unexpected when a lot of stuff was going on. Things were being invented left and right: typewriters, dish and clothes washers, radar, and metal detectors, contact lenses, and escalators. You’d be hit in the face with a new invention if you didn’t watch it. If you didn’t expect incredible things, well, you didn’t have a thoroughly modern intellect. Sorry Charlie.
Well, today is sort of like that. We have this technology and that technology coming at us at seemingly lightning speed. My phone is only one year old, but there are two newer models.
We live in a world of constant and increasing change, and we can either embrace that change or learn to live with it—and indeed, thrive in it—or we can just go crawl under a rock.
So, we too should consider expecting the unexpected. It readies us for change. The change might be with regard to technology, but it also might be with regard to the financial sector, or the environment, or with healthcare, or Washington. And if we’re prepared, we’re in the best position we can be to avoid calamities like the 2008 financial crisis or the 2010 flash crash. But we have to be open to dealing with change.
Regrooving Change Managers
On an individual level, we’ve all experienced it. Whether you call it adaptation or managing change, or coping with the unexpected, sometimes we just need to suck it up, cowboy or cowgirl up, bite the bullet, or whatever your phrase du jour. Regroove those brain cells. Retool our skill sets, behaviors and competencies.
Here’s an example. A friend of mine used to become practically paralyzed at the thought of purchasing and using any new piece of technology. A new DVD player was enough to send her into a tailspin—buying, installing, dealing with technicians—she hated all of it. It made her feel stupid. She realized at some point, however, that changes and improvements in technology was inexorable—it was going to keep moving ahead, with or without her, and unless she developed a different attitude, she would end up perpetually angry. So, she decided to make a change.
She started in a small way, and changed one thing: she decided that she would master texting. Not a big deal, right? But to her it was. And it was a big challenge, at first. She bought a smart phone, spent a lot of time in the store with some very helpful young “geniuses”, and finally, in fits and starts, began texting. It was a bumpy road, but she did it until it became natural for her. It wasn’t a momentous event in the history of the world, but it was a huge change in her brain, in the way she thought. And there were ripple effects.
It began to affect the way she looked at other technologies. They weren’t so scary. DVD player? Ah, easy. Smartphone apps? Well, she started to use load and use loads of them, all the time. Bluetooth stereo speakers? A snap.
And then she started to think about applying her new-found techie-talents in different ways. She ended up putting together several different pieces of sound equipment, combined with some smart phone technology, which allowed her to play some terrific music on an old acoustic guitar. And this new sound was delightful to her and she’s playing in bars and at weddings for fun and some pocket change…and the delight of others. It wouldn’t have occurred to her, however, to think about putting together this little system, had she stayed in her technology-hating cocoon. But she “change managed” her techno-aversion, and made something really exciting and good happen.
We have all done something similar in our lives. Been there, done that? For many, in fact most all of us, a change would do us good.
All this talk about the inevitable nature of change brings me to my last point: how we drive cultural and political change on a larger scale. Is there a way we can help get the nation back on the right track? Or do we opt to kick that can on down the road for another generation? Oh wait, there’s that reasonable responsibility thing.
It has been a tremendous honor and privilege to spend 30 years in politics and government service. Not because the pay is great nor because the hours are reasonable, nor because I was able to finish my policy to-do list each day like my colleagues in the private sector have a penchant for doing. I’ve done it because reasonable or otherwise, it was to me, a responsibility.
In light of intensely partisan politics, a flagrant lack of fairness in the media, nagging negativity, and a culture of greed and selfishness, how do we move forward in simply not expecting, but driving change? Not simply manage, cope, deal with, accept, resign, tolerate, handle, but to create and drive that change? There are three thoughts to share and perhaps you will have others.
Number One: Question Authority. Now, now, I am not talking about James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause or John Mellencamp’s Authority Song. After all, in the latter song, “Authority always wins.” No flag or bra burning references. I’m thinking of that old radical balding guy in pantaloons. You know, the one who wrote, “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” Yep, founding father Benjamin Franklin. (I’ve been working on his hair style for 25 years now, and about 4 more inches and I think I’ll finally have nailed it).
So yes, question authority and listen carefully. Today and almost always, it’s infinitely more important to understand than to be understood. Seek to fully understand. If it’s a great opportunity posed by a seemingly skilled and adept financial investor, surely could be a Ponzi scheme these days–question authority. A President, even one of your own political persuasions—question authority. A statement by a candidate running for office—question authority. An email from the friend of a friend of a friend, stating thus and such? Question...umm, okay, that might not be authority, which brings me to…
Number Two: Discernment. Judge well. Listen to all sides. Read multiple sources of conflicting points of view. Query, probe, research, look at the big picture. What’s in it for everyone? Who are the stakeholders? What are their myriad agenda? Don’t simply consume the comfort food of politics, listening only to what you want to hear...true or false, right or wrong, accurate or, umm, not so much. We all need protein. We all need veggies. We all need fruits. Enjoy a diverse diet of knowledge and sources, and use discernment to sort out what is honest, equitable and balanced in your view. And…
Number Three: Shared Vision. Seek and create a shared vision to build on common ground. The foundation of every successful change management program is the establishment of shared goals and objectives and a shared vision of where the organization is going. Without primary stakeholders and champions—like elected officials and so called leaders—sharing the same vision, nothing short of bloody revolution will get you there. And similarly, without the workers and implementers on board, well, good luck to you and the Razorbacks.
Yet, here we are as a mass of people living as residents of the same country no longer with a shared vision for our nation, no longer with shared goals and objectives for what we want it to become. We are beginning to agree on what we don’t want. But to be positive, to move forward, we need that vision on what we do want. We need clear leadership, and a balanced media to focus the discussion and be able to raise issues without raising our voices.
The days, weeks and months after 9/11 reminded us of that. We had a shared vision and voice about the nation. We shared strength, resilience, pride, courage, freedom and indomitable spirit. Let’s hope and pray we do not need another ugly event to find common ground. Let’s hope that if we are ready for change; that we seek and embrace change with a Candu enthusiasm by questioning authority, being discerning and seeking common ground. As the late Senator Paul Simon of Illinois often said, “We can do better.” I really believe you Candu, and we Candu better too, don’t you?
It has been a pleasure to be with you tonight. Oops, pardon me; it seems technology does not because that’s an email coming in on my phone. Oh, it seems like an urgent matter. It appears a rich princess is in distress and needs my assistance. I lend her a small amount now and she gives me lots of gold later. She seems nice and calls me “Dear Beloved.” I guess she needs my bank routing number. There are some things that will never change!
Ah, but that would be a different speech.
Thank you for your attention and your interest in helping to make our society a better place in which to live.
Last Updated: November 12, 2013