The roads are like a free market. We go where we want, when we want. Nobody can tell us otherwise — unless we live at home with our parents. But we don’t get to go nuts with that freedom either. If you want to drive 80 miles an hour drunk through a residential area, you know blue lights and jail bars are probably in your near future.

In my eyes, what happened on Wall Street over the past decade is about like what would happen if traffic laws were abandoned. Strip the roads of rules and you’re going to encourage reckless driving. You’re going to have a crash. More people will get hurt.

No doubt, the current fight over financial reform falls along party lines, just like every other political matter these days. That’s really sad. I respect the Democrat or Republican who bucks his or her own party from time to time. It shows a willingness to put aside team loyalty in favor of voting an individual conscience. But that trait seems dead and gone. There is no real demand for individual courage over pure partisanship.

But real financial reform is needed. And both parties need to be involved, because both parties played a role in getting us into this financial mess. This issue really transcends partisanship. The era of deregulation was pushed by Republicans, but Democrats can’t act like they had nothing to do with creating a financial climate with loose rules that led to risky behavior. Leaders of both parties were seduced by big contributions from Wall Street executives who wanted to see restrictions relaxed. “Trust us, we know what we’re doing,” they said. And Alan Greenspan, the long-time head of the Federal Reserve echoed that sentiment of trust them, they know what they’re doing.

So, lawmakers repealed restrictions that were put in place after the Great Depression to prevent another financial catastrophe. For instance, in 1999, President Clinton signed into law a repeal of the Glass Steagall Act, a major Depression-era restriction on banks. The repeal was proposed by Sen. Phil Gramm (R) and Rep. Jim Leach (R).

Here is a concise summary of the Depression-era act from the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress:

“In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, bankers and brokers were sometimes indistinguishable. Then, in the Great Depression after 1929, Congress examined the mixing of the ‘commercial’ and ‘investment’ banking industries that occurred in the 1920s. Hearings revealed conflicts of interest and fraud in some banking institutions’ securities activities. A formidable barrier to the mixing of these activities was then set up by the Glass Steagall Act.”

The leaders who lived through the Depression saw fit to enact the Glass Steagall restrictions. But lawmakers, whose pockets were lined with Wall Street money, thought the prudence of their fathers was as out of date as the hats they wore. That crumpled up that rule and threw it in the closet to collect dust. Such nonsense got in the way of big boys making big money.

Is it a coincidence that the banking rules instituted after our country’s biggest financial collapse were abanonded in 1999, then a few years later we had another monumental banking collapse?

Between 1999 and 2008, the financial industry swelled and people made piles of money, trading complex things — derivatives, collaterlized debt obligations, credit default swaps — that make folks, myself included, struggle to understand.

But even someone as financially unsophisticated as me can look at certain numbers and recognize trouble. For instance, the Bank of International Settlements estimated the world’s derivative market at roughly $516 trillion at the beginning of 2008. Meanwhile, the estimated U.S. gross domestic product was $14.2 trillion last year. When you hear derivative trades are up in the hundreds of trillions of dollars, you have to recognize that there’s a lot more being traded than what is actually backed up by tangible assets. What if everybody cashes in at once? It’s like big banks were sitting at a table with a huge pile of poker chips, unconcerned that they didn’t have the money to cover their bets.

Over the past decade, banks have gambled with far more money than they could actually provide. And they were ultimately backed up by the government when they failed at the big casino. Who can’t help but be infuriated? But we were given the image of a real financial mushroom cloud if big banks failed, a world in which our bank accounts were suddenly gone. We are all rightly upset about bailouts. But there would have also been a massive outcry against the government for failing to protect individuals from losing everything they had in the bank.

That’s why regulations must be in place to try to avoid such scenarios in the future. And more importantly, politicians of both parties need to vote against their own interest and institute some real campaign finance reform. As long as politicians are in the pockets of big money, we’ll always have these problems.

I know the world is complex. I know the blame spreads very far and wide. An attitude of greed that extended far beyond Wall Street has really cost this country. I know there is no easy fix for complicated problems.

But I know that I feel more comfortable driving on a road with clear rules that are enforced. I also feel better investing my retirement savings in a market where massive 18-wheelers aren’t driving 120 mph toward short-term profits and long-term wreckage.

Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.

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