The new watchdog is called the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection but is commonly shortened to the CFPB, with the “bureau” at the end. Its director, former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray, is a savvy politician, and he has worked to fashion an anti-TSA: a government agency that people trust and like. It is busily making and enforcing rules governing everything from mortgage approval to bounced checks, and it has created a website, consumerfinance.gov, full of handy tips—many targeted to young people—and humble requests for comments and complaints. The bureau has held “field hearings” and town-hall meetings far outside the Beltway, listening to regular Americans’ perceptions of the financial industry. A publicity coup came in March, when New York Times columnist Joe Nocera visited the bureau’s offices and came away gushing about his “inspiring day.”
Despite the good press, however, the CFPB—which will cost taxpayers almost half a billion dollars per year—is useless in some ways and deeply harmful in others. Some abuses that it was designed to curb have already been handled by existing federal agencies, while others are beyond its power to fix. The agency is equally incapable of remedying the worst ailment facing the American financial “consumer”: crushing debt, much of it purveyed by the federal government. Yet at the same time, Congress has given the CFPB the formidable power of banning abusive, unfair, deceptive, or discriminatory financial practices relating to Americans’ everyday financial interactions. Though that may sound appealing, remember how the government, by trying to do essentially the same thing with mortgages, lured poorer people into financial contracts that they couldn’t afford. The CFPB may do for credit cards and other financial products what the government did for mortgages: make the poor think that borrowing lots of money is perfectly reasonable. The CFPB, in sum, is Washington’s new weapon in its war for more debt.