On October 24, Vice President Mike Pence joined 50 Senate Republicans and cast the tie-breaking vote to give Wall Street its biggest legislative victory in years. Together, they repealed a set of rules by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) that allowed consumers to sue their banks and credit-card companies instead of being required to go into arbitration. The financial industry desperately wanted this protection overturned, because it would again give banks control over handling complaints about their own impropriety.
Many people wondered if Donald Trump’s surprise win in 2016 might lead Republicans to overhaul their approach to economic issues. Trump sold voters on his promises to invest in massive public-infrastructure projects, take on bad trade deals, and generally fight for workers against the global elites. But what we see in his agenda isn’t blue-collar nationalism; it’s the beginning of a grifter economy. The administration’s economic plans are filled with low-grade, penny-ante efforts to allow the scheming and powerful to swindle ordinary people.
It’s not just the banks. Under the Obama administration, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services barred nursing homes that receive federal funding—which is almost all of them—from including mandatory-arbitration clauses in their contracts. By using its large budget and footprint, the government set standards that spread throughout the industry. This is an excellent example of how public programs can help. People in long-term care, especially the elderly, are particularly vulnerable to fraud. The Trump administration is now in the process of revoking this rule.
Or take student loans: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has ended reforms, put in place by President Obama, designed to protect borrowers from the student-loan servicing industry. Devos is also rescinding debt forgiveness for students defrauded by for-profit colleges. Worse, she has hinted that she will no longer cooperate with the CFPB to investigate wrongdoing in the student-loan industry. In the past, the CFPB has policed these markets, fining companies that were trying to improperly collect on debts. DeVos may be able to eliminate this crucial function of the CFPB.
Thus far, President Trump hasn’t initiated any large-scale projects to rebuild America. But the reconstruction efforts on recently destroyed infrastructure have a distinct grifter quality to them. Whitefish Energy—until last month, a two-man company—was awarded a $300 million contract to repair Puerto Rico’s electric grid in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. This move was likely part of an effort by the board overseeing Puerto Rico’s troubled finances to privatize the island’s energy sector. The terms of the no-bid contract were extraordinarily generous, including limitations on who could audit the company’s profits and costs. The White House has denied any involvement with Whitefish Energy, though the company hails from the same town as Ryan Zinke, Trump’s secretary of the interior. This is a move straight out of the grifter’s playbook: capitalizing on a natural disaster, in this case by turning it into the opportunity to sell public resources to private, well-connected agents. (Under pressure, Puerto Rico’s electric company has since said it will cancel the deal.)
These policies are nothing short of a public disaster. Trump’s tax plan is the libertarian dream of letting the owners of capital pay nothing while putting the costs of government on the backs of the people. Even the GOP’s final attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act had a grifter component: The Republicans wanted to send health-care dollars to the states, but the way their plan was structured, it encouraged the states to use those dollars for other purposes, like building stadiums or cutting corporate taxes.
Trump campaigned on “draining the swamp” in Washington, but he’s only adding to the muck. His administration’s policies have the reek of everyday scammers, swindlers, and con artists, presided over by the grifter in chief. And all of us citizens are the marks.