August 7, 2022

Your Money: Consumer Watchdog Is All Ears for Ideas

The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau officially opens for business on Thursday, but for several months it has been soliciting ideas from the public.

In response, there was the predictable sniping, with some people taking to Twitter to ask if the bureau can protect people from the increasing federal debt caused by the creation of new agencies.

And there were the plaintive requests from people looking for help far beyond the bureau’s turf in financial services. Someone wondered about gym memberships, while somebody else asked the bureau to give pornography sites their own domain name suffixes.

But in the earliest Twitter posts, which I read end to end in a 140-character binge this week, there were also some thought-provoking ideas with real potential.

They may never come to fruition, if the Republicans succeed in stripping power from the bureau and running Elizabeth Warren — who has been overseeing the bureau but is probably not going to be its official director — out of town.

For now, however, the bureau is for real, and in an avalanche of Twitter messages, e-mails and blog comments on its Web site, consumers have shown a hunger for a financial cop on the beat.

Meanwhile, its openness thus far suggests the tantalizing possibility that it could be the nation’s first open-source regulator. So I picked the four most interesting ideas that people on Twitter suggested and took them to the bureau this week to see just how open it was to provocative suggestions.

SIMPLICITY Perhaps the most reasoned call to action came from Bill Mitchell (Twitter handle: @zipflash), an investment newsletter publisher and soon-to-be hedge fund manager in Irvine, Calif.

“My politics don’t really align with Elizabeth Warren’s,” he said. “But I sensed that she had a legitimate interest in trying to, at a minimum, improve efficiencies.”

So he took his best shot at helping her do that in a couple of Twitter messages. “Create standardized contract for credit cards for issuers to incorporate by reference, merely adjusting specific rates and fees.”

And then: “Limit the total number of words in consumer financial contracts. Disclosures are not transparent if their length is unlimited.”

Mr. Mitchell said he worried that credit card agreements had become like the software and Web agreements that so many people mindlessly speed through.

“We are actively working toward simplifying credit card contracts,” said Gail Hillebrand, associate director of consumer education and engagement for the bureau.

At the moment, the bureau is in the midst of an overhaul of mortgage disclosure forms, something Congress demanded. Congress hasn’t ordered the bureau to revise card agreements, though, and it is not clear how much authority the bureau would have to force card issuers’ hands if it decided to try.

Still, it’s clear that Ms. Warren is a believer in the religion of simplicity. “We are opposed to complicated forms and fine print,” she said Thursday in a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

HUMOR Matt Stoller (@matthewstolller), a former Democratic Congressional staff member, just wants a good laugh. “Hold a weekly public complaint essay contest called ‘Why You Should Fine My Bank,’ ” he said in a Twitter post.

In all seriousness, this would have its advantages once the bureau’s novelty wears out, since it would keep consumers coming back looking for the most outrageous sins. Mr. Stoller, in an interview this week, added that the bureau should have a bank-as-hero letter of the week, too, as an incentive for good behavior.

“I think humor and interestingness are not used by government nearly enough,” he said. “To the extent that you do that, you create a situation where if you get a malevolent politician in there trying to kill these programs, then they have to kill something that the public likes.”

The bureau’s Ms. Hillebrand wouldn’t go near the self-preservation angle but got a good chuckle out of Mr. Stoller’s contest notion. “We have to learn from the most effective techniques that people inside and outside of government are using to reach the public,” she said. “If it’s funny, it gets forwarded.”

twitter.com/ronlieber

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=08226758e6b359faa041670658aa1661

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