A Good Pick at Treasury

A strong advocate for poor and working Americans comes to Treasury.


A few days ago, President Obama selected Michael S. Barr, a law professor at Michigan, to serve as Assistant Secretary for Financial Institutions. It’s an excellent choice.

I’ve known Mike for more than 20 years now, although I have not been in touch with him for a long time. He’s devoted most of his life to trying to figure out how to use financial institutions to bring more capital into low-income areas (and as a Michigan professor, he’s got a good laboratory about 45 minutes away). Like most of the Obamanots, he has worked at the Center for American Progress, but he’s far from a standard Washington Consensus guy: he should be a strong voice at Treasury for keeping in mind the needs and interests of poor and working people, but his Washington background will also help in keeping him relevant.

Along with appointment of Neal Wolin as Deputy Treasury Secretary, it seems as if lawyers are coming in to join the economists/finance guys/Masters of the Universe in the Department. That’s a good sign, as far as I’m concerned: while I’ll be the first to criticize lawyers and hardly believe that they/we have a monopoly on wisdom, lawyers generally do not become as infatuated with their models as do economists.

Rachel Maddow has highlighted Wolin’s role in the drafting of the repeal of Glass-Steagall, but without more information, that seems to me to be a cheap shot: when you’re the General Counsel of the Department, and there is a new bill, then you work on drafting it. Wolin may not have opposed the bill, and may even have supported it, but unless we know more, it’s hard to criticize him for doing his job. I recall Wolin’s tenure as being focused more on aggressively advocating for the authority of the ATF, then under Treasury. Let’s see how it develops, but I’d rather have Wolin than a lot of the young geniuses from Wall Street who got us into this mess.

Of course, I’d rather have Elizabeth Warren than any of them, but she obviously has offended Larry Summers by being, you know, right about things.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.