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President Joe Biden is expected to nominate Michael Barr, dean of the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy, as comptroller of the currency, a role that involves regulation of the banking industry. Following the initial report from The Wall Street Journal, some Democrats are disappointed with the appointment, preferring University of California-Irvine law professor and more progressive candidate Mehrsa Baradaran over Barr.

As comptroller of the currency, Barr would be in charge of overseeing and regulating the federal banking system, ensuring banks operate in a safe manner and setting the standards for their activities in minority and low-income areas.

Barr previously criticized the Trump administration’s handling of banking regulation, such as a reduction in consumer protection laws and the lack of action taken to address the COVID-19 pandemic, which have had detrimental effects on banks.

Barr worked in several Treasury and State Department roles during the Clinton administration and served as an assistant secretary of the treasury under the Obama administration. Barr contributed to the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, which changed financial regulations to reduce the economic impact of the 2008 Great Recession.

The Michigan Daily spoke to some progressive University of Michigan students to gauge their thoughts on Barr’s likely nomination.

Public Policy senior Kerrigan McCabe believes that Barr’s previous experience makes him well fit for comptroller of the currency.

“Barr has such a long history working on economic regulations and protecting consumers, so I think he’s very well fit for the job,” McCabe said. “Barr’s appointment makes sense with what the Biden administration has promised voters about what the economic landscape is going to look like in the future.”

Recently, Barr served as an adviser to the Alliance for Innovative Regulation, a nonprofit representing financial technology firms, which attempts to merge financial regulation and digital design. 

Critics believe this position should disqualify Barr from the Biden administration appointment, as the position would allow him to grant bank charters to companies, including firms the Alliance for Innovative Regulation may have advised.

Public Policy junior Tuhin Chakraborty said he supports Barr’s possible appointment and disagrees with critics who say his financial technology experience should disqualify him.

“Fintech companies are rapidly coming into the future of the banking and finance industries, so Barr’s knowledge of tech and future technology will be invaluable to revolutionizing the finance sector in the coming years,” Chakraborty said. “It’s easier to work with someone you are familiar with. I’d say Barr’s work with fintech is the exact opposite of a disqualification.”

However, Public Policy junior Alexander Zittleman, the action co-chair of the Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter at the University, said he thinks Barr should not be appointed to the position. 

“I think Barr’s experience with fintech firms shows that he’s not the right option,” Zittleman said. “I don’t think it’s automatically disqualifying, but there are other candidates who don’t have that experience and who aren’t liable to having that as their main priority.”

Baradaran, the other candidate favored  by some, has previously championed racial equity and closing the wealth gap, something progressives think would make her a good choice for comptroller of the currency. 

Following Biden’s repeated calls for unity — not only across partisan lines but within the Democratic party itself — many hoped progressives such as Baradaran would receive appointments. 

Public Policy junior Reuben Glasser, resident and founder of Michigan Political Consulting, wrote in an email to The Daily he believes Barr will also be able to address the issues of racial equity that Baradaran has promoted.

“While I strongly agree that closing the racial wealth gap should be one of the focuses of our Banking Regulator, I’m unsure how that disqualifies Dean Barr,” Glasser wrote. “I have strong faith he will do everything in his power to work with the administration and Congress to do so, while also doing a fantastic job on a plethora of other issues.”

Recent Public Policy graduate Brooke Bacigal agreed with Glasser, writing in a statement to The Daily she hoped Barr would prioritize addressing issues of systemic injustice he frequently spoke about as dean. 

“In an email to the Ford community this past summer addressing racial violence and police brutality he said ‘as policy professionals, we must commit ourselves to addressing these public challenges, difficulties, and social ills directly,’” Bacigal wrote. “Now with the opportunity to do exactly that, I hope that as Comptroller, Dean Barr will prioritize addressing the systemic barriers that have perpetuated racialized economic inequality, strengthen financial inclusion and banking protections for minority communities, and employ the same post-crisis construction of regulations as he did with his work on Dodd-Frank, steering the OCC.”

Historically, Barr has been resistant to more progressive limitations on the industry suggested by lawmakers, such as a stricter version of the Volcker Rule, which prevents banks from using depositors’ money for certain investment activities and limits their dealing with covered funds.

After the election, in an email to Public Policy students, Barr congratulated Biden and Harris on their win and emphasized the importance of working across the aisle. 

“I also think it is fair to say, that those who have worked with President-elect Biden, from across the political spectrum, whether or not they agree with him on policy or politics, view him as a person of great personal integrity, decency, and compassion,” Barr wrote.

Chakraborty said he thinks Barr’s moderate stance will allow for more legislation to be passed, as Democrats only have 50 seats in the Senate — not enough to pass legislation with the filibuster-proof majority that is often necessary. 

“By no means (do Democrats) have a mandate to push forth this stronger, more progressive clause of the Volcker Rule,” Chakraborty said. “Barr will moderate policies and make them more palatable to both the GOP and Democrats and will help more efficiently put forth bipartisan solutions that will be more feasible to turn into law.”

On the other hand, Zittleman said he believes Baradaran’s progressive stance would bring about more positive change.

“A lot of the things that Baradaran supports are things that would directly address issues like racial and intergenerational wealth equality,” Zittleman said. “Is Biden unifying with Republicans across the aisle trying to come up with neoliberal policy agendas that can work for both sides, or is he trying to combat white supremacy and unify with this multicultural tapestry that is America?”

But Glasser emphasized the importance of bipartisanship across party lines.

“Right now the country is in a bit of disarray on every side, I think the choice we, Americans, made to elect Biden is a choice of healing — in hopes both sides can work together,” Glasser wrote. “If Dean Barr is a result of trying to cultivate more bipartisanship, more conversation and better results for America, I’m all with it.”

Chakraborty agreed with Glasser, stating that unification is something Barr would promote. 

“Being able to efficiently work with both parties will produce the most viable policy that has the highest chances of becoming law,” Chakraborty said. “It’s political, uniting and efficient.”

Daily Staff Reporter Kate Weiland can be reached at kmwblue@umich.edu. 

 

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