The coordinated right-wing attack on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) took a turn Thursday when acting agency head Mick Mulvaney and Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) went all improv-comedy showcase in a Banking Committee hearing.
Perdue used his turn questioning Mulvaney to chuck zany, alarmist attacks at the agency over its use of consumer data. Mulvaney, who wants the agency he now runs destroyed, was a willing partner in the resulting dance, the two collaborating to portray the group’s data work as alternately nefarious and bungling.
Perdue had just returned from a trip to China, he said, and come away even more afraid of the CFPB than he already was.
“Over there they’re collecting data and consumers just assume that the federal government has access to their data. American citizens do not have that assumption,” he said. “Every single factor that I have as a citizen of the United States, every single financial factor, can be reviewed and can be collected and can be exposed by the CFPB, is that correct?” Mulvaney agreed.
This is an old, hacky line. Republicans in Congress have been comparing the CFPB’s data work to various world-historical evils – even the literal, actual Gestapo, in one case – for years.
Were Perdue and Mulvaney’s portrayal of the agency’s work accurate, it would be a scandal. But their portrayal is nowhere close. Most of the agency’s data collection never has identifying information in it. When staff receive data they’re entitled to and discover it includes such information, they carefully strip it out of the set.
The Government Accountability Office and the Federal Reserve’s Inspector General have each reviewed the agency’s data work in detail, and reported that staff are swift and careful in their data excisions. The GAO added that the agency swiftly adopted its recommendations on how the existing privacy systems could be improved further.
All that happened in 2014. Perdue and Mulvaney had this conversation in 2018. Mulvaney’s been blasting away at the CFPB since he was in John Boehner’s House caucus. He knows better. He is lying.
But what Perdue’s doing is more interesting than mere deceit. It suggests that the agency’s attackers are aware that if the public hears about what the CFPB actually does, then it’ll be impossible to ever get shed of the agency.
“I am absolutely deathly concerned about the exposure of our data in this rogue agency that has no responsibility to this Congress about the security of financial information that nobody in my state really understands that they’re collecting,” Perdue said. “And I’ve seen the other side, just recently in China, where if we decide to go in that direction, we’ve got the rogue agency here that will absolutely do that. So I’m very concerned about the data collection.”
This is, in a word, bullshit. Not in the just-fun-to-vulgarize-the-news way, but in the specific technical rhetorical way cataloged by Harry Frankfurt in On Bullshit. Bullshitting is different from lying, Frankfurt wrote. Where a lie requires someone to knowingly and intentionally conceal truth, bullshit doesn’t know or care about truth at all – it simply picks whatever information will persuade the audience.
If either of these men know that CFPB’s data is rigorously anonymized, then they are lying. If they know that the agency swiftly adopted all 11 recommendations made by the GAO, then they are lying. If they know that the CFPB’s whole-market megasampling yields far more sophisticated observations about the many swindles to which Americans are subjected by companies as large as Wells Fargo and as tiny as Zero Parallel LLC, then they are lying.
If they don’t know, or don’t care, but depict the CFPB as a rogue People’s Republic of China-style agency anyway, then they’re bullshitting.
In reality, the CFPB enjoys a 75 percent approval rating with voters and the support of 61 percent of Mulvaney and Perdue’s fellow Republicans.
Again, it’s safe to assume Mulvaney knows all these details and is willfully obscuring them for fear the truth will harm his cause. He runs the place and spent lots of time going after it for years before he moved from the Hill to the White House. He knows what he’s doing.
Perdue, though? He clearly isn’t interested in the truth. As he presses his point about data collection, Mulvaney interjects that the agency collects “loan-level data.” Perdue hears him say “low-level data” and agrees. “Right, it’s very detailed, and by low-level data you mean it goes all the way to the second decimal place,” Perdue replies serenely as though this two-decimal low-level data is definitely a thing with which he is acquainted.
“Uh, loan-level,” Mulvaney replies, gently correcting his partner.
The “low-level data” goof made Perdue look ignorant, while also exposing that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about with such passionate certainty. He’s choosing instead to say whatever will most effectively draw listeners to his side.
Perhaps it seems odd that Mulvaney and Perdue are so focused on the potential for data exposures when we have nearly a decade of actual real-world agency performance from which to judge. Why truck in hypotheticals and weak analogies when there are results to evaluate?
As Frankfurt writes, bullshit cares only about persuading in order to win. If Mulvaney and Perdue choose not to talk about what the CFPB’s actually done over the past nearly eight years, perhaps there is a reason.
The agency has exposed billions of dollars in scams and ripoffs, clawing back well over $12 billion in fines and restitution from the companies it has caught in that time. It’s acted to protect military families from payday loan scams. It’s acted to curtail the debt traps that such lenders employ to syphon profits out of poor communities so that executives can play race-car driver. It’s even stopped short of what the most ardent consumer advocates say it should do in its regulatory proposals, evidence of an outfit looking to accommodate private interests so long as they’re above-board with their customers.
For everyday people who are just trying to make ends meet in an economy where salesmen always gloss past the fine print, the agency’s won clear and concrete victories over and over. For firms that really want to make small-dollar credit available to poor families with few other options, the agency’s been a diligent and inclusive partner in chasing the scammers out of the market without shutting it down entirely.
Hard to get people to grab the pitchforks when you put it that way. Better, then, to talk of totalitarianism and rogues – even if it’s bullshit.