Why are we hassling Apple, but not Citigroup?

Wall Street deserves the government's scrutiny, but the iPad geniuses are getting it instead

Topics: Bank Reform, Apple, Goldman Sachs, iPad, iPhone, Wall Street, Tablet computers

Why is the Federal Trade Commission threatening Apple with a possible lawsuit for abusing its economic power, but not even raising an eyebrow about the huge and growing economic (and political) muscle of JPMorgan Chase or any of the other four remaining giant banks on Wall Street?

Our future well-being depends more on people like Steve Jobs who invent real products that can improve our lives, than it does on people like Jamie Dimon who invent financial products that do little other than threaten our economy.

Apple’s supposed sin was to tell software developers that if they want to make apps for iPhones and iPads they have to use Apple programming tools. No more outside tools (like Adobe’s Flash format) that can run on rival devices like Google’s Android phones and RIM’s BlackBerrys.

What’s wrong with that? Apple says it’s necessary to maintain quality. If consumers disagree they can buy platforms elsewhere. Apple was the world’s No. 3  smart-phone supplier in 2009, with 16.2 percent of worldwide market share. RIM was No. 2, with 18.8 percent. Google isn’t exactly a wallflower. These and other firms are innovating like mad, as are tens of thousands of independent developers. If Apple’s decision reduces the number of future apps that can run on its products, Apple will suffer and presumably change its mind.

On the other hand, the four largest U.S. financial institutions are so big and the rest of the economy so dependent on them that if one of them makes a bad decision it can take us all down. Between them they hold more than $7 trillion in assets, over half the size of the entire U.S. economy.

So why is the FTC nosing around Apple and not around Wall Street? Because the Federal Trade Commission Act allows the agency to stop “unfair methods of competition” almost anywhere in the economy except in the financial sector. Banks are explicitly excluded.

Another reason for financial reform.



And how are we doing on that front? Senate Democrats and Republicans have just agreed to jettison a $50 billion fund in the financial reform bill that would have been used to wind down operations of a failing bank. Republicans had created a smokescreen by alleging that the fund could be used for more bailouts. They don’t want the public to see the real problem: that the biggest banks are so big that if one or two gets into trouble, the Fed or the Federal Deposit Insurance Company will almost certainly have to bail them out in order to protect the financial system. And this implicit guarantee allows them to make even riskier bets that generate even bigger profits, enabling them to grow even larger.

The only way to make sure no bank is too big to fail is to ensure no bank is too big. The biggest banks should be broken up. Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Ted Kaufman, D-Del., have introduced an amendment that would do exactly that. And a growing number of House members are getting ready to do the same.

Hands off Apple. But cut the big banks down to size.

Robert Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including his latest best-seller, “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future;” “The Work of Nations,” which has been translated into 22 languages; and his newest, an e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His new movie "Inequality for All" is in Theaters. His widely-read blog can be found at www.robertreich.org.

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