JZ: How much of that has there been?
BF: Very little that I can see. It’s not been a hindrance in any way.
JZ: Do you have any regrets about not serving the Senate?
BF: Oh, it was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me, because I wouldn’t have been able to do the financial-reform bill.
JZ: When O’Neill said I thought you were going to be the first Jewish Speaker. Was he right in the end?
BF: I’d have a shot, I would have had a shot at leadership. Look, there are some things I’m very bad at. I’m a terrible academic, there are a lot of things I don’t do well, but this thing is one where my peculiar combination of strengths is very helpful and my weaknesses are not relevant.
JZ: In what way are your weaknesses not relevant in legislating?
BF: Um, I have a short attention span.
JZ: But it seems like someone with a short attention span would not be authoring Dodd-Frank.
BF: But Dodd-Frank, there’s a lot of pieces of it. Yes, I had to do some studying, but I rarely had more than an hour to spend on any one thing, or two. And I can get focused on really important things, but I can’t sit and ponder for a week about one topic.
JZ: Are there legislators who do that? It seems like the job wouldn’t lend itself to that.
BF: No, you cannot do that.
JZ: Do you actually have any hope you’re going to get things done in the next eleven months. It seems like the conventional wisdom is that—
BF: People are forgetting two things. The right wing has had this advantage that they don’t want to get anything done, so inertia has been on their side. But inertia has changed sides. I keep thinking of the song from Guys & Dolls, “Luck Be a Lady Tonight,” you know, you’ve got to go home with the fella that brung you. Inertia has changed partners. If nothing happens this year, all the Bush tax cuts expire, and there’s a substantial further cut in military spending. The right wing cannot allow either one of those to happen, so they have to deal with us. And I think there will be further cuts in the military and some increase in taxes on wealthier people.
JZ: When you look back on what you haven’t accomplished, and I’m not being negative, because I asked you what you have, but is military spending one of the things?
BF: Well, I was frustrated by that, but it’s now finally coming to fruition. I’ll tell you one thing we haven’t been able to accomplish. I got established the affordable-housing trust fund, I always felt that we should not be pushing poor people into owning homes, we should get good rental housing for them, and I believe we may be able to get a replacement for Fannie and Freddie that may include some funding for the affordable-housing trust fund. That’s the one positive thing. I wish I had been able to do more.
JZ: To what extent do you think government should incentivize behavior?
BF: It depends on the behavior. One, it should ban behavior that’s destructive toward other people. Beyond that, if there are things that people can do that have great benefit beyond themselves and have some cost, I think you should incentivize them to do that. Not compel them, but help them economically to do it. But if it’s behavior that’s seen as self-destructive individually, then I think the government should stay the hell out of it. I don’t think we should ban smoking, drinking, marijuana, gambling, any of those things.
JZ: But in terms of home ownership, that was an instance where you had the government incentivizing—
BF: I think that was a mistake. I think decent living conditions is important. But not ownership as opposed to rental.
JZ: Are you seeing a change, given what’s happened in the last few years, you were fighting a lonely fight on the rental housing?
BF: It’s become much more common now.
JZ: What was it about home ownership, because it seems that people on both sides of the aisle—
BF: One, it was seen as a way to get wealth. Of course, it turned out the other way. I think it’s just very American, you know, it’s not big in France, it’s this old frontier kind of individualist, everybody needs a home.
JZ: But that’s a pretty powerful strain in American life.
BF: And it led to problems. It’s now, however, done so much harm that it’s receding.