“They protected Wall Street. Not families who were losing their homes. Not people who lost their jobs. And it happened over and over and over”
"There has not been nearly enough change," she tells Salon, taking on Obama failures, lobbyists, tuition. So 2016?
By Thomas Frank
Progressive America Rising via Salon
Oct. 12, 2014 – Senator Elizabeth Warren scarcely requires an introduction. She is the single most exciting Democrat currently on the national stage.
Her differentness from the rest of the political profession is stark and obvious. It extends from her straightforward clarity on economic issues to the energetic way she talks. I met her several years ago when she was taking time out from her job teaching at Harvard to run the Congressional Oversight Panel, which was charged with supervising how the bank bailout money was spent. I discovered on that occasion not only that we agreed on many points of policy, but that she came originally from Oklahoma, the state immediately south of the one where I grew up, and also that high school debate had been as important for her as it had been for me.
In the years since then, Professor Warren helped to launch the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (which will probably be remembered as one of the few lasting achievements of the Obama Administration); she wrote a memoir, A Fighting Chance; and she was elected to the United States Senate from Massachusetts.
This interview was condensed and lightly edited.
I want to start by talking about a line that you’re famous for, from your speech at the Democratic National Convention two years ago: “The system is rigged.” You said exactly what was on millions of people’s minds. I wonder, now that you’re in D.C. and you’re in the Senate, and you have a chance to see things close up, do you still feel that way? And: Is there a way to fix the system without getting the Supreme Court to overturn Citizens United or some huge structural change like that? How can we fix it?
That’s the question that lies at the heart of whether our democracy will survive. The system is rigged. And now that I’ve been in Washington and seen it up close and personal, I just see new ways in which that happens. But we have to stop and back up, and you have to kind of get the right diagnosis of the problem, to see how it is that—it goes well beyond campaign contributions. That’s a huge part of it. But it’s more than that. It’s the armies of lobbyists and lawyers who are always at the table, who are always there to make sure that in every decision that gets made, their clients’ tender fannies are well protected. And when that happens — not just once, not just twice, but thousands of times a week — the system just gradually tilts further and further. There is no one at the table…I shouldn’t say there’s no one. I don’t want to overstate. You don’t have to go into hyperbole. But there are very few people at the decision-making table to argue for minimum-wage workers. Very few people.
They need to get a lobbyist. Why haven’t they got on that yet?
Yeah. Why aren’t they out there spending? In the context when people talk about “get a lobbyist,” the big financial institutions spent more than a million dollars a day for more than a year during the financial reform debates. And my understanding is, their spending has ratcheted up again. My insight about that, about exactly that point, [is] in the book [A Fighting Chance], in the second chapter, which is when my eyes first get opened to the political system. Here I am, I’m studying what’s happening to the American family, and just year by year by year, I’m watching America’s middle class get hammered. They just keep sliding further down. The data get worse every year that I keep pulling this data. Bankruptcy is the last hope to right their lives for those who have been hit by serious medical problems, job losses, a divorce, a death in the family — that accounts for about 90 percent of the people who file for bankruptcy. Those four causes, or those three if you combine divorce and death. So, how could America, how could Congress adopt a bankruptcy bill that lets credit card companies squeeze those families harder?
What year was that?
When they finally adopted it was 2005. But the point was, it started back in — actually it started in 1995, the effort [to change the bankruptcy laws]. And that’s when I got involved with the Bankruptcy Commission. When, first, [commission chairman] Mike Synar came to me, and then Mike Synar died. It was just awful. And Brady Williamson [the replacement chairman] came to me. But what I saw during that process is, this was not an independent panel that could kind of sit and think through the [problem]: “Let’s take a look at what the numbers show about what’s happening to the families. Let’s take some testimony, get some people in here who have been through bankruptcy, and some creditors who have lost money in bankruptcy, and let’s figure out some places where we could make some sensible recommendations to Congress.” That wasn’t what it turned out to be at all.
It turned out that it was all about paid lobbyists . . .
And what they wanted.
And what they wanted. I tried as hard as I could, and there were almost no bankrupt families who were ever even heard from. And you stop and think about it — why would that be so? Well, first of all, to show up to something like that, you’ve got to know about it and you’ve got to take a day off from work. Who’s going to do that? These are families who are under enormous stress and deeply humiliated about what had happened to them. They had to make a public declaration that they were losers in the great American economic game.
I know exactly the kind of people you’re talking about. I wanted to ask you, not specifically about people declaring bankruptcy, but about the broader working people of this country. You’re from Oklahoma. I’m from Kansas. You’ve seen what’s happened in those places. There are lots and lots of working people in those places and a lot of other places…
Hardworking people. People who work hard. That’s what you want to remember. Not just people who kind of occasionally show up.
Yeah. The blue collar backbone of this country. And in places like I’m describing, it gets worse every year—well, I shouldn’t say worse, because it’s their choice, but a lot of them choose Republicans. I was looking at Oklahoma, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, I’m pretty sure you are, 16 percent of the vote went for Eugene Debs in 1912 and today it’s going in the other direction as fast as it can. How is this ever going to change?
I have at least two thoughts around that and we should explore both of them. One of them is that we need to do a better job of talking about issues. And I know that sounds boring and dull as dishwater, but it’s true. The differences between voting for two candidates should be really clear to every voter and it should be clear in terms of, who votes to raise the minimum wage and who doesn’t. Who votes to lower the interest rate on student loans and who doesn’t. Who votes to make sure women can’t get fired for asking how much a guy is making for doing the same job, and who doesn’t. There are these core differences that are about equality and opportunity. It can’t be that we don’t make a clear distinction. If we fail to make that distinction, then shame on us. That is my bottom line on this.
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