On Income Tax Day 2014, The Jillster wrote an appreciative review of Senator Elizabeth Warren's newest book. Senator Warren (D-MA) is the subject of another affirmation from Esquire's Charles P. Pierce that is the post o'the day in this blog. Pierce's account of Senator (then Professor) Warren's encounter with a student slouching in the first row of Warren's 1L class at Harvard Law is a classic. The student was now Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, grandson of Senator Robert Kennedy and grand-nephew of both President John F. Kennedy and Senator Edward Kennedy. Professor Warren did not and Senator Warren does not suffer fools gladly. The irony of the story is that young Kennedy was elected to the U.S. House of Represedntatives from RI at the same time as Elizabeth Warren was elected to the U.S. Senate for MA. As the late Walt Disney would say, "It's a small world, after all." If Eliabeth Warren has given all of us a (fair & balanced) teachable moment, so be it.
Elizabeth Warren Is The Teacher
By Charles P. Pierce
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
Sir Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You'd be a fine teacher. Perhaps, a great one.
Rich: And if I was who would know it?
More: You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that... oh, and a quiet life.
—Robert Bolt, "A Man for All Seasons," Act I
The best teachers are the ones who remain students at heart, the ones who keep learning from their students, and from the world around them, and from their own drive to know even more about even more things, and who then are able to transmit that knowledge—and more important, the drive to know more—to their students. That's how great teachers echo through time. That's how great teachers become immortal.
It is the faint beginning of dusk at Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC, the last rays of the winter sun slanting through the big windows in angled shards across the carpet. The waiting area is jammed with people waiting for the last US Airways shuttle of the day from Washington to Boston. As it so happens, this particular waiting area is a target-rich environment if you happen to be a fan of the Washington power elite. You can see your favorite NBC pundits, waiting to fly to Boston in order to get to the Vineyard for the weekend. You can see celebrity television historians from Harvard and celebrity television astronomers from MIT. If you're really lucky and stay really quiet in your duck blind behind the Auntie Anne's stand, you might even spot a random Kennedy or three, headed back to the compound on the Cape. Tip O'Neill, a cigar jammed into his mouth, once worked this space. So did Ted Kennedy, head buried in some document drawn from his battered and overstuffed briefcase. It is the political junkie's equivalent of the red carpet, especially at the end of a long week.
Not far from the gate, Elizabeth Warren, by the grace of God and somewhat astonishing circumstance the senior senator from Massachusetts, is talking about the day she learned how people make lightbulbs. It was a day on the campaign trail, when she was running against incumbent Republican Scott Brown, and she'd visited a plant where they made lightbulbs, and the process fascinated her, and the way she tells the story fascinates the people listening to her now, because that's what great teachers do.
You cannot understand how she became a senator—hell, you can't even understand how she became a public person—unless you understand the fact that, first and foremost, she is a teacher, having taught at Rutgers, and having been a professor of law at the University of Houston, the University of Texas, the University of Pennsylvania, and ultimately at Harvard Law School, where she was teaching bankruptcy and contracts in the fall of 2008, just as the global financial system collapsed and threatened the economy of the entire world. Her first great project as a young law professor in Texas had been to learn about how bankruptcy worked in this country, and more important, it was to learn about the people who found themselves in the process. It challenged her assumptions; she had thought she was going out to study the schemers who were working the system and the moochers who were cheating the people to whom they owed money. She learned from the people in the courtrooms that everything she knew about them was wrong, and then she set out to teach the country that everything it thought about those people was wrong. "It was," she tells me later, "so much like being in church, quiet and hushed. They were in little groups, talking among themselves. Nobody wanted to look at anybody else."
That led her to her first book, and thence into the study of how these people came to be in all these courtrooms, the way the great American middle class was being tricked out of its wealth and scammed out of its birthright and crushed by the tectonic forces of underregulated capitalism and money-drenched politics. She saw the dangers of subprime mortgages because she'd seen the damage of what she called the "tricks and traps" of the mortgage lenders, seen what it did to families unaware of the deliberate obfuscation of what they'd signed, only to have the teaser rate of the mortgage run out and find themselves underwater. She inveighed against the fine-print piracy of the credit-card companies; she often said that the conditions on a credit card should be as simple as the instructions on a toaster. She brought these lessons back to Harvard, and she was teaching them to her students in September of 2008, when the roof caved in. And she went right on teaching. She had been warning official Washington for months that disaster was coming.
"I'm down there talking to them about it!" she says, her voice rising and her eyes widening. "I'm telling people and nobody wants to—La, la, la. I can't hear you. I fly down to Washington. I got to where I just made cold calls. I'd go see congressmen—for me, the lens into what was happening because of subprime mortgages.
"I would explain what was happening here, and how obviously they're packaging these things and selling them up the line. They are selling grenades with the pins already removed. And they're going to explode! And the answer from members of Congress was 'No, I checked with my banker friends, and they're making a profit.' So this is going on and I'm actually teaching this stuff. And by golly, Lehman crashes. Now, in the spring I had also been teaching bankruptcy when Bear Stearns had gotten bought out. I mean, it wasn't down, but it was on its knees. I'm starting to teach them 'too big to fail,' to keep the big one from going because they're worried about the rest. And in the fall, Lehman goes down. I will never forget this—walking into my class, and it's dead silent.
"Everyone is freaked out. What does this mean? What's going to happen here? So I put it up on the chalkboard. The whole—what had happened in the subprime mortgages. And how they've been packaged together. And then they get sold down the line. And then someone takes on too much risk. So why would the government let it go? Because the government is sending the message that the markets have to discipline themselves. And that the government will not be here to bail them out. And I take everybody through that. And everyone gets it. Very shortly after that, AIG has been bailed out.
"Now, here was the fun. Whatever I was supposed to be teaching that day, we just set all that aside. Then I turned around and said, 'Okay, fasten your seat belts. Each of you is the CEO of a giant financial institution. We are headed for rough times.' And I said, 'So your job, CEO, is to make sure that your financial institution is going to be standing on the other side once the economy settles back down. Some are going to die. So how do you make sure yours is going to survive?' And hands go up. And so I call on the first kid. He says, 'Well, I sell off as many things as I can. Narrow down. Keep only high-quality assets and hold on to cash.' And I'm, 'Mmm. Anybody else?' And all the hands go down because that is the classic answer, right? You keep yourself safe. Kind of the bunker mentality.
"And finally, one kid gasps. Almost like he'd been shot. And the hand goes up. And I just keep standing in the front waiting. And then another hand goes up. And another. And another. And another. And you watch kids, with this jolt, some of them laugh out loud when they get it. And I wait until then—maybe a quarter of them have got their hands up, maybe a third—and call on someone. And the kid says, 'You grow as fast as you can. You buy as much as you can with borrowed money. And you lend and borrow from as many other large institutions as possible. Because then the government can't afford to let you fail.' My students invented 'too big to fail' sitting in a classroom. Because it's not that hard."
She then set about teaching the country, in one way or another, what she'd learned from her students, from the gray faces in the bankruptcy courts, and from her own drive to learn more about more things. Two months after the collapse, Harry Reid tapped her to head the Congressional Oversight Panel—acronym: COP—which would keep an eye on how the big banks whose policies led to the catastrophe were spending the $700 billion bonanza. She had no subpoena power, but she made herself a burr under a number of saddles; the video of her putting Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner on the rack became a popular favorite. The country, it seemed, had awakened one morning to find that its entire economy was headed over a cliff, and almost nobody knew how it happened. She knew, and she began to teach again.
She taught on "The Daily Show," where Jon Stewart said he wanted to make out with her—it did not begin well; she threw up before going on the set—and on a number of other television programs, starting with an appearance with Dr. Phil. "I started going on television to talk about what was happening in the crisis," she says. "To talk about what was happening in the bailout. And because I believe people had a right to know. And I think that this kind of, you know, econo-speak, that tries to convey what only the insiders understand, what's really going on—it's just wrong. And so that was where I first started talking to big audiences about the economics of this country."
She was able to think clearly about the unthinkable, and to explain the inexplicable, simply and with humor, and with a mildness that was belied by the directness of her message. The system, she said, had been rigged against the middle class. It had been infected with the arrogance of greed and the hubris of the people she calls the "Masters of the Universe." It was "tricks and traps" again but on a massive, economy-destroying scale. And, as she taught the country about this, she was learning about being a politician. She fought for—and won—the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to be included in the Dodd-Frank financial-reform package, and she did it by mustering support from outside Washington. And though President Barack Obama declined to appoint her to direct it because he didn't think she could be confirmed, the battle burnished the credentials she would need to run for the Senate and win in a race in which she was a much better candidate at the end than she was at the beginning. She learned, and you could see her learning, day after day, learning so that she could one day teach.
Which is how she happens to be here, waiting for the last shuttle, posing for pictures with a half dozen admirers and charming off the three or four people who ask excitedly if she's going to run for president. The presidential talk became inevitable almost as soon as she got elected to the Senate. She was the face of a country frustrated by the destruction wrought by its financial elite, working with what seemed to be an endlessly compliant federal government. The country's economy was looted. The world's economy was looted. Elizabeth Warren was the country's teacher, then, patiently explaining who the crooks were, and how they worked their dark magic, and why that meant that you lost your job or were foreclosed out of your house. And now, after eight years in which it seemed nobody paid any price for any of the crimes she had patiently explained, the forces that drew people to her lessons now are pushing her to become the face of what appears to be a rising kind of populism in Democratic politics. She does not want to run for president. She demurs politely when asked, and then she goes back to talking about just how danged interesting it was to learn how lightbulbs were made. People around her nod and smile, and now they know how lightbulbs are made, too.
"I had to work really hard to get here," she says. "I said, 'If I get to the United States Senate, I'm going to use that opportunity to work for the middle class and for working families every chance I get.' "
Can this country learn anymore? That is a question that underlies so many others. We have allowed ourselves in our politics to become contemptuous of knowledge, wary of science, and suspicious of expertise. In 1822, in a letter to William Barry, James Madison explained that "Learned Institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty & dangerous encroachments on the public liberty. They are the nurseries of skillful Teachers for the schools distributed throughout the Community.... They multiply the educated individuals from among whom the people may elect a due portion of their public Agents of every description; more especially of those who are to frame the laws...." We have come very far from this prescription to the age now where we fall, over and over again, for the laughable fiction that somebody running for office is somehow "not a politician," and that "common sense" tells us that democracy, for all its faults, is for suckers.
It would help, then, if the person doing the teaching has a bit of the dusty road in her voice, and has the ability to use the word golly with the same impact and to the same effect that Lyndon Johnson used to get out of goddamn. It would help if the teacher had a face that was open, with eyes that popped, and that was completely transparent in its impatience with cant and the great clouds of gobbledygook that the financial-services industry uses in the same way that squids use ink. It would help if she sounded as though she could explain, in simple terms and with actual common sense, how rigged the wheel is and that there is no pea under the shell. It would help if that lesson came in the voice of a woman who once led a Brownie troop in which she volunteered to be Cookie Mom not once but twice, which may be unprecedented.
"It was great," she says. "We had these stacks and stacks of cookies in our apartment, and eventually we had to make a path through them so we could get around."
Does this country even want to learn anymore? That's an even more basic question. We learned nothing from the S&L crisis of the 1980s, nothing from the bursting of the tech bubble, and it appears that we've learned nothing from the near destruction of the entire economic system by means of weaponized persiflage. The banks that were "too big to fail" are now even bigger. It is like a child who touches a hot stove and his response is to stick his head in the oven. There is an awful kind of surrender in a feeling that institutions have grown too huge, too heedless, and too inscrutable for us to recognize their effect on our lives until it is too late. And the most heedless and inscrutable institutions in our lives are the institutions of money.
"It was moving around with so many zeroes behind it, you know the front number," Warren says, "that it does have an unreal quality to it. I think a lot of people are struggling to get hold of the psychology of the big money movers on Wall Street. Yeah. They're not like you and me."
They're certainly not like the Herrings of Norman, Oklahoma, who lived in a small house at the edge of town, bounded by what seemed like endless prairies. The Herrings, they lost a car to the bank. They moved from one house to another, each smaller than the one before. They finally settled in Oklahoma City, where Don Herring worked at Montgomery Ward and, later, as the maintenance man in an apartment building, and Pauline Herring worked at Sears, Roebuck in the catalog-sales department.
Betsy Herring was a prodigy. The caboose of four children, and the only girl, she graduated from high school at sixteen and did so as a state champion debater. She cobbled together her babysitting money and spent fifty dollars on money orders to apply to two colleges, Northwestern University, and George Washington University in Washington. She chose the latter, but left after two years. She was nineteen when she married Jim Warren, an engineer at IBM in Houston. She finished her undergraduate degree at the University of Houston and, when Jim's work took him to New Jersey, she enrolled in law school at Rutgers, graduating, eight months pregnant with her second child, in 1976. (The Warrens' firstborn, Amelia, eventually would become the coauthor of The Two-Income Trap (2003), Warren's seminal book on how the middle class came to be devoured.) The marriage eventually foundered. The Warrens divorced in 1979. That year, in a summer seminar for law professors, she met a lanky Boston Yankee named Bruce Mann, whom she first hit up for tennis lessons. They were married in 1980.
She discovered a gift for teaching, bouncing around as an academic vagabond. It was while she was at the University of Texas that she joined two other researchers in the bankruptcy project that would become the beginning of her public life. She was sure when she began the project that she would chronicle the lives of the profligate and the greedy, people who spent beyond their means and were now trying to welch on their obligations. That certainty vanished when she walked into the courtroom in San Antonio. There were people who were filing for bankruptcy because they had lost their jobs, or because they had had a major medical emergency and couldn't keep up with the bills. They were people like the Herrings had been, one turn of the wheel away from personal disaster.
"You saw what had gone wrong with their lives," she recalls. "These were people who had built something, but who had been knocked upside down by a job loss or something else. So we do this study. We end up writing this book, and the thrust of our study is: Is bankruptcy being used by people who really could repay? And the answer was when you look at the real data that's all filed under penalty of perjury and with receipts attached and IRS forms and all kinds of other stuff, the answer is no possible way could these people repay more than pennies.
"We asked people to write down why you filed. Just tell us why you are in bankruptcy, in their own words. And that was the part that was just—and that's where people talked about... the baby died, or what it was like to care for a husband for nine years through dementia, and couldn't quite make it to the end of each month, so I'd use the credit cards to pay for his medications. And now he's gone and I have $140,000 of debt, living on Social Security. And they just tell these stories. And I don't know how anybody could read that and still be the same. So for me it became the big shift on how I came to understand the world. That there are plenty of people out there with plenty of money to tell a story that suits their bottom line. But someone has to speak up for the people who are just getting rolled over."
By 1992, both she and her husband were teaching at Harvard Law School, and her class on contracts became a popular one. In fact, one day, on the first day of the semester, a young man came into the classroom and sat down in the front row. He was wearing shorts and sandals, and he was rather lounging in his chair. She walked in and decided that this was going to be the fellow that she would own that morning. She dropped a pile of books down with a conspicuous thump on a table at the front of the room and began the class.
"So, Mr. Kennedy," she said, "what's the definition of assumpsit?"
"It was the first class, first day of law school, and I took the class because she was the professor," says Mr. Kennedy, now Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, grandson of Bobby Kennedy, grand-nephew of Senator Ted and President Jack, elected to Congress in the same election that brought Elizabeth Warren into the Senate. "I walk in, and I try to take a seat in the last row of the class. I put my head down, and I'd done the reading and I knew the basics of the case, and right before the class, I see that a lot of my classmates are sort of milling around this seating chart, so I go down to it and I see that my seat is in the first row on the right-hand side. I couldn't believe it. I was mortified.
"I said, 'I don't know.' She said, 'You don't know?' She said, 'Mr. Kennedy, did you do your reading? You realize, don't you, that assumpsit is the first word in your reading?' I said, 'Yeah, I saw it, and I circled it because I didn't know what it meant.' So she said, 'Do you have a dictionary, Mr. Kennedy?' I said I hadn't had a chance to get one yet. She said, 'That's what people do when they don't know what a word is. They look it up in the dictionary. Is there anyone in the class who can help Mr. Kennedy?' Every hand in the class goes up.
"She would take classes that were really legal philosophy and bring them down to a real-world setting," Kennedy says. "She managed to get the class pulling for you, and pulling for each other, which is not an easy thing to do at Harvard Law School. She was able to build a sense of camaraderie, where we can all do this together. She said to me once, 'Look, we've got some pretty bright students here. If I can't get through to them, what does that say about me as a teacher?' Nobody at Harvard Law School ever says that about themselves. Nobody ever questions their ability as a teacher. She did."
On the day he graduated from Harvard Law, Kennedy was allowed to pick one of his first-year professors to award him his degree. He picked Warren. As she handed him his diploma, she asked him if he knew the definition of assumpsit.
It was a brisk, clear Sunday afternoon at the end of October in 2012. There was a major event at a place called Laborers' Training Academy, which was tucked into the woods in Hopkinton, to the west of Boston, in a curious compound of buildings circling a pond, built in 1969 to help train young people in the various building trades. It looked for all the world like an old WPA work camp. There were picnic tables and playground equipment scattered between the buildings, and the great hall was jammed for a Democratic political event. There were plasterers and plumbers, electricians and carpenters, and their spouses and their children. And there were candidates there to talk to them.
Young Mr. Kennedy from the contracts class was there as a candidate for Barney Frank's old congressional seat. He introduced Elizabeth Warren, who had spent the previous nine or ten months being cast by her opponent as a fake Indian, a Harvard elitist, and a carpetbagger from Oklahoma. In their first debate, Scott Brown had done everything except take off his shirt, flex, and pop a coldie for the cameras, appealing on several occasions to "all you union guys out there" not to be fooled by the fake-Indian professor from Harvard. This afternoon, though, with the campaign for the Senate having begun to sway perceptibly, was a measure of her ability to take what she had learned in her life, and especially in her still-new career as a political candidate, and use it to teach the people in the hall what they needed to know about the system that was grinding so many of them into dust. She connected the corruption on Wall Street to the tricks and traps on their credit cards and their mortgage statements, and she connected that to stagnating wages and crumbling infrastructure. They applauded wildly every time she bore down hard on the word union, and it took her a long time to get through the crowd. Scott Brown was finished as a senator by the time she got to the car.
She began the campaign as more of an idea than an actual person. She had become a political celebrity through her work holding various Wall Street feet to the fire, and that had fired the movement to make her a candidate in the first place. At one of her first meet-and-greets, at a house party in Andover, she laid down a refrain that would become familiar when Barack Obama borrowed it lock, stock, and barrel in the presidential election that was still almost fifteen months away. He just didn't say it as well.
"There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own," she said. "Nobody. You built a factory out there—good for you. But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory.... Now, look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea—God bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."
It immediately became a YouTube sensation. Democrats went over the moon. Rush Limbaugh said she was the heir to Mao's Cultural Revolution. It was superb politics, even if it was impromptu, which she insists to this day it was. Still, there was considerable doubt as to whether or not she would make it as a candidate. She did not begin well. There was some babbling from superannuated Hibernians in the Massachusetts political establishment about how she could never connect with the blue-collar voters in places like Malden and Worcester, and certainly not the way studly Scott Brown could. She had a rough time of it at a forum with a local public-radio host notoriously in love with his own voice.
But she kept rolling on, learning as she went. She accepted the role of work-in-progress, of learning to be a candidate on the fly. She rose to no bait, not even when her work on an asbestos settlement was used to try and dent her reform credentials. This was a skill she'd learned navigating the political shoals in Washington on behalf of financial reform. Because of that ability, she already was a politician. Now she was submitting herself to the people.
The real coming-out party was in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. She spoke not long before Bill Clinton's bravura performance, so the hall was full and buzzing. Because she was one of the few people who had come out of the Wall Street debacle on the side of the angels, she already was beloved as a concept, if she was still rather unknown as a candidate. Even before she took the stage, a guy in the Nevada delegation started chanting, "Consumer Finance Protection Bureau," which is not the easiest thing in the world to chant.
Her speech was a politician's speech. It was a candidate's speech. She applied what she had learned in Washington—in the fight over bankruptcy laws, as chairman of the TARP oversight board, and in the brawl to get the CFPB up and running—and she used it with one speech to nationalize the election in Massachusetts. She found the second verse to the refrain she had laid down in Andover.
"Republicans say they don't believe in government," she told the crowd. "Sure they do. They believe in government to help themselves and their powerful friends. After all, Mitt Romney's the guy who said corporations are people. No, Governor Romney, corporations are not people. People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they cry, they dance. They live, they love, and they die. And that matters. That matters because we don't run this country for corporations, we run it for people."
You could watch her learn, in public and in real time. She learned how to strike a balance between being a national politician and a local candidate. She convinced Boston Mayor Tom Menino to throw his entire political machine behind her because, as Menino said, over and over again, "She's good people." She pried an endorsement out of the Massachusetts firefighters union. In 2010, when Scott Brown had won his upset victory over Martha Coakley in the special election to replace Ted Kennedy, Menino's people largely had sat out the race, and a great number of the firefighters voted for Brown. Part of this was the fact that Coakley ran one of the worst campaigns in political history. Part of it was Brown's natural appeal, which he largely abandoned in 2012 in favor of having people show up at rallies pretending to be Indians and derisively calling Warren "Professor," as though that were a curse. None of the hot buttons worked. She stayed resolutely, patiently on message. The system was rigged against the people who needed it the most. She was, as they say, wicked smart, and nobody held it against her, which was the most remarkable thing of all. She won the most expensive Senate race in the country by eight points, going away. On Election Day, she dropped into a burger joint in Medford.
"Holy shit," a woman cried. "It's Elizabeth Warren."
In a huge, quiet room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, the Senate Banking Committee has been called to order so that it can hear a report from Janet Yellen, the newly installed head of the Federal Reserve. (Warren and Yellen know each other from Warren's days on the TARP oversight panel.) You look at many of the people on this particular committee and you think about American politics these days, and you wonder why some of them aren't wearing fire suits festooned with the logos of their contributors, like Nascar drivers and their sponsors. The hearing is winding down and Senator Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama, seems to be having difficulty understanding the differences between "the banks in mah state" and the Federal Reserve.
Yellen answers Shelby's question once, then twice, then a third time. Shelby still doesn't quite get it. Down at the end of the large arc of the committee's table, down where the rookies sit, Elizabeth Warren is, at this point, looking at Shelby as though he has two heads. She rolls her eyes. She rubs her temples. She looks at Yellen and shakes her head, and Yellen looks back and nods. You keep waiting for Warren to ask Shelby the definition of assumpsit.
(Warren and Shelby have something of a history. He was the Republican point man in the Senate in the fight over the CFPB in general, and over the possibility of Warren's heading it in particular.)
We are, it seems, in a new Gilded Age in which self-government gives way to oligarchy, and in which the forces of the organized money power have sealed off all the avenues of democratic reform even more securely than they did during the last Gilded Age, which fell ultimately to the rising power of the Progressive movement and its own lurid excesses. In 1913, when the Federal Reserve was proposed, Senator Elihu Root of New York warned that by creating the Fed, "We are setting our steps now in the pathway which through the protection of a paternal government brought the mighty power of Rome to its fall." Money does, indeed, talk. And Big Money repeats itself, age after age.
The Supreme Court has given license to corporate money to swamp the electoral system, and it is the most corporate-friendly Supreme Court since the turn of the last century. The banks that were too big to fail in 2008 are even bigger today, and the country seems to have learned nothing from the economic calamity that befell it. There are powerful forces arrayed against the country's ability to learn anything from its recent history. There is a fearsome momentum behind the belief that the country's economic situation is best left to the spells and conjuring words of the financial elite. There is a serious inertial pushback against self-government in every area, but particularly in the economy.
"We think of money differently because we think of money not just in terms of what it buys—a home, a car, or groceries—we think of it in terms of the security it provides," Warren says. "But for others, the prestige of—you've seen the studies now. Or what's being written about why CEO salaries have gotten so high? Because what's the difference between whether a CEO makes $18 million or $20 million? I know, $2 million. I can do the math. But why is the marginal $2 million so powerfully important? And the answer is 'Cause I got to be paid more than the other CEOs in the CEO club. And so it's also, you know, in a world of hypereconomics, money becomes for some the only measure of value."
Warren has been as frustrated as anyone else in the Senate. She has grilled regulators in front of the committee; one video that went viral has her asking a regulator when was the last time he brought a banker to trial. But as a new senator, she's been fighting uphill battles, especially on student loans. There has been some sniping back home about her staff's work and her accessibility to the local media. (The Boston Globe ran a front-page story on why she doesn't stop in the Senate hallways and talk to the press, the way John McCain does.) But if the vaunted new populism in the sclerotic Democratic party means anything, it means that the people of the country have to learn how to use their government again to defend themselves. That's the final, and most important, lesson that Elizabeth Warren wants to teach, based on all that she's come to learn.
A few days after the Banking Committee hearing, she's sitting on the breezy porch of the house where she and Bruce live on the Harvard side of Cambridge. It is suggested to her that, maybe, this time around, the power of organized money may have completed its work of suffocating democratic reform. She comes almost vertical out of her chair.
"I have four words for you," she says. "Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was number-one enemy for the large financial institutions during the Dodd-Frank reform. And I want you to think about that. Here's Dodd-Frank reform. It's going to take on those CDOs that they've been trading around and going to put new constraints on their business practices, and what was their number-one priority? Kill the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. They lobbied it. The lobbyists had said they'd killed it. You can see 'em. You can go back and actually document. The lobbyists said over and over, this would never happen. There will be no financial reform with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Indeed, I was told the only way we'll get reform through is if we're willing to throw that over the side. We did not." And then she gets to the whole point of the afternoon's lesson. Squirrels dance atop the fence outside. Her voice gets lower.
"We're down to the short strokes. Either we pull this out now or the game is truly over," she says. "So, optimistic? You bet I am, because I can see victories, recent victories, victories even after the fire hose of money has been poured upon the system. But that doesn't mean I know we're going to beat it. It just means I know we can, because I've seen those victories. We've got to beat it. We don't have any choice here. We truly are—we're backed up. We've got nothing behind us. There's no further place to back up."
She sees the country in a different way from most people. She has a natural way of expressing the idea of a political commonwealth by anchoring it in the individual pasts of individual citizens, by teaching history, as it were, to
a country that has forgotten much of it. People are drawn to her not necessarily by her intelligence or by her willingness to speak truth to greed but by an ineffable feeling that she is reminding them of something they already knew. Somebody mentions to her that his family rose in this country because his grandfather was a cop, and his father a veteran who used the GI Bill to build a career as a public-school teacher. She rises partway from her chair, her lesson having taken hold.
"I love it. I love it," she says. "But you and I grew up in the America that was investing in kids like us. That made education possible. Infrastructure. I gave this speech on infrastructure last night. Why infrastructure is important. Why it's important to the economy, why it's important to families, why it's important to the earth, right? Why we've got to have that basic transportation infrastructure.
"And everyone gets this. But the choices Washington makes right now don't reflect our values. The idea that billions of dollars would be left with billionaires through tax loopholes rather than spending that money on repairing roads and bridges? Rather than spending that money on helping our kids get through college? Rather than spending that money on NIH? And rather than a better future for all of our kids? That's the debate we're on the cusp of having."
There already are forces, even within the Democratic party, gathering themselves to squash that debate. Larry Summers, her old bête noire, whose hands Warren was instrumental in keeping off the Federal Reserve system last year, already is giving interviews about "setting class against class" in anticipation of Democratic losses in this fall's midterm elections. If those losses occur, there will be a fearsome momentum for the party to move back toward the more corporate-friendly Democratic party that elected Bill Clinton, who repealed the Glass-Steagall Act and signed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which exempted credit-default swaps from regulation and generally set the tone for the Democratic complicity in the economic catastrophe that hit in 2008. And Elizabeth Warren has come to teach us the greatest lesson the country needs to learn: who we are. Or at least who we once were.
Self-government must be an educational enterprise, with lessons learned over and over again, and that is what Elizabeth Warren is about these days. She is still teaching. She teaches because she has learned, and she has learned because she teaches. The great teachers are the ones who remain students at heart, who keep learning from their students, and from the world around them, and from their own drive to know even more about even more things, and who then are able to transmit that knowledge—and more important, the drive to know more—to their students. That is how teachers become immortal. Ω
[Charles P. "Charlie" Pierce is a sportswriter, political blogger, author, and game show panelist. Pierce is the lead political blogger for Esquire, a position he has held since September 2011. He has written for Grantland, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Sports Illustrated, The National Sports Daily, GQ, and Slate. Pierce makes appearances on radio as a regular contributor to a pair of NPR programs: "Only A Game" and "Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!" He graduated from Marquette University (BA, Journalism).]
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