“Beyond monitoring how the government is mopping up after the financial crisis, Warren is pushing a proposal that could help prevent the next one: creating a Financial Product Safety Commission to protect consumers from abusive lenders. Mortgages and credit cards, she wrote in a 2007 journal article about the proposal, “should be subject to the same routine safety screening that now governs the sale of every toaster, washing machine, and child’s car seat.”
Straightforward as that sounds, it would represent a fundamental shift. “Regulating financial products based on fairness, simplicity, and appropriate risk is an entirely new paradigm,” notes Reid Cramer, director of the New America Foundation’s asset building program. In the wake of the financial meltdown, the idea has gained traction in Washington, thanks in part to Warren’s plainspoken advocacy. “Almost unique among people with deep financial insight, Professor Warren speaks a language that ordinary people can easily comprehend,” says Laurence Tribe, a colleague at Harvard Law. For example, when testifying before a congressional committee in June, Warren summed up the shift in banking this way: “Today’s business model is about making money through tricks and traps.”
We’re coming up on the one- year anniversary of Barack Obama’s election. I think it’s maybe time that we asked ourselves how he’s doing.
He didn’t close Guantanamo Bay, and not only didn’t reject the idea of pre-emptive detention but added spice to his own new version of pre-crime prosecution, “prolonged detention.”? He promised health care reform and campaigned on a public option, and we all know how that is going to turn out.
But most importantly, he came into office amidst sweeping crises in the financial sector and did not do what needed to be done, and what had been done the last time the U.S. was sent careening into a depression because of Wall Street: he failed to push for tough financial reforms. Barack Obama needed to be the FDR figure who remade the American capital markets and made them fair again, and he barely laid a finger on the whole scene.
Instead, he put the people who created the problem in charge of fixing the mess, and ended up bailing them out instead of the rest of the country, at huge current and (presumably) future cost.The total bill for the Bush-Obama bailout is certainly above ten trillion at this point – Inspector General Neil Barofsky thinks it might hit nearly $24 trillion ultimately – and this went through without much fanfare. Meanwhile, the congress is stuck in the mud, panicked at the thought of paying three or four trillion over a decade or so for a health care program.
None of this is new news. What is new is the question of what to do about it. I’m personally of the opinion that our main problem lay with the fact that the Democratic Party as currently constituted is more afraid of losing the financial support of Wall Street and the health insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry than it is of losing progressive voters. In fact, I think I’ve put that wrong, because it implies that the Democratic Party pushes the agenda of industry insiders out of fear. That is a misread of the situation, I think.
I think they prefer those people to their voters. I think they feel more comfortable with them. I heard a story recently from a Democratic Party operative who tells me that certain members of one of the president’s cabinet departments only got wind of how hard it is out there for ordinary people to pay their bills when they invited in a major corporation to give them a presentation about their financial outlook for the holiday season – and through that report found out that this company’s prospective customers were spending less because large numbers of them had been laid off, or had huge medical bills, or had maxed out their credit, and so on.
Letters from customers, survey answers and such, were read to the cabinet group. And they were shocked. This is how they find out about the economic reality of this country – accidentally, from a major campaign contributor! That’s how out of touch these people are.
On these financial issues, not just the issue of financial regulation on Wall Street but the larger issue of income distribution and what kind of country we want to be – the Democratic Party no longer has a policy that makes any sense. They do not seem to understand or even recognize that real wages in this country have not grown for most people for decades. Or if they do understand, they refuse to imagine any solutions that are not in some way a compromise with their major campaign contributors. They talk about closing tax loopholes and phony corporate addresses in the Caribbean as solutions to economic problems, policy initiatives as absurd and inconsequential as then-comic Al Franken’s fictional decision (in the novel Why Not Me?) to run on a campaign promise of “ending ATM fees.”
This is all a long-winded way of saying that we have problems whose solutions involve taking on powerful interests, political challenges that will necessarily involve prolonged and hard-fought conflicts, but what we have in the Democratic Party is an organization dedicated to avoiding such conflicts and resolving issues in the manner of a corporate board, in closed meetings with the chief cardholders where things get hashed out to the satisfaction of everyone present.
The problem from the standpoint of the typical voter is that he is not terribly present in those discussions. When Rahm Emmanuel met with Billy Tauzin and Merck and Pfizer in the Roosevelt Room (how ironic!) of the White House earlier this summer to work out the details of exactly how much of a bite the new health bill was going to take out of the pharmaceutical industry – the answer turned out to be none, and all the insane subsidies of big Pharma are going to remain in the final bill – were you there? Was anyone representing you there?
The Democrats feel safe in leaving you and me out of that room for two big reasons. One, our main electoral alternative is the party that put George W. Bush in office. Two, the last time significant quantities of Democrats decided to buck and send the party a message, they helped get George Bush elected by giving Ralph Nader the deciding votes of what turned out to be the tightest of elections. Or at least that’s the storyline that’s been popular since that incident. The Nader “debacle” forever closed the notion of third-party progressive challenges to mainstream Democrats, at least in the minds of the Democratic Party bigwigs, anyway.
It seems to me then that the only hope of getting any of these problems is to get ourselves a national candidate who on the one hand is a mainstream politician and on the other is willing to embrace the notion of an open protest against the Democratic Party doctrine. We need for someone who has some legitimacy with both the media and the Democratic Party constituents themselves to come out and publicly campaign to re-seize the Party from the Wall Street interests that have come to dominate it. We need someone who understands the finance stuff (which automatically reduces the pool of possible applicants to a small handful), will know the difference between real regulatory reform and a dog-and-pony show, and will not be likely to fill a cabinet with bankers from Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.
The question I have lately is, why not draft Elizabeth Warren to run for president? And I don’t mean in 2016, I mean in 2012.
This sounds like a crazy idea for a couple of big reasons. One, a primary challenge to Barack Obama will almost certainly fail and may hurt Obama enough to get a Republican elected to the presidency. The other is that if this is done as a third-party run, it’ll probably achieve the same thing.
That all might be true. And it may, indeed, be a terrible idea. If it is, I’m genuinely open to hearing the reasons why, and I’m sure it’s a long list.
But I’d like to see it get talked about anyway. The way I look at it, the problem with the Democratic Party is not the voters, it’s the 19 or 20 people who are paying for the campaigns and sitting in at those meetings with Rahm and Billy Tauzin. We have to get rid of those people, herd them all to the edge of a very tall cliff and push them off and be done with it. I think this can be done by electoral referendum if we actually put it all on the table openly and let people decide for themselves. And maybe it takes an electoral cycle or two to get it done, but it has to get done. This stuff won’t get fixed otherwise.
We need someone in there who is willing to run one this one issue: who owns the Democratic Party? Is it the voters, or is it Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley and United Health Care? There are plenty of candidates out there who’d fit – Toledo’s Marcy Kaptur got a nice bounce from the Michael Moore movie, and Jan Schakowsky is another who comes to mind – but Warren to me makes the most sense for the simple reason that it will be virtually impossible for the Democratic Party hacks to dismiss her as a fringe character, given that they themselves gave her such a big public position as chief of the Congressional Oversight Panel.
This is a woman who understands the finance issues as well as we can hope to expect from any politician and moreover seems to connect the dots when it comes to dissecting the problems on Wall Street:
I just don’t think we could talk yet in terms of a recovery. I think the right way to understand this is that we stabilized the patient. No one goes to bed at night wondering when you wake up in the morning and will this financial system have collapsed. We clearly are past that point, but we have to remember the way we stabilized it. We stabilized it by saying the American government is going to put its money, its guarantees, the taxpayers’ money behind our financial system to hold it up
And that may have given, you know, some cheery news to investors in the stock market who say I want to invest in some of those companies that have those sorts of government guarantees to back them up, but it doesn’t tell us that the economy itself is turning around. It doesn’t tell us that there are good jobs out there or even that we’re starting to build the infrastructure that’s going to produce those good jobs.
I think someone needs to put a scare into the Democratic Party leaders. Someone needs to make it clear that the progressives in the House might really kill the Health Care bill if it comes out of the Reid-Pelosi consult sucking as much as we expect it to, but even more importantly, someone needs to let Barack Obama know that someone else’s face is going to start being silk-screened on t-shirts at political rallies if he doesn’t get real on the finance stuff.
Barack Obama ran an incredible campaign last year, managing to turn himself into the stuff of political iconography – he captured and owned amorphous and happy concepts like “hope” and “change” through a brilliant 18-month run of painstakingly careful imageering, and through the force of his own remarkably genial and patient personality. He took a country which historically has always been divided powerfully by race and he managed to win a hotly-contested race with grace and class and in that sense advanced the cause of racial tolerance to an incalculable degree. He made the racist electoral strategies of Karl Rove and Mark Penn outdated. And he gets credit for restoring respect for the American presidency abroad.
But he also inherited a terrible financial crisis and he completely whiffed on it, siding with the financial status quo, who happen to be the bad guys. And in general, policywise, he has turned out to be eerily in sync with the previous administration, even down to some of the more obvious and egregious stuff, like the Guantanamo business and his amazing, perhaps illegal, and completely inexplicable refusal to investigate the ICRC (Red Cross) claims of systematic torture there.
And because of that, he can now be attacked on the iconic level just as he as once elevated there, made now into a symbol of anti-change – which in fact is beginning to be what he represents. We need some courageous politician to step up and offer us a symbol not of reassuring pablum but of that spirit which is needed at the moment, revolt and a return of political power to the voter. And when people coalesce around that image, it will throw the real meaning of the Obama phenomenon into relief. This will be too bad, given the historic import of Obama’s amazing run, but it’s just necessary, unfortunately.
We need someone who will run on one very basic principle – the refusal to accept corporate money. That someone will have to be willing to be a symbol of voter empowerment. If someone like Elizabeth Warren doesn’t want that responsibility, well, she shouldn’t have gone into office and gone on TV making all that sense and shit. She’s pushed for transparency in the Fed, is openly furious about the misuse of bailout money, and seems to take personally the chicanery that credit card companies and banks use to game the suckers out there. I simply cannot see her suddenly flipping and holding $2000-a-plate fundraisers with Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon.
And sure, a good loyal party member would never step up and take an axe to a powerful and popular incumbent. Maybe that kind of disloyalty is not what Elizabeth Warren wants to be known for. But someone out there on the landscape has to be willing to take that step. Because really, what’s the alternative? How can we keep voting for these guys, when they never, ever deliver?