What do we want in a politician?
We want broad knowledge of the American economy and how it affects average Americans. Not partisan slogans or talking points, but real knowledge from years of thoughtful work with economic issues.
We want courage to stand up to powerful interests. The wealthy can make big political contributions; giant corporations hire armies of lobbyists. But average Americans, who put politicians into office with their votes, can only hope that these representatives actually represent them, rather than the rich people who buy them meals, take them on private jets, and fill their campaign coffers.
We want independence from all the forces which demand that politicians toe a certain line. The biggest forces are the two parties, which don’t like their members to break ranks. Lobbying groups, like the NRA or labor unions or banks, try to buy or threaten politicians who don’t do their bidding.
We want people who use politics as a means to improve American life, not their own lives. We want politicians who will leave office with a record of accomplishment, not with swollen bank accounts and cushy corporate jobs, that they have gotten by promoting their own interests.
Not many of our current politicians fit these criteria. One who does is Senator Elizabeth Warren. Lately I have been listening to her autobiography on tape, which she narrates herself. Like all political memoirs, one purpose is to advertise and proselytize, but Warren mostly tells revealing stories from her life.
Although she represents Massachusetts, she was raised in Oklahoma. Her understanding of economics comes from her own family’s financial hardships: she worked as a waitress, went to college on a scholarship, but quit after two years to get married and raise children. She completed college in Houston and taught law in Texas for nine years, before moving to the University of Pennsylvania and then Harvard.
Warren’s deep and detailed understanding of how our economy has caused so much distress for middle-class families over the past 30 years came out of her work as a lawyer specializing in bankruptcy and personal finance. As advisor to the National Bankruptcy Review Commission after 1995, she traveled the country listening to families going through bankruptcy. She learned that Americans in economic crisis were not the deadbeats or spendthrifts of ideological fantasies, but typical families who endured unexpected setbacks, like illness or loss of a job. They were caught in a financial system designed to protect banks, not citizens.
Warren has been fighting for American families for decades, lately as the most public advocate for protecting us from the clever tactics of money lenders trying to squeeze a few more dollars from average families. She created the ideas behind the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), as a means to give families with credit cards and mortgages a fighting chance (her book’s title) against giant corporations selling tricky credit products, raising interest rates, and hiding fees.
Elizabeth Warren meets all the criteria I set out above. Her work exemplifies both sides of the partisan debate about “big government”. Conservatives who say they oppose big government really oppose limitations on what big corporations can do to us, their customers. Republicans in Congress tried every possible tactic to prevent the CFPB from coming into existence, exactly what the big banks and credit card companies wanted. If the language of your credit card statements is now clearer, the opportunities the credit card issuers have to raise your rates are now more limited, and the fees they can charge for lateness are spelled out, thank the new rules of the CFPB.
On the liberal side, the CFPB represents what regulation really means. Nobody is prevented from making an honest dollar, but dishonest tactics are now being policed by those with power to make corporations stop. Ally Financial had to pay an $80 million court judgment for racial discrimination in auto lending. Ocwen Financial Corp., the nation’s fourth largest mortgage servicer, has to provide $2 billion in principal reduction to underwater borrowers. That latter victory represented a collaboration of the CFPB and the attorneys general from all the states. Richard Cordray, head of CFPB, estimated that Ocwen illegally foreclosed on 185,000 people; some estimate that this number should be much higher.
Although Warren is considered to be very liberal, in fact she stands outside of partisan politics more than most politicians. She was a Republican for most of her life, and remains an advocate for markets, as long as they are fair for consumers. Her book is critical of the Obama administration for funneling hundreds of billions to the biggest banks, but little to underwater homeowners. Her criticism of the power of big corporations is echoed by the most conservative voters.
Isn’t that what we want our politicians and our government to do? Who else could possibly protect us from cheats like Ally or Ocwen? Who else could protect us from serial swindlers, like Barclay’s Bank, already proven to have manipulated interest rates and gold prices, and now accused of repeatedly lying to its best investors about how they traded stocks. This is not the “nanny state” of the ideological right wing. This is a government acting as sheriff, what every community needs for protection against those who would take advantage of the weakest members.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 1, 2014