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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 16, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 50
Elizabeth Warren ... at last ... authentic grasp
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Elizabeth Warren ... at last ... authentic grasp

by Janice Van Cleve - Special to the SGN

At last! A politician with a solid, authentic grasp of our economic system and how to fix it. Elizabeth Warren spoke to an overflowing crowd at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle last Friday, and it was my pleasure and privilege to find a seat right up near the front row. The event was billed as a joint campaign stop and fundraiser for U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D- Wash.) and for Elizabeth Warren, who is running for U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. King County Executive Dow Constantine emceed the event and Congressman Jay Inslee, who is running for Washington state governor, did the introductions.

Most people know of Elizabeth Warren from her work on the Congressional Oversight Panel, which monitored the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP). Her close scrutiny of the banks recommended her to President Obama who named her to create and run the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She pressed for tighter control of Wall Street banks, more stringent regulations on derivatives, ceilings on bank fees and interest rates, and for clear and plain credit card contracts. Naturally, the banks hated and feared her. They whipped up Republican opposition to her appointment and Obama withdrew her name. So she returned to Harvard where she is a professor of commercial law and there she was recruited to run for senator. She would replace Scott Brown, a Tea Party candidate who is filling out the remainder of the late Ted Kennedy's term.

Yet Elizabeth Warren is not some privileged child of New England millionaires. She spent the first part of her talk introducing us to her background. She was born in Oklahoma City in 1949, the fourth child of working-class parents. Her father was a janitor and her mother answered phones at Sears. Warren grew up as a sharp debater and that earned her a scholarship to college where she got a degree in speech pathology and audiology. She taught disabled children in public school. Thanks to a National Defense Education Act (NDEA) grant, Warren went on to earn her J.D. degree at Rutgers. Along the way she had two children and today she is a grandmother.

Elizabeth Warren has written more than 100 scholarly articles, six academic books, and two best-sellers. Her teaching and writing led her to specialize in bankruptcy law. She saw first-hand how many families were going under through no fault of their own. She fought against the so-called Bankruptcy Abuse Protection Act of 2005, which severely limited the right of consumers to file for bankruptcy. In 2006 she was appointed to the FDIC Advisory Committee to expand access to underserved populations. In 2008 she was appointed to the Congressional Oversight Panel. In 2010 President Obama appointed her to implement the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which she had advocated for a long time. 'I felt strongly that a new consumer agency would make the credit markets work better for American families and strengthen the economic security of the middle class,' she said. 'The issues we deal with - a middle class that has been squeezed and business models built on tricks and traps - are deeply personal to me, and they always will be.'

Then Warren laid out three solid, practical proposals to fix America's economic decline. These are not bandages, but long-term investments that have served us well in the past and which she wants to draw our attention to in the future:

1) Invest in education. We used to have a GI bill so returning soldiers could go to college and then get a good job. Today our returning soldiers face foreclosed homes and tuition out of their reach. We used to have NDEA grants to help smart kids with no money get advanced degrees in strategic industries like science, engineering, medicine, and teaching. (Yes! Warren, a former teacher, emphasized that teaching was valued back then.) By contrast, today's students are hopelessly crippled under thousands of dollars of debt.

2) Invest in infrastructure. We constructed a huge network of interstate highways, modernized airports, expanded ports, and launched an ambitious space program. That was back in the days when the 1% paid up to a 90% marginal tax rate. The wealthy prospered, and so did the rest of the country. Today our bridges are collapsing, our levees are breaching, and our astronauts have to book flights on Russian rockets. The only people prospering are the Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers.

3) Invest in research and development. Most of the big advances we made to get us to the 21st century were based on government-sponsored research - the internet, spin-offs from the space program, mapping the genome, and hundreds more. Today American ingenuity is wasted on complex financial schemes instead of real products, and American investment is focused on bailing out banks.

The crowd responded to Elizabeth Warren's proposals with an enthusiastic standing ovation. She did not come across as a smooth-talking, practiced politician spitting out sound bites. Instead she was a genuine professor with solid facts and a burning passion to fix our broken American economy.

A new poll by the University of Massachusetts shows Warren leading Brown 49% to 42% in spite of Karl Rove's increasingly rabid attack ads. Stay tuned.

Janice Van Cleve is a political activist and writer in Seattle. She received an NDEA grant to earn her master's degree. Copyright 2011.

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