A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren
I don’t usually read a lot of autobiographies, but I’m a fan of Elizabeth Warren and I’ve heard good things about this book, so I decided to give it a try. I figured I’d start on it this weekend and finish it later in the week, but as soon as I got into it, I was hooked. The writing is very good and I found myself laughing out loud at times (such as when the author describes setting her kitchen on fire).
The first few chapters cover the author’s life before she got involved in politics: how she grew up middle class until her father got sick and lost his job; how she earned a debate scholarship and went to college (despite her mother’s desire that she focus on finding a husband), then dropped out of college to get married and have a baby. How she finished her college degree and then a law degree, while raising two kids. Then – in what would eventually lead her to becoming nationally known – how she ended up getting involved in bankruptcy law and research into why people declare bankruptcy. As a bankruptcy expert, she lead the (ultimately unsuccessful) fight to keep the law from being changed to enhance banking profits at the expense of those who would no longer have access to bankruptcy protection.
After her work on bankruptcy, she eventually ended up leading the COP panel, which oversaw TARP (Trouble Assets Relief Program), more commonly known as the bank bailout. The panel unfortunately had no real power – they could take testimony, but could not compel people to testify, nor could they insist on being present when Treasury (which didn’t appear particularly interested in oversight) made the decisions on how to spend the $700 billion that Congress had authorized to bail out the financial system. While the committee’s power was essentially limited to issuing reports, they were able to shine enough light on the sweetheart deals that Treasury cut with the big banks to ensure that later deals were harder on the banks, saving the taxpayers billions of dollars.
In 2007, Warren had proposed the creation of a new government agency specifically to regulate financial products, as no current agency had that as its primary mission. After the economic meltdown, Congress was finally motivated to act, and Warren convinced Barney Frank (who was in charge of the bill in the House) to insist on a strong new agency. Gathering support for the bill took a concerted push by many people, from nonprofits and unions all the way up to the president, with the big banks fighting hard to destroy or disempower the new agency. This was where Scott Brown entered the story, as (having won Teddy Kennedy’s Senate seat) he now had the power to filibuster the bill, which he used to add a $19 billion break for the banks before allowing it to pass. With the change, the Dodd-Frank Act was signed into law.
Unfortunately, while Warren had proposed the agency, fought hard for its creation, and then served as its acting head to get it up and running, the banks (and thus the Republican party) were dead set against her being confirmed as the permanent head of the agency. The president gave in and instead nominated Richard Cordray, whom Elizabeth recommended…at which point Senate Republicans announced that they would block ANY nominee unless the law were changed to take power away from the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Due to a typo in the law (the word section was replaced with the word subsection), the new agency would not have much of its power until a director was confirmed. Cordray was given a recess appointment in January 2012, but was not formally confirmed by the Senate until July 2013.
After losing the chance to run the agency she had created, Prof Warren intended to return to teaching, but was encouraged to run for the Senate instead. Her family was against it; she was over 60 and had never run for political office. Speaking with residents of the state, however, she became convinced that working people needed to have a strong advocate in the Senate and that she could be that person. She started out far behind the popular Scott Brown in the polls, but eventually won 54-46 in a state that strongly shares her values.
Reading this book, sometimes I was laughing (she’s a very good writer), sometimes I was angry (as she describes how those with money and power take advantage of desperate Americans), and sometimes I was excited about what she wants to accomplish, but I was always entertained. I highly recommend this book.
Full disclosure: I made a small contribution to Prof. Warren’s senate campaign.