By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Readers, you may be shocked to find out that I’m skeptical of Democrats, but it’s true! I started following electoral politics in the 90s, when the Republicans orchestrated the slow-moving, media-fueled coup d’etat that meandered through the bait shops of Arkansas, Whitewater, Monica, the impeachment saga, and finally Scalia’s decision in Bush v. Gore, and — classic binary thinker that I was — I assumed that because the Republicans were so bad, that the Democrats had to the the opposite of bad, which is good! So fast forward through 2006, when Nancy Pelosi not only buried the Mark “Can you measure for me?” Foley Congressional page scandal, but took impeachment off the table, and through 2008, where the greatest orator of our time was given the House, the Senate, a mandate, and was faced with a thoroughly discredited and even demoralized opposition. Then He appointed Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary. And here we are! I forget when Democratic
apologists started burning the Lesser of Two Evils talking point. The 2010 midterms?
Anyhow, Elizabeth Warren is one of the best Democrats there is. That’s not saying a lot, though, is it? Here she is on Bill Moyers, her first time having been 10 years ago, 2004. Happy days! I had dental..
The following passages caught my eye. In general, I like Warren’s problem statements much better than her proposed solutions; I do feel she “gets it,” in that (at least) she isn’t into human suffering or kicking people when they’re down (and who isn’t down?)
BILL MOYERS: [T]he middle class is still struggling. In fact, their income, adjusted for inflation is lower than it was five years ago, and they’ve lost about three percent of their purchasing power since then. Yet stocks are soaring, the economy is expanding, and the benefits are not going to the middle class families. Why can’t Washington do better by them?
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: So I think Washington doesn’t do better by them because Washington isn’t trying to do better by them. If you look at Washington as a whole, I think this is the fundamental problem in our system right now. Washington works for those who can hire armies of lobbyists, armies of lawyers, and get just the rules they want. It doesn’t work so well for American families.
Good so far, though I have to say that I cringe a little when I hear the catchphrase “American families,” which has that warm Thomas Kinkade-esque glow, like “family farm.” Or “kitchen table issues.” For one thing, I’m a family of one. For another, families come in all different shapes and sizes, and sometimes a family is part American and part not. And finally, I’d say (at least) that it’s not “families” Washington doesn’t work for, but working people (with the exception of “pillars of the regime” including “lobbyists” and “lawyers,” but also most members of the political class, like legacy party operatives, members of the press, think tankers, dand Congress critters, all of whom Warren leaves out the picture). #JustSaying.
WARREN: Look, we know the things we need to do.
WARREN: Raise the minimum wage.
The miserably inadequate $10.00, or the compromise of $15.00, $7.00 below what the minimum wage would be if wages kept pace with productivity?
WARREN: Nobody should work full time and still live in poverty. Minimum wage nationally hasn’t been raised in over seven years. We need to make sure that we have real rules on equal pay for equal work. We need to lower the interest rate on student loans.
WARREN: In every case, we in the United States Senate have a majority. All of the Democrats have voted in favor of this.
Taking consequence-free, meaningless votes on bills that will never pass but look good in campaign flyers is a fine art in Washington, DC.
WARREN: And occasionally, we even pick up a Republican. The Republicans have filibustered in the Senate.
Well, that’s why the Senate Democrats should have changed the rules to eliminate the filibuster in 2009, and passed some decent legislation instead of what we got. And if Harry Reid can change the rules to get some judges through in 2013, he could have gone whole hog four years before that. But no. The Democrats have nobody to blame but themselves that the Republicans even have the power to filibuster, and I’m disappointed that Warren would even deploy this argument.
WARREN: They won’t even bring things to a vote in the House of Representatives. This is really a case where one party has said, the usual rules of governing, you know, we’ll come together, we’ll try to talk about these things, we’ll try to work something out, their answer is no, no, no. They’re not there to help middle class families.
At this point, I need to quote Thomas Frank again, because this can’t be said often enough:
In a much-reported study, the Russell Sage Foundation discovered that median household wealth in this country fell by 36 percent in the 10-year period ending last year. …. Our bout of hard times … has accelerated the unraveling of the middle class itself. Now, you can blame the risible, Ayn Rand-reading Tea Party types for this if you like, and you can also blame the George W. Bush Administration. They both deserve it. For a party of the left, dreadful news like this should be rocket fuel. For the Dems, however, it hasn’t been. Why is that? Well, for one thing, because a good number of those Democrats have not really objected to the economic policies that have worked these awful changes over the years. … [A] lot of them also believe in the conventional economic wisdom of the day. They don’t really care that union power has evaporated and that Wall Street got itself de-supervised and that oligopolies now dominate the economy. But they do care – ever so much! – about deficits and being fiscally responsible. Bring up this obvious point, however, and you will quickly discover what a dose of chloroform the partisan style can be. There’s a political war on, you will be told; one side is markedly better than the other; and no criticism of the leadership can be tolerated.
And it seems to me that in this interview, Warren is doing exactly what Frank describes. Back to Warren, further along in the interview:
WARREN: … We’re going to make sure Americans get a fair shot. We’re going to get out there and fight for America, and these are ways that we can do it. And we’ve all stood up behind that.
First, I am very weary of the “we’re going to fight” trope, about as weary as I am of the “Tell X Y” snowclone, or “Stand with X.” Endless fighting doesn’t matter. Winning does. Second, I think “fair shot” and “level playing field” and “equality of opportunity” are bollocks. The game is rigged, so nothing is fair or level of equal. So I care about equality of outcomes, at least to a minimum baseline of human decency.
Back to Warren, further along:
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: And the idea that the credit card companies, this was back in the ’90s, the credit card companies wanted to change the bankruptcy laws so that they could improve the bottom line on their profitability. So just by squeezing families, and who are the families they were going to squeeze? Families who had high medical debts, families who have someone had lost a job, like my dad had. Families who had had a breakup, either a death or a divorce in the families. Those were the families who were going into bankruptcy. Credit card companies said, we’re going to squeeze that and keep fewer of them from going, and we’ll make a few more dollars at the end because we can get a little more money out of them on these credit card bills.
And my first thought, when I first saw what they were trying to do, this tells you as a professor, I thought, that would never happen in a democracy. What elected representative would say, I know, I’m going to vote to change these laws to help a half dozen big, multi-zillion-dollar credit card companies. I’m going to help them squeeze the families back home, and particularly squeeze hard-working, middle-class families, who’ve just gotten into terrible, financial trouble.
And boy did I find out I didn’t understand how the world worked then. I ended up getting involved. I was asked to work on a bankruptcy review commission in Washington and I just saw it day after day. It was no one but lobbyists over there. And who could hire the lobbyists? The credit card companies.
Praiseworthy! But speaking of bankruptcy, democracy, elected representatives, and squeezing the middle class, how ’bout that Joe Biden, fighting Democrat, Obama’s Vice President on both tickets?
With Sen. Joe Biden joining  the Democratic ticket, there’s renewed scrutiny of Biden’s connections to the credit card industry. Biden has been particularly cozy with MBNA, a financial services company from Delaware, and now a subsidiary of Bank of America.
Over the past 20 years, MBNA has been Biden’s single largest contributor . And as the New York Times  and Wall Street Journal  note, Biden’s son Hunter was hired out of law school by MBNA and later worked as a lobbyist for the company.
The Times also details just how helpful Biden has been to MBNA and the credit card industry. The senator was a key supporter of an industry-favorite bill—the “Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005”—that actually made it harder for consumers to get protection under bankruptcy.
Back to Warren. Final segment:
BILL MOYERS: So, can we ever have a government that works for everyday people? A government that we can trust, when our elected officials switch sides like that and pay more attention to the donors than to the voters?
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: I think this is one of the hardest questions in democracy, the hardest questions that we face as a country right now. The government runs for those who can make their voices heard.
As any of you, readers, will see if you practice some civic engagement!
WARREN: And they mostly make their voices heard through their lobbyists, through their campaign contributions. And that means over and over and over the tilt is in favor of the rich and the powerful.
Every rule that gets written just has, you know, just a little more, a little twist, a little opening, a little loophole for those who’ve already made it big. And it’s taken the legs out from underneath our middle class, our working families, it’s taking hope away from our next generation. This is the problem we’ve got to solve and we’ve got to solve it now.
Yes, but! The “little twist, a little opening, a little loophole” doesn’t apply only to government; it applies to the rentiers for whose benefit the government, taken as a whole, operates. And that brings us immediately to accounting control fraud (see Bill Black, also on Bill Moyers). It’s true that “consumers” — I prefer to think of the American people as citizens — might possibly be less vulnerable to the “little twists” of sketchy mortgages pushed by fraudsters if the contracts were in plain English. But what really took the legs out from under the middle class was the Great Financial Crash, caused in large part, as Black shows, by accounting control fraud in the C-suites. It never seems to occur to Warren to follow the money, and ask why the usual suspects are able to pay their armies of lawyers and lobbyists, and whether the money was gained by outright looting, as Black shows it was.
BILL MOYERS: But isn’t it time to get real ideologically? The neoliberal movement of the last 30 years has run itself into the ground. And you know as well as I do, it still, nonetheless, has a hold on establishment Democrats.
MOYERS: To be frank, Mrs. Clinton, for all the admiration and respect she commands for her years in public life, is the embodiment of that establishment, that movement.
MOYERS: Do you think the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party can put the country back on a path away from corporate and plutocratic control?
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: The way I see this is that we change as a people.
Many here have said the same, and will judge whether Warren has defined such a “change” sufficiently, or at all. (Note also that “middle class” has insensibly morphed into “a people.” I’m not sure either terms is, shall we say, sufficiently descriptive.)
WARREN: The issues that face us are more visible than they were before the 2008 crash.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: We have a lot of new people in the Senate in particular. And a lot of new ideas for how we should be pushing to build an America going forward.
(Ugh. “Going forward.” Like “looking forward and not back,” and no wonder.) I’m trying to put these “new ideas” together with those “new people” and not getting very far. But then, readers, you know my biases. Any thoughts?
WARREN: Let me put it this way, because this is how I see it. There are two key things that we need to build a country, to rebuild our middle class.
The first is that we need a set of rules that just works.
Maybe seeing some shackled banksters in orange jump suits doing the perp walk would help? Just a thought.
We knew this coming out of the Great Depression. Nobody should be able to steal your purse on Main Street, and no one should be able to steal your pension on Wall Street. We need tough rules so that financial markets are fair, so that they’re transparent, so you don’t get cheated.
Well, accounting control fraud is what needs to be prevented, since otherwise markets aren’t fair, or transparent, and people will keep getting cheated.
And here we might ask what exactly Warren has done to move the country or the people toward understanding what these new “rules” might be, and why they are needed. Who knows, they might be — well, sadly, might have been — useful to Democrats in the 2010 midterms!
Nationally televised hearings? No. Something like the Pecora Commmission? No. YouTubes with sharp questions? Yes. But they don’t cut it. And sure, the Consumer Financial Protection Board is all well and good — though $4 billion returned to the crisis, after the foreclosure crisis, is chump change — but what has Warren, from her bully pulpit in the Senate, done for us lately?
WARREN: That’s one part of it. The second part of it is that we have to agree together to build the things that only government can build. And I think of it this way. The things that help us build a future, we have to make the investments in education so that every kid gets a fighting chance. We have to make the investments in basic infrastructure, in roads and bridges and power grids and all those things.
And the third thing, we have to commit to and build again is our investment in research. This is what has made us such an extraordinary people. I talk about these because together, this is how we build a future. It takes lots of individual initiative, lots of people who make good decisions; some people will make bad decisions [like Presidents…]. But this is the part, the core that gives us the opportunity to build a future. And we need to be committed to that.
All well and good. But there’s no reason for me to think that Democrats can do any of those things. For example, would Warren let the neoliberals prevent the spending on education, basic infrastructure, and research that she says we need? Her campaign website is at best equivocal, but I’m guessing she would. After this interview, I think that like Clinton, she’s too much a party loyalist to do otherwise.
To return to a more positive note, I think that Warren’s heart, to use the cliche, is in the right place. And that’s a big admission for me! She actually thinks dull normals don’t deserve to get shafted. But does Warren truly want to loosen the neoliberal death grip on Washington, DC and the country? On this showing, no.
My grade: C+. Could do better. Plays too well with others.
NOTE In the video, it looks to me like Warren is wearing Nina McLemore, as do many other “authoritative women,” among them Hillary Clinton and Janet Yellen. Does anyone have any thoughts of the semiotics here? I see the trademark red, but what about the tailoring?