Book Review: A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren

It is very rare in our modern political system to find a politician or either party who isn’t thoroughly beholden to moneyed interests and who actually fights for the interests of the poor and middle class. Elizabeth Warren is just such a politician.
In A Fighting Chance, Warren tell the story of her life, her career as a law professor specializing in economic policy, and her gradually increasing involvement in government. Warren was born in 1949, the youngest of four children. She had three much older brothers. Her father had been a flight instructor during World War Two, and worked as a carpet salesman at Montgomery Ward in Oklahoma City. As in most families in the 1950s and 1960s, her mother did not work outside the house. However, a crisis arose when Elizabeth was twelve: her father had a heart attack. He recovered after a time but his hours at the job were cut and Elizabeth’s mother had to find a job to support the family. Elizabeth Warren says of this event “I know the day I grew up. I know the minute I grew up. I know why I grew up.”
Her family’s economic hardship made it unlikely that Elizabeth would go to college, but she was determined and won a scholarship to George Washington University. After two years, however, she married and dropped out. She and her husband moved to Houston and she finished her degree there. She got pregnant with her first child. Her husband got transferred to New Jersey and Elizabeth got admitted to law school at Rutgers, putting her baby in childcare as she commuted to for three years. During her third year of law school she got pregnant again. When her husband was transferred again, this time to Houston, she got a job teaching law at the University of Texas. Unfortunately she did not meet her husband’s expectations as a housewife, and their marriage fell apart. Not long after that, however, she met and married Bruce, another law professor. Why was she drawn to him? “He had great legs!” The second marriage has lasted to this day.
Her academic career involved teaching bankruptcy law. The rise in the number of bankruptcies over the years has reflected the increase in the economic struggle and difficulties of middle class Americans. Warren researched the causes of bankruptcies.
“Later our data would confirm what I had seen in San Antonio that day. The people seeking the judge’s decree were once solidly middle class. They had gone to college, found good jobs, gotten married, and bought homes. Now they were flat busted, standing in front of that judge and all the world, ready to give up nearly everything they owned just to get some relief from the bill collectors.”
As an expert on bankruptcy she was asked to take a position on the National Bankruptcy Review Commission in Washington. This was in the early 1990s and bankruptcy had become so frequent among middle class Americans that the banking interests were determined to make bankruptcy a lot more difficult. Unfortunately, the commission was dominated by Judge Edith Jones, who advocated the hard line.
“I think Judge Jones saw bankruptcy as a world of opportunists, one in which many people take advantage whenever they could. As she once wrote ‘Nobody is holding a gun to consumer’s heads and forcing them to send in credit card applications.’ She worried about ‘widespread gaming of the system,’ and she said the thought that it was a ‘matter of personal integrity and honor not to take on obligations beyond one’s means.’ Judge Jones talked of economic failure as akin to moral failure.
“I thought the research showed something very different. Medical problems, job losses and family breakups had laid these families low.”
Warren fought the tightening of the bankruptcy law tooth and nail, but in the end the moneyed interests won out.
With the advent of the Obama administration Warren once again became involved in public policy. She was appointed to lead the Congressional Oversight Panel overseeing the massive government bailout of the banks that were “too big to fail.” And later she became involved in setting up a new consumer agency that would set new standards for real estate lending-one that would stop the practice of poison pill loans that had gotten so many American families into economic hardship and ultimately brought about the crash of the housing market, plunging the economy into a depression the likes of which had not been seen in 80 years.
One of Warren’s allies in her struggle to set up the agency was Senator Ted Kennedy, but after he died, Scott Brown, a Republican, won a special election for his seat, defeating state attorney general Martha Coakley. When Brown’s term expired in 2010, Warren decided to run for his seat, and in a remarkable campaign, she won.
Warren won because her message is simple, straightforward and easy to understand, and resonates with a lot of ordinary Americans these days;
“Today the game is rigged-rigged to work for those who have money and power. Big corporations hire armies of lobbyists to get billion dollar loopholes into the tax system and persuade their friends in Congress to support laws that keep the playing field tilted in their favor. Meanwhile, hardworking families are told that they’ll just have to live with smaller dreams for their children.
“Over the past generation, America’s determination to give every kid access to affordable college or technical training has faded. The basic infrastructure that helps us build thriving businesses and jobs-the roads, bridges and power grids-has crumbled. The scientific and medical research that has sparked miraculous cures and inventions from the Internet to nanotechnology is starved for funding, and the research pipeline is shrinking. The optimism that defines us as a people has been beaten and bruised.
“It doesn’t have to be this way.”
No it doesn’t. We can do better. To do better we need to have a lot more political leaders like Elizabeth Warren.

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