Thursday, April 17, 2014

Senator Warren's Autobiography to be Published

Jill Lepore's review of Senator Elizabeth Warren's new autobiography, A Fighting Chance, in the current issue of the New Yorker, makes for fascinating reading.  Lepore compares Warren's book with Louis Brandeis's Other People's Money and How the Bankers Use It, which was published in 1914.  "Brandeis was concerned with Gilded Age plutocrats' use of people's bank savings to build giant, monopolistic conglomerates answerable not to the people but to shareholders."  The writings of the future Supreme Court Justice, well known for his "ability to enlist data in the service of a legal argument," which came to be known as the "Brandeis brief," were instrumental in the effort to reform antitrust law and regulate the financial industry.  Lepore argues that these reforms "in the middle decades of the [twentieth] century, made possible the growth of the middle class."

Unlike Brandeis, who focused on saving and monopolies, Warren focuses on borrowing and debt.  She is concerned about the collapse of the middle class.  Warren blames the rise in personal bankruptcy on credit card companies that "lured borrowers in with 'teaser rates,'" and on mortgage companies that sold "'mortgage products,' with low down payments, ballooning rates, and prepayment penalties."  After home prices skyrocketed and then plummeted, the middle class was left holding the bag.  Brandeis and Warren share the Progressive distrust of "legislatures and courts that have allowed the nation's social and economic policies to be made by corporations and bankers."

Warren shares some of her compelling personal story with her readers.  One vignette to which I could easily relate occurred in 1978.  Warren was holding her baby son on her hip trying to calm him down, while frying pork chops and keeping one eye on her daughter, who was coloring on the floor.  In the midst of this controlled chaos, she received a call from the University of Houston Law Center about a possible teaching position.  Somehow she made it through the conversation and got the job, the start of her academic career.

Like Brandeis, who worked to abolish child labor and to establish maximum-hour and minimum-wage laws for men and women, Warren is concerned about women, in particular "the unintended economic consequences that arise when women rearing children enter the paid labor force ... earning money has made women who are mothers more economically vulnerable, not less."  The two-income family has been hard hit--with two wage earners and low down payment requirements, middle-class families assumed larger mortgages than they could afford.  If one wage earner loses a job and the family is forced to live on one income, bankruptcy is the almost inevitable result.  The situation is aggravated if the family includes children.

A Fighting Chance will be published next week.  Warren denies that she is planning to challenge Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, but the publication of her autobiography is fueling the rumor machine.

1 comment:

Betsy McKenzie said...

I sure hope Sen. Warren (or somebody!) can do something to help address the disappearance of the middle class. There was a recent interview in the Boston Globe of Thomas Piketty about his new book (recently translated into English from the original French). The book was reviewed in the NY Times href="">here.