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We need Elizabeth Warren looking out for consumers

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By Matt Miller
Wednesday, September 15, 2010

This is a column about why we need Elizabeth Warren, but it starts with a story about our car. Bear with me.

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Two months ago I returned a car we had leased for four years. As anyone who's leased a car knows, there's always a chance you'll get hit with some end-of-lease charges if the car has had more than normal amounts of wear and tear. We have a 13-year-old and drive around with kids a lot so there's a fair amount of milkshake residue, french fry smear and assorted other gunk that even reasonably well-mannered adults leave behind. In the past I've paid a few dollars for this. Once, when my wife had dented one of the doors mildly, we had to pay $200. I was ready for something like that.

But when the post-lease settlement statement came, I was shocked to see that we'd been charged more than $500! And for what? For two new tires! That's outrageous, I thought. We'd done all the scheduled servicing. No one had told us to change the tires. But now this little bill said that they'd been worn below whatever the acceptable "tread ratio" was deemed to be. Of course the old tires were gone, so there was no way to challenge their action using anything like real proof.

Furious, I immediately put aside the pile of consequential public policy research that columnists devour all day and called the customer service number to raise hell. I told the lady this was a total rip-off. I tossed around words like "unconscionable" and "abuse." I may have mentioned something about being a writer and radio host. She explained what the charge was for, and I went through what I've noted above. Then, after we'd said all there was to say on the matter, she said she was removing the charge in its entirety.

Well! This told me two things. First, this is one of those things giant companies do, where they stick everyone with various charges, and if people fight back hard enough and it's fair enough, they'll drop them. If you have health insurance, a credit card, or live and breathe in America, you know what I'm talking about. It's one of those maddening features of modern life that means you pretty much have to be a jerk or else be rolled over by faceless companies that will turn you upside down and shake the change out of your pockets before they even say hello. When twice a year I see some phantom, unjustified $3.95 "finance charge" on my Visa bill -- the Visa I pay in full and on time every month -- I stop and think of how many millions of people are being hit with this, what fraction of those find it worth their time and energy to fight it, and how much money flows to these firms' bottom line as a result.

But anyway. The second big thought I had after hanging up with Evil Auto Finance was that we need Elizabeth Warren. How are everyday Americans -- who are too busy, or too tired, or too intimidated to fight for fear it'll wreck their credit or bring down on their family some unspeakable corporate retribution -- supposed to protect themselves from this garbage? Shouldn't there be someone with the power to look after the little guy in a complicated world?

Obviously the answer is yes, and just as obviously the person for the job is Elizabeth Warren (whose daughter, I should disclose, is by coincidence my wife's business partner; we've met once but never really spoken).

You may have heard that the banks don't want Ms. Warren. Well, let me say this about that. We've run a zero interest rate regime for two years in this country that's shafted millions of people out of billions in their savings accounts in order to let the banks quietly recapitalize themselves (by buying riskless Treasury bills instead of making loans). We spent gazillions more bailing out the banks, thereby saving the net worths of thousands of wealthy executives whose highfalutin schemes got us into this mess in the first place. Then we let them resume their outlandish bonuses even as unemployment hovers near 10 percent.

In short, haven't we done enough for the banks? We didn't march. Or revolt. Or burn their offices down, for goodness' sake. Not a single banker has even gone to jail. After all this, can't we have one teensy-weensy smart regulator who's not in their pocket and is looking out for the rest of us?

Pretty please?

Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-host of public radio's "Left, Right & Center," writes a weekly column for The Post. He can be reached at mattino2@gmail.com.


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