The enthusiastic crowds that greeted Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) when she visited Iowa this past weekend weren’t supposed to happen, according to some pundits. Via Politico: “She’s too divisive and too liberal, Washington Democrats have complained privately.” Daily Beast columnist Matt Lewis argued that she couldn’t win the presidency because, “she’s a combination of some of the horrible math teachers I endured in middle school, and a friend’s overly emotional mom.”
Well, it turns out Warren can do her sums, and the knowledge she’s gained from that allows her to compellingly and emotionally articulate a truth: Americans are tired of being so much financial prey. She’s not alone in this — just check out Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) — but Warren, who once co-authored a book on personal finance and all but invented the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, can connect to our financial fears and dreams on a level few other politicians or pundits can. It’s something that traditional pundits often play down, and it no doubt accounted for the enthusiasm that took the Beltway by surprise.
Warren ties what can kindly be termed the rip-offs that make up much of American life to the greater political culture of corruption. When a woman at a Sioux City, Iowa, appearance asked her what she had done in the Senate “that would make you a great president,” Warren talked about how state laws encourage monopolies in the hearing aid business, running up the price with the result few who need them can afford them. Warren initiated legislation that allows for hearing aids to be sold over the counter, something that will likely reduce the cost by hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. She followed up with her ongoing struggle to pass a bill that would allow holders of student loan debt to refinance at significantly lower interest rates. She translates complicated concepts into consumer terms. “I believe in net neutrality the same way I believe everybody should have access to electricity,” she said.
These monopolies and excessive fees are all but impossible to avoid. They drive consumers crazy with powerlessness and rage. Anything from buying a printer or an airline ticket to picking a retirement portfolio or a student loan repayment plan involves a fraught process. We’re told we need to learn something called “financial literacy”: the magical skills ensuring Americans live within stagnant means even as the costs of things such as housing and education skyrocket, all the while teaching us to parse multi-page contracts written in four-point type.
Depending on “personal responsibility for self-protection” instead of regulation is as effective as you would expect, which means it’s a boon for corporations, and a heavy, almost-always-unacknowledged tax on the rest of us, stealing both our time and money. The Obama administration calculated that lack of effective protections for retirement savers cost them up to $17 billion annually, while in “In Land of the Fee,” University of Missouri professor Devin Fergus estimates Americans pay $1.5 trillion annually on fees related to student and payday loans, subprime mortgages and auto insurance. Corporate scams and carelessness proliferate in this environment. There is little any individual can do, for example, to stop Equifax from not protecting Americans' most personal information from hackers or to keep Wells Fargo bankers from opening up an account in their name without their permission or knowledge.
Warren’s issues are not a critique of capitalism, but of how it is practiced in the United States, where our turbocharged financial economy is always looking for the next person to legally fleece. She’s not looking to upend the system; she wants to improve the system we live under. At the same time, it is also true that the two-bit hustles of the health-care and education sectors are now so extreme, it’s pushing people who don’t view themselves as struggling strivers to question how they can continue to pay what seem like forever-increasing bills. No one — and I mean no one — likes to feel like they are being taken advantage of financially, and that’s true whether you’ve got $10 to your name or $10 million.
That the political chattering classes missed all this when discussing Warren’s prospects shows how cut off and self-interested Washington can be. President Trump is not sui generis. He’s the culmination and logical endgame of the corrupt and predatory economy and political system that Warren has railed against, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, for more than two decades. His unleashed giveaways to special interests in areas ranging from retirement savings to net neutrality gives Warren the perfect foil.