Monday, September 1, 2014

A Fighting Chance - Elizabeth Warren (2014)

I don't know where to start with this review.  I was thinking maybe when I first became aware of Elizabeth Warren.  I was thinking maybe a warning that if you are a conservative, you should avoid reading so as to not give yourself a headache and start a thankless debate with me on some social media platform.  I was thinking maybe an actual quote from the text:

"Near the end of the line was a young man: early twenties, medium height, sandy-brown short hair.  When I reached him, he stepped forward and, with no preliminaries, blurted out that he had done everything he was supposed to do.  Counting on his fingers, he punched out the list.  Worked hard in high school.  Went to a good university.  Got good grades.  Graduated on time.  Everything--check, check, check.
And then...nothing.  No job.  No new apartment.  No bright future.  He'd been looking for work for more than a year, and still nothing.
Actually, it was worse than nothing.  Every day he fell a little further behind.  His student loan debt got a little bigger.  His stretch of unemployment got a little longer.  His fear that he would never build a secure, independent life cut a little deeper.
Now he had moved back in with his parents--and he had no idea when he would move out or how he would get his own life under way.
I met him in Worcester.  But I heard the same story in Falmouth and Dorchester.  In Marlborough, Marshfield, and Methuen.  In Weymouth and Westport and Ware.
I heard the story over and over and over, until I wanted to shout to the rooftops on behalf of these young men and women.  They were trying so hard, but they felt like their futures had broken apart before they had even begun." (274)

Everyone else reviewed this book when it came out--about three or four months ago (I put it on hold at the CPL and just got it now).  And they all pretty much started the same way: Elizabeth Warren says she is not running for President, but maybe, oh pretty please, she might!  And after this summer, and the multiple times she has reaffirmed that she has absolutely no intention of running, and after reading this book (which provides a pretty thorough treatment of the extraordinary anxiety she endured while mounting her senatorial campaign), I believe her, and I don't blame her.


The quote from above illustrates why I care enough about Elizabeth Warren to read her book.  All too often in this world it seems like nobody really looks out for you except for your family and friends.  It's passages like this in her book that reveal why Elizabeth Warren has become one of the most important political figures in the 21st century.  She really does care about serving the public.

A Fighting Chance is broken up into a prologue, six chapters, and an epilogue.  The prologue is her thesis statement, so to speak, in which she explains how she was able to build a life decidedly worth living from the foundation of a lower-middle class background.  And how it probably couldn't happen today:

"Here's the hard truth: America isn't building that kind of future any longer.
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 supports 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." (2)

The first chapter, "Choosing Battles," is 42 pages long and is basically the purest "autobiography" in the book.  It tells her story from her childhood in the early 1960's through her second marriage and professorship at Harvard Law in the early 1990's.  It's pretty concise and appropriately details all of the sometimes idiosyncratic changes she made over the course of thirty years.  It will again prove to anyone that life is not always a straight path with obvious signposts along the way to help you achieve the best possible outcome.

The second chapter, "The Bankruptcy Wars," is 34 pages long and is probably my favorite section.  I am sure plenty of people expect that reading about her efforts to maintain actual consumer protections in the law that would come to be known as the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (or BAPCPA) will be boring--unless they happened to study it, and realize how fascinating it can be.  To those unfamiliar with BAPCPA, the first thing to note is that its title is extremely misleading.  The banking industry began lobbying for changes in the Bankruptcy Code sometime in the late 1990's, and Elizabeth Warren served on the National Bankruptcy Review Commission.  I won't talk about the changes--I am sure you can look it up on wikipedia.  But I was particularly surprised to see how the number of bankruptcy filings fluctuated over the years.  In 1980, there were 287,570 non-business bankruptcy filings.  In 1990, there were  718,107.  In 2004, there were 1,563,145 filings (however I think this figure includes business bankruptcies).  In 2005, before BAPCPA kicked in, the number hit 2,039,214.  The next year, it dropped down 597,965.  Just reading Warren try to explain these figures is illuminating.

The third chapter, "Bailing Out the Wrong People," is 54 pages long and primarily about the 2008 financial crisis and her role on the Congressional Oversight Panel (or COP, which she loves the idea of being).

The fourth chapter, "What $1 Million a Day Can Buy," is 43 pages long and reads like an extension of the previous chapter.  There doesn't appear to be much appreciable difference about the content or tone.

The fifth chapter, "An Agency for the People," is 44 pages long and details her efforts at starting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  While I laud the CFPB, it seems pretty much impossible for me to get a job there, so reading this chapter made me feel slightly depressed.

The sixth chapter, "The Battle for the Senate," is 65 pages long and will probably be the highlight for most readers.  I had followed Warren's campaign in 2012 pretty closely and I remembered a lot of the events she described, so it was very fun to read about her private thoughts on formerly public matters.

The epilogue briefly mentions her bill to cap student loan interest rates.  Like most of the legislation she has tried to affect, her dreams did not completely come true--compromises were made, but a few more people would be helped:

"And student loans?  No, I didn't get the Bank on Students Act passed.  But at least the final deal on student loan interest rates was better than where it started: $15 billion better for students over the next ten years.  An, in the end, I wasn't alone.  More than a dozen senators from around the country stood up with me to say no to any deal in which the government makes a profit off the backs of our students.  That's not a bad place to begin the next round in this battle--and believe me, we will come back to this issue again." (275-276)

That may be cold comfort to people with 6.8% and 7.8% interest rates on debt with a principal of $95,000, especially since the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act was blocked (thank you, Mitch McConnell).  Nevertheless, after reading A Fighting Chance, I am confident that Warren is not going to stop until she secures another victory--even if it is only a partial one.

To be honest this feels like kind of a toothless review.  I like the way Warren breaks up each chapter into mini-chapters.  The book is very reader-friendly.  It's very detailed, and I enjoyed reading it.  I am a huge fan of Senator Warren so obviously my review is going to be a bit biased.  I must admit that sometimes the book feels repetitive--in particular it seems like she mentions the support of the Firefighters in Boston twice, where the second time is a more detailed account (and includes the only f-bomb, expurgated, in the text--earlier on Warren spells out "Bullshit Whistle" and apologizes for the dirty word).  Sometimes certain turns of phrase show up several more times than seems necessary.  But I suppose this is all part-and-parcel of writing a "political" book.

One of the most annoying things to me in the world is reading internet comments after news stories.  I have to admit that it is a guilty pleasure of mine, and an interesting way that the "marketplace of ideas" from the First Amendment plays out.  I do it, but I hate myself for doing it.  Some stories on Warren are filled with comments that say how wonderful she is and proclaim that they will write her name in at the next Presidential election; others snipe that she lied about being Native American so that she could get treated favorably for a job at Harvard.  It's a pretty pathetic attempt to attack her, considering it seems like it's just been made out of thin air from the paranoid fantasies of privileged white conservative pundits, but Warren's description shows just how crass they can be:

"Right-wing blogs took to calling me 'Fauxcahontas.'  Someone took out a billboard with a picture of me in a Native American headdress, declaring, 'Elizabeth Warren is a joke.'  One sunny afternoon, as I marched in a parade and shook hands and waved at people, a group of guys standing together on a corner started making Indian war whoops--patting their mouths as if they were some kind of cartoon braves.  It was appalling." (240-241)

Warren is salient on the details of bankruptcy, TARP funds, and consumer protection.  Plenty of lay readers will have a good start at exploring more complex areas of financial regulation with this book.  It doesn't really talk about the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act, but Warren does mention that after BAPCPA passed, third-party debt collectors were telling the people they called that the new law made it illegal to file for bankruptcy, or so difficult to qualify that they would never be eligible.  No doubt some details will bore a fair number of readers, but Warren is great at practically explaining what complex changes to the law mean in real-life terms.

She also writes extensively about her family, and her series of dogs in very loving terms.  And then some moments of the book are downright hilarious:

"Vicki Kennedy called with thoughtful advice borne of years of campaigning across the state.  Former governor Mike Dukakis, who was now in his late seventies, took Bruce out to show him the finer points of knocking on doors, setting a blistering pace that kept them half-running from house to house.  At one home, no one answered the front door, but the governor thought perhaps someone was in the backyard.  While Bruce was thinking about the laws of trespass--he's a professor of property law and takes this sort of thing pretty seriously--the governor bounded to the side of the house and began fiddling with the gate to the backyard.  Just as he got it open, a big dog came racing around the corner, barking wildly, slobber flying everywhere.  The governor never missed a step.  After jumping onto a small side porch, he called over his shoulder to Bruce with the first lesson of political door knocking: 'Ignore the dog.  You won't change his mind anyway.'" (242)

At another point, a couple of supporters wave and shout at her from across the street, and she waves back and walks straight into a telephone pole.

This is about as good of a political autobiography as you can do while you are still in office.  I am not sure exactly what the reason is for it--Warren also writes about earlier books (the influential but policy-oriented The Two Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents Are Going Broke and its more utilitarian follow-up All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan) and they seem to deliver the same kind of information she researched in her bankruptcy studies.  This may be a way to bring more attention to the legislation she supports, rather than an effort to publicize herself for the presidency.  It seems she is happy with what she can do as a senator, and is aware of the parameters in which the President must operate.  It may also be a way to help other Democratic hopefuls in this election year--by publicizing herself, when candidates drop her name, more voters will know what kind of issues they support.

In summary, A Fighting Chance is similar to My Beloved World.  They're both very compelling, but I'm tempted to say I like My Beloved World better.  That is just a matter of preference.  Justice Sotomayor seemed a little more unpredictable and allowed her narrative to unfold in ways that sometimes felt more like literary fiction.  By contrast Warren is very business-like in her prose.  Regardless, the book is a pleasure and I am very grateful that Senator Warren has sacrificed herself in a way (certainly opened herself up to many painful attacks) on behalf of struggling Americans.  I have yet to feel any relief on my own putrid financial state, but I am optimistic that something positive may happen in the next few years.  In short, this book can give you hope.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't think this review was toothless. It's gotten me to order the book from the public library. It is nice to see all your reviews, as I haven't checked in since August, when I somewhat unexpectedly won a Democratic primary for Congress. Elizabeth Warren is a model for what I would have wanted to be like if I'd gotten elected, which of course I knew I wouldn't be since I ran in a totally red district. Thanks for your reviews.