Tuesday, July 25, 2017

This Fight is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America's Middle Class - Elizabeth Warren (2017)

I've written a fair amount about Elizabeth Warren already in the review for A Fighting Chance.  So I will direct you there for background.  Here, all I will add is that, I got this book from the library when a friend was visiting, and after briefly discussing more serious literature (Elena Ferrante), I revealed that I had gotten this book out at the same time as The Days of Abandonment, and laughed, and he laughed.  I then explained that something about the book seemed a bit disappointing.  But that was only in the first 20 pages or so, and my opinion evolved.  I explained not to get me wrong, I love EW, but the message just seemed to be more of the same.  Is it a sequel to A Fighting Chance?  And does she always have to use "fight" in the title, and be so combative about things?  I agree with pretty much everything she says, but there didn't seem to be much that was "new" about it.

Now as I said my opinion evolved, and I actually ended up enjoying this book very much.  But as a pure reading experience, it is not as essential as A Fighting Chance.  In general, that book was much more entertaining.  This is not to say that This Fight is Our Fight is boring, but it does tend to focus on Washington DC and its relationship to big business.  There are still a few personal stories sprinkled throughout, but A Fighting Chance feels more like an autobiography and This Fight is Our Fight feels more like a position statement.  

Still, just three years later, life is radically different in 2017 than it was 2014, or at least seems to be that way.  So, much of this is an update on the situations that Warren explored in her previous book.  But yes, a great deal of this is directed at Donald Trump (which now I guess will have to be added to my tags/labels--the floodgates have opened).  Trump is one of the main threads in This Fight is Our Fight, along with the Republican party, and big business executives (and overt disdain for each of them) and the struggles of the middle (now "working poor?") class.  

If I have any criticisms of Elizabeth Warren, it is that sometimes her prose reads as if she has commissioned someone to adopt her artistic license and write in her voice.  There are moments of rhetorical flourishes that would likely go over quite well in a speech, or at one of the many readings Ms. Warren must have given on her book tour.  But on the page they seem somewhat unnecessary, and sometimes make it seem like she is talking down to the reader.  I mean, I really can't call it a condescending tone at all, just a tad geared towards the lowest common denominator.  And perhaps I only feel this way because I've read an Elizabeth Warren casebook and I know she can write in a more academic tone.  Perhaps Ms. Warren has intuited that she is popular with many young people and so she is aiming even towards super idealistic high school debate club team members.  It's worth noting that she doesn't spell out bull**** in this book, but did in A Fighting Chance, and apologized.  So that is one way it feels a little censored, or safe.  I don't disagree with it from a professional perspective, only in an artistic one.  She doesn't need to resort to objectionable language to get her point across but I wonder how much she swears in her life.  

Income inequality is one of the first topics addressed in the first chapter.  She goes after a company I had never heard of and its CEO and it is hilarious:

"It's gotten so good that even lavish Wall Street parties have ratcheted up.  Citadel, a major hedge fund, had a good 2015.  It celebrated with a party featuring Katy Perry (for a rumored $500,000) and another party starring Maroon 5 (also $500,000 or so) along with--my favorite touch--violinists suspended from the ceiling by cables.  Maroon 5 and Katy Perry are hugely talented, and both have fought hard for progressive causes.  If a billionaire wants to pay them and an army of violinists a fortune, they should all take the money.  But good grief, a party where just the entertainment costs as much as it would take to feed a family of four for half a century?  The next year, according to news reports, Citadel's CEO was buying a new condo spanning three floors of a high-rise overlooking Central Park, a pad priced at a cool $200 million.  This condo in the sky has about the same square footage as twelve typical american homes.  And why shouldn't he go for it?  He had already set the records for the most expensive home purchases in Chicago and Miami, so obviously it was time to upgrade his New York digs.
Pop the champagne corks!" (18)

She then tells the story of Gina, 50, who had raised two sons with her husband, and had done reasonably well as a middle class family--buying a home, combined income of $70,000--to dropping down to $36,000 combined, and working at Wal-Mart.  She tells a similar story about Michael Smith, in his 50's, worked at DHL and had a pretty solid middle class lifestyle, moving around the south side of Chicago from Woodlawn to Hazel Crest to Homewood--until the crash of 2008 hits and his job gets eliminated and his mortgage payments balloon.  Finally, she tells the story of Kai, 27, who decided to go to school with the Art Institutes and earned a 3.9 GPA, and had loans of $45,000 after 2 years there.  They go up to $55,000 before the school begins to implode after a DOJ investigation and she leaves to go to another art school in Florida for $30,000, then finally the University of Colorado.  Then finds out that her credits from Art Institutes would not transfer due to accreditation standards, and she would need to complete another 2 years.  Her loans hit about $100,000 and she never finished her degree.  Of course, I identified most with Kai's story:

"The loans can also chop off big parts of a former student's future.  In Kai's case, they kill her opportunity to take out a mortgage to buy a home.  They kill her chances to borrow more money to go to school and finish her degree.  Without that degree, those loans kill her dream of getting an entry-level job in a business that employs people with a degree in visual arts.  And she can just plain forget about building up a little savings, buying health insurance, or stashing away some cash for retirement." (50-51)

It does appear that Kai has actually paid down enough to get the debt down to $90,000.  As a person whose debt has grown $15,000 higher over the past several years, effectively rendering my life a Sisyphean struggle, there is also this reality to address.  Warren does work on a bill to reduce student loan interest rates and allow them to be refinanced, but it gets killed.  Still, I feel like a good portion of Kai's debt should have been dischargeable because Art Institutes seemed to close while she was still in it.  I feel like that's one of the few exceptions.

After the broad overview of the first chapter, Warren delves into the economic history of the United States, with a particular focus on FDR and the wave of prosperity that persisted until the election of Ronald Reagan and the institution of trickle-down economics.  She bemoans the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act, as she did in A Fighting Chance, and advocates for a 21st century version of it, with this incredible factoid:

"This doesn't have to be partisan.  My first cosponsor for a twenty-first-century Glass-Steagall bill was the Republicans' 2008 presidential nominee, Senator John McCain.  In 2016, Donald Trump campaigned on this idea, and, at his insistence, adopting Glass-Steagall was added to the Republican platform." (93)

Of course that was undone in short order, and is now "headed in the opposite direction."  But it's still incredible to think that Warren and Trump shared any common ground, particularly after what comes later in this book, which is basically a blow-by-blow retelling of their Twitter wars, calling each other "Loser" and "Goofy" and "Pocahontas."

There is a great deal of rancor reserved for Wells Fargo, which is one of the most righteous sections of the book, and while I earlier called this a "position statement," I would revise that to say 3/4 position statement and 1/4 narrative of the 2016 campaign.  She details her hesitation to endorse Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders until the primary was decided, because she "didn't want to undermine either of our candidates or to short-circuit any part of that debate." (221) She concludes the book with a reflection on the Women's March in Boston on January 21, 2017, remarking, "We are an army--an army filled with optimism and hope and fierce determination." (270)

 With this book, Warren establishes herself as one of the leaders of the Democratic party.  When A Fighting Chance came out, people considered it a potential prelude to a presidential campaign.  She comments upon that here, briefly, and also tries to put to rest any speculation that she might run in 2020.  I am sure there were still be people that want her to do it, but it is clear that she loves her job as a Senator.  I highly doubt she will change her mind, but it will be interesting to see who emerges as the next Democratic candidate.  Anyone considering that run will hopefully adopt many of the policies spelled out in this volume. 

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