Jacobin - September 12, 2019
"Both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are political throwbacks. But whereas Warren wants to fix the policies that went astray in the Clinton era, Sanders wants to change the economic foundations of American life."
... The dedication that opens Warren’s 2004 book The Two-Income Trap, co-written with her daughter, Amelia, is clear about her mission, the people she wants to save, and how she wants to save them: “They went to college, had kids, bought a home, played by the rules — and lost. It is time to rewrite the rules so that these families are winners again.”
This is the key to Warren’s political vision and what — despite some shared policy preferences and a personal friendship — makes her a very different candidate from Bernie Sanders. With a very different constituency. And, ultimately, why it’s harder to imagine her delivering the type of change the United States desperately needs.
Rewrite the Rules
When President Trump recently stood before Congress and announced that America “will never be a socialist country,” Warren slowly rose to her feet and applauded. Her more progressive fans seemed surprised. But they shouldn’t be.
On the campaign trail, “I believe in markets” has become a kind of mantra for Warren. “I am a capitalist to my bones,” as she put it more explicitly last year. Her 2004 book even boasted that “We haven’t suggested a complete overhaul of the tax structure, and we haven’t demanded that businesses cease and desist from ever closing another plant or firing another worker. Nor have we suggested that the United States should build a quasi-socialist safety net to rival the European model.” (At the time, a whopping 45.8 million Americans were without health insurance, a number roughly equivalent to the entire population of Spain.)
And it’s not clear her thinking has changed all that much since. In the recent climate town hall, Warren was asked if she supported the nationalization of public utilities. “Gosh, you know, I’m not sure that’s what gets you the solution . . . the way we get there is we just say, ‘Sorry guys, but by 2035, you’re done. You’re not going to be using any more carbon-based fuels.’ That gets us to the right place.” It’s a sentiment not that far in spirit from Clinton’s claim that she told Wall Street: “Cut it out! Quit foreclosing on homes! Quit engaging in these kinds of speculative behaviors.”
It’s been a consistent approach for Warren, but one with questionable results. After the economic catastrophe of 2007–8, a little over a decade after she took up public policy, Warren took a stand for far more stringent regulations on the financial sector, much to the annoyance of the Obama administration. She spearheaded the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), an impressive regulatory achievement.
But while a Republican Congress couldn’t roll back Obama’s Medicaid expansion, a clear program with real material stakes and a constituency to defend it, Warren’s watchdog was another matter. And so, less than seven years after the CFPB’s creation, a Republican president completely gutted it.
In other words, Warren rewrote the rules. And then someone else came along and rewrote them again with hardly any notice from the people she intended to help.
This is the regulatory-driven strategy that has been contrasted positively to the Bernie Sanders mad-as-hell, bottom-up “political revolution.” As her supporters love to say, she has “a plan” for every possible “that.” But it’s also the strategy that seems more likely to put us back in the same position four or eight years from now with little to show for it. And, after the next election that doesn’t go our way, with an even bigger ghoul in the White House ready to wipe it all away like a splattered bug on a windshield.
... Warren, to her credit, understands that something went wrong around this time. And her style of politics — had it been pursued by an administration at the time of her political conversion — might have stood a chance of stemming some of the tide that’s since washed American workers out to sea. But Warren underestimates just how cataclysmic the decades since her awakening have been for working people and how her technocratic political approach — the “plans for that” — can hardly summon the change necessary.
Events have moved very quickly here in the last twenty-five years. And while Elizabeth Warren had a plan for the 1990s, the problem is that others had a plan, too. They won, she —and we — lost.
In the early 1990s, chief executives were compensated roughly 80 times the average worker. Today, it’s nearly 300 times. From 1979 to 1989, the income growth of the average member of the top 1% was 26 times that of the average member of the bottom 90%. From 1989 to 2014, the ratio was 52 times.
Between 1989 and 2016, the share of middle-class families with a traditional pension fell from almost half to less than a fifth. In 1991, the average full-time worker had to work 237 hours to afford their family health insurance. In 2018, it was 456 hours. School integration peaked in 1988. Today, American schools are more segregated than they’ve been in decades. ...
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