Elizabeth Warren, A Fighting Chance, (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Co. 2014), 277 pages, $28.00
Elizabeth Warren’s latest book, Fighting Chance, has the label Political Science on the back cover, but librarians catalog it in biography. It is a little of both, but more the politics of banking and finance and her two-decade role in it. The first chapter does chronicle her growing up in Oklahoma in typical fashion for a biography. It includes education, marriages, children, divorce, college, law school, teaching, and early interest in bankruptcy as a professor of law. Narrative is sprinkled with some personal stories and anecdotes.
One story occurred when her young son Alex attended a law school class at the University of Texas. Walking out with Alex, Mom asked “What did you think?” Alex answered, “Mom you’re not that funny.” “But they all laughed,” she defended. “They had to, Mom.” We can figure Mom has a sense of humor, but obviously Alex knows the truth. Trust me, all teachers learn that eventually.
The rest of the book explores national finance issues beginning in the mid-1990’s with a few more family stories and biographical asides thrown in to the narrative. Mostly though the remaining five chapters are serious politics beginning with Chapter 2 that covers her early career as a professor writing about bankruptcy law and practice.
The move from professor into politics came when Warren was invited to join the National Bankruptcy Review Commission in 1995 at the age of 46: a non-partisan commission appointed by Bill Clinton to review the bankruptcy law over 2 years and write a review and recommendations. Readers learn about her life on the commission and then afterward when she meets Senator Kennedy and gets to participate on work to draft and pass a new bankruptcy law.
From the late 1990’s until the 2008 financial collapse Warren was a professor who gained notoriety outside academia by authoring and co-authoring books and articles as part of an on-going analysis of bankruptcy, especially the book the Two Income Trap. She also appeared on talk shows to describe the family and personal hardships of bankruptcy. This part of the story has a bad ending when President Bush signed a new Bankruptcy law in 2005, gutting many protections for personal bankruptcy.
Another big change and chance for Warren occurs in Chapter 3. After the financial meltdown and crisis of 2008 Warren was invited by Senator Reid to be on a Congressional Oversight Panel, COP, intended to monitor and report on the congressional recovery plan known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).
Here readers get more into the grimy character of politics and the personal tussles that go with it. On page 96 Warren writes “Yes, the crisis involved complicated financial dealings, but a lot of the supposed complication was nothing more than BS designed to cover up what was going on.” We visit meetings and discussions with President Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury Secretary, Henry Paulson, President Obama’s Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and economist Larry Summers. In a lunch meeting with Summers he tells Warren that only insiders have influence if they follow the rule for insiders: They don’t criticize other insiders. Touche.
Chapter 4 begins discussion of Warren’s vision for an independent Consumer Protection Agency but there is more on negotiations for the financial reform bill known as the Dodd-Frank Act signed into law July 21, 2010. The new law included a Consumer Protection Agency, but another whole chapter describes the trials of getting it going. The bankers did not want Warren named to head the agency out of fear she would make it work.
Warren details a succession of meetings with President Obama who would praise her work but would not appoint her to run agency, once telling her “ . . .for some reason you are like a red hot poker in the eye of the Republicans.” We see the cautious side of Obama who would only offer her an interim position to get the agency going, which she finally accepted. She worked until July 18, 2011; the date someone else was nominated to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which she organized. From there it was onto to chapter 6 and her run for the Senate from Massachusetts and her eventual victory over incumbent Scott Brown.
Senator Warren uses an easy to read conversational style with many personal asides intended for a broad audience. Many of her human interest stories read like things the voters of Massachusetts might like to know about their Senator. Even though she is an academic she leaves out academic jargon and virtually all of the technical details of the financial topics and legislation she covers in a general way. Except for biographical material the book covers political negotiations and gives feelings and impressions of the many people who took part in national financial problems and crisis over the last twenty years.
The book has 57 pages of footnotes, some of them quite long and in small print. The notes have some of the technical legal and financial material left out of the narrative. We can almost hear the discussion with her editor of her target audience. That’s too technical for a general audience; put it in a footnote. She did.
By the end of the book I am comfortable that Elizabeth Warren will never be the cynical politician, or for that matter, the cynical Democrat, who talks a good game and sells out behind closed doors. She might lose a fight but not her work to have what is ethical and fair minded, and to end what is not.
One of her stories was about a congressman who spoke to Warren about some of his constituents who got swindled by the rogues and scoundrels sprinkled around the financial world. Then he said “if he stood up for the families who’d been hurt, he could find himself sidelined in Congress by the leadership of his own party.” Well, that will not happen with Senator Warren.