November/December 2009 Issue
—By David Corn
Can DC’s top bailout cop beat the finance lobby—and Larry Summers?
BY HER OWN reckoning, Elizabeth Warren had two transformative experiences on the way to becoming official Washington’s most unconventional expert on the financial industry. Let’s start with the second. It was 2003, and Warren, an earnest-sounding and ever enthusiastic Harvard law professor who specializes in bankruptcy, was on the set of Dr. Phil. She had written a book with her daughter called The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers & Fathers Are Going Broke, and she’d expected to sit next to the host and explain its key points. Instead, Dr. Phil was interviewing a stressed-out couple with serious medical and financial troubles. After they mentioned they had obtained a second mortgage to pay off their credit card debt, the lights went up on Warren, and Dr. Phil asked her if this had been a smart step. No, she declared, because now they could lose their home if they defaulted.
As soon as her turn was over, Warren found herself thinking, “You’ve been doing this work for 20 years now, and it is unlikely that any of it has had as direct an impact as these 45 seconds.” She had reached millions, some of whom might actually pay attention to her advice. “So here you are, Miss Fancy-Pants Professor at Harvard. What do you plan to do now? Is it all about writing more academic articles, or is it about making a difference for the families you study? I made a decision right then: It was for the families, not the self-aggrandizement of scholarship.”
Six years later, Warren is applying that people-first philosophy by simultaneously running the Congressional Oversight Panel, which monitors the $700 billion TARP bailout program on behalf of the taxpayers, and pushing for a new agency to protect consumers from predatory lenders. Now, as Congress seriously considers her proposal (and lobbyists maneuver to kill it), the question is: Can a middle-class populist in Ivy League garb change the world—or at least Big Finance?