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Elizabeth Warren is special

By Max Atkinson - posted Tuesday, 29 July 2014

There is no one in American public life quite like the Senator for Massachusetts. a Harvard law professor who brings an unusually gracious tone to national debates, her courtesy and good humour come with impressive expertise, a razor-sharp mind and an ability to put complex issues in simple but resonant language. Add endless energy and a commitment to challenge the abuse of financial and political power, and you get a sense of why, after barely two years in office, she is emerging as an alternative to a jaded and compromised Hilary Clinton, as the first US woman President.

Her approach is unfamiliar and refreshing because she sees no reason to ignore traditional ideals of freedom and responsibility which define the right in order to redress egalitarian concerns of the left. In a polarised political culture she defends a simple but inclusive logic: if the freedom to choose one's path in life is a prime value, then a government which respects all citizenshas a duty to minimise the role of unchosen factors, such as health, poverty, disability and - not least - the abuse of market, media and political power, which deprive citizens of the opportunity to share it.

The notion that government can and should pursue fairness while defending liberty makes her the natural enemy of moderate Republicans as well as more rabid Tea Party supporters - both condemn intervention to redress inequities which undermine substantive freedoms. More intriguing is a sense that seemingly intractable issues of political morality can be settled by appeal to widely-shared values - in an intellectual milieu still strongly influenced by scepticism and post-modernist thinking it puts her near the cutting edge of radical criticism.


But Warren is even more interesting as a person, with a modesty and grace quite unlike the popular image of ultra-cool, relentlessly clever game-players of Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing. Early in her career as a Senator she appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart where, despite a gift for public speaking (she was an Oklahoma State schoolgirl debating champion) she had a bad case of nerves and vomited twice while waiting to appear, as she later explained in her recent book, A Fighting Chance (Metropolitan Books, April, 2014).

I was miserable. I had stage fright - gut-wrenching, stomach-turning, bile-filled stage fright. And I was stuck in a gloomy little bathroom … I was having serious doubts about going through with this. I had talked to reporters and been interviewed plenty of times, but this was different. At any second, the whole interview could turn into a giant joke - and what if the joke turned on the work I was trying to do?... For the zillionth time, I asked myself why on God's green earth I had agreed to sit down with Jon Stewart.

She recalls how, after a shaky start - she mispronounced an acronym then forgot what it stood for - she had a chance to explain the need to return to a sensible regulatory regime after the opaque derivatives, dubious mortgages, fraudulent selling practices and scandalous bonuses of Wall Street. Stewart, who had been baiting her for laughs, was impressed. The 2009 interview, perhaps because it gave a hopeful sense of the difference between Warren and celebrity politicians like Sarah Palin, Hillary and John McCain, was an instant hit on YouTube. But what lingers in the mind is her grace under pressure.

From that time she has rarely faltered, assuming the leadership on reforms which Obama, for all his promise and enthusiasm, has been unable or unwilling - perhaps too compromised by the price paid for past achievements - to push hard on. What distinguishes Warren, and surprises pundits, is a readiness to go back to first principles to challenge policies no professional minder would dream of disturbing.

Two examples illustrate this ability to shape the conversation; the first is her campaign against a government practice of profiteering on student loans. In addition to crediting students for community work, she wants the Federal Reserve to provide loans at the same interest rates it gives banks - close to zero per cent. She can justify this, not just in terms of inter-generational fairness, but as an investment in the nation's intellectual capital, just as banks enjoy this privilege, so the theory goes, for the public good.

The second is her support for a basic wage able to lift a two-income family above the poverty line. There are several criteria, including national productivity levels, which argue that, if more equitable standards had prevailed over the past half-century, the present $7.25 basic wage, which has changed only three times in thirty years, would be closer to $22. While Obama is seeking $10, Warren argues for a $15 minimum.


Her major contribution, however, has been as inspiration, brains and driving force for the first stand-alone US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and as Chairman of a five-member Congressional Panel to oversee the government's bailout and other relief programs after the financial crisis. Her vigour and commitment in these roles have made her a regular target of Republicans across the spectrum.

Wikipedia offers an insight into Warren's concern to mitigate the excesses of a blinkered capitalism; it outlines her lower middle-class background, with a family struggling to pay medical bills after her janitor father suffered an early heart attack, which meant a reduced income and a search for part-time jobs. She is attracted early by traditional Republican values, but learns there are other values in a civil society. Her present views are captured in a quote which is at the heart of the political divide, and whose controversial theme was taken up by Obama for his 2012 campaign; Warren was answering a charge that asking the rich to pay more taxes was inciting 'class warfare,'

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. ... You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

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About the Author

Max Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania, with Interests in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment. He is an occasional contributor to the Tasmanian Times.

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