Friday, October 29, 2010

Elizabeth Warren at Berkeley

I went to see the Mario Savio Memorial Lecture on campus last night, and I think I’m in love.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because when I stood in line to get tickets to hear Elizabeth Warren speak, I was thinking about how the financial crisis and the economic fallout are a perfect illustration of the need to be able to think about and explain problems on multiple levels.

It is not the mark of a sophisticated mind to be able to explain a very complicated process or phenomenon in very complicated language. As many of us know, teaching something is the best measurement of how well you know that something, and that the chances are that someone who can’t explain or teach something very well doesn’t understand it as well as they should.

Warren, who has been asked by President Obama to oversee the creation of a Consumer Protection Financial Bureau, was amongst the most trenchant progressive critics of the skewed benefits of the bailout. The video in circulation showing her interrogating Geithner (who looks and sounds frighteningly out of his depth) in her role as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel on the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) shows someone with a keen grasp of the economics that lie behind the bailout, and a keen moral sense of the dangers posed by deregulation.

Warren has been the recipient of fulsome praise for her ability to explain the complexities of our economy with a clarity that is refreshing, given the muddle that most commentators find themselves in. Ironically, this is where the Obama administration at large is weakest. The man known for his stellar oratorical skills struggles to present both the details of specific policy and the broader agenda to which those policies are tied in a coherent way.

Many of us arrived in the MLK Student Center early, and the crowd was an eclectic one. There were hoary hippies, wearing tucked-in collared shirts bedecked with protest buttons. There were eager-faced students, in bad need of a hero, troubled by the way that the embodiment of hope had become a symbol of political timidity and ineffectiveness. There were leather jackets and knitted caps alongside North Face and Nike. What people shared, besides a desire to hear someone speak to them in a progressive language, were the loud cheers when the moderator came on-stage and announced that the San Francisco Giants had taken a 6-0 lead.

There was an even bigger cheer when Warren stood up at the lectern and outlined her ambitions for the new consumer protection financial agency, which boiled down to “looking out for people as they interact with the financial system”. Warren has put irresponsible and immoral lending at the heart of the financial crisis, and has identified the rectification of the unbalanced power and informational relationships between the consumer and the lender as a central part of both the antidote to our current ills and the preventative medicine necessary to stave off future abuses.

Warren comes across as the kind of professor who would be friendly and open in office hours, but who has a mind like a steel trap and a spine of steel. And she seemed as yet unused to the idea of wielding the kind of power she does, and the potentially suffocating trappings that entailed. She noted that the administration had vetted her remarks, but promised to deviate from her prepared notes! At one stage she started to say, with reference to the format that her agency’s presentation of information would take, that it wasn’t her call, before catching herself with a rueful laugh, ‘Crap, it is my responsibility!’

It was striking to hear Warren repeat, again and again, the centrality of the economic and social well-being of American families. Her story was of the “steady deterioration in the economic circumstances of middle class families”. But she was not invoking family as the exclusive, defensive bulwark envisioned by Republicans, but as a unit that it makes good social and economic sense to protect.

“Seldom”, Warren remarked, do we “stop to think of what government has done for us through the quiet agencies that work on our behalf”. And our failure to make the connection between the safety laws and business regulations, the clean water, breathable air and decent working conditions that many of us enjoy stems from the distance between us and the processes that improve our lives on a regular basis. The impetus for these changes and the agencies that enforce their implementation has often (though not always) come from outside of government, but it is government that makes them work when they do, over the howls of indignation emanating from polluters, corporations, financial interests, disinterested employers and their Congressional lackeys.

But Warren sees the creation of her agency as more than an opportunity to shore up the defences of consumers against the relentless assaults by the immoral thugs of the financial world: she regards it as a chance to create an agency that interacts in new ways with the public. She has set herself the task of not only delivering as much information as possible into the public record (something she believes will lead to a more open and vibrant exchange of ideas), but of actually listening to what people have to say about their experiences of bankruptcy. It is also an opportunity to “show that government can do it right, can fix one part, can belong to the people”.

It is Warren’s hope that, by leveraging technology and the knowledge of consumers themselves, the Agency can become a kind of neighbourhood-watch, tracking the movement of the economic gangsters who have been roaming our financial highways and byways with comparative impunity. And the victims, the people who have been “mugged by contract”, could be characterised by zip-code, ethnicity, age-group or income-level in an effort to combat predatory lending.

No wonder the Republicans hate her viscerally. She is making a powerful argument about the utter failure of their economic system. “There are three historical periods of usury laws”, she deadpanned. The first stretched from the Code of Hammurabi in 1700 B.C. until 1980, and was structured such that “consumer credit wasn’t a place to get rich”. The next, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s deregulation regime, and ending with the financial catastrophe of 2008, turned relations between consumers and financial profiteers into the “Wild West. Whatever you can shoot you can keep”. The third period starts “now, in 2010, with this agency”.

And she puts real teeth into her argument, pointing out that once upon a time, economic booms meant real gains for the working- and middle-classes. During the economic boom of the 1960s, there was 37% real growth in income for working people. In the boom of the past decade, there was a paltry 1.9% growth in real income. This was accompanied by a massive increase in worker productivity, demonstrating that something is seriously wrong—there is a real imbalance in who is reaping the benefits of families’ hard work.

Above all, she is working day and night, by force of intellect, of personality and of conviction, to make government something that works for the people who ought to matter most in our country, while the Republican Party labours with equal diligence to ensure that they sustain a narrative of endemic government failure. But the failures they want to talk about derive from their period of control of the levers of power, and their use of those levers to make government work only for the very same wealthy and irresponsible classes who drove our economy over the brink. In other words, they are rooting for failure, something that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is appallingly frank about.

In Q&A, someone asked Warren what she would say to those who suggest that the real need isn’t for more regulation, but rather for better-informed consumers. She replied that whilst we could all stand to improve our financial literacy, the point is that credit contracts are not drawn up honestly with the intention of being comprehensible. They are designed to deceive, which is a fundamental break from what contracts have traditionally been about—mutual comprehensibility and trust. “If toasters were exploding”, she snapped in the kind of voice that made Secretary Geithner look like he wanted to wet his pants, and in my favourite Warrenism of the night, “you would not say that more people need engineering degrees”.

Warren also conveyed a real sense of the urgency that is strangely lacking amongst progressives in Congress at such a pivotal moment. Many candidates for re-election are putting themselves through a series of contortions to explain why they’ve been voting over the past two years for things that the American public overwhelmingly voted for in 2008. Instead of being forthright, going on the offensive, and making an unapologetic argument about why the working- and middle-classes are more important than lenders and bankers (there will be moments, Warren declared, when we’ll cut into lending companies’ revenues, sure, but “when we’re doing that, we’re leaving money in the hands of American families”...the people whose labour earned them that money), Democrats are backing away from the progressive agenda that we badly need.

Warren, on the other hand, reminded us of what’s at stake: if we don’t get this right, “we really blow a big opportunity here”. For her, it’s about creating an agency that is outside of the financial industry’s control, which shares data with the public, and which keeps itself independently working for families. It is an argument about the government (that if democratic, it can work effectively for the public), about political office (it shouldn’t be bought), and about democracy (people and their voices should matter more than dirty money).

The urgency is personal for Warren, too, who is all-too-aware of the power of the political and financial forces arrayed against her. “I know”, she said, voice trembling with frustration, “that any day working on the agency could be my last one. But”, she went on, “we’re scrappy”. The political and financial interest is fusing into a powerful obstacle that she suggested will attempt to dismember rather than destroy her agency, removing its power to work for consumers in any meaningful fashion. “I will fight it and I will ask everyone in this country to fight it”. The universality of her message, and the sustained applause from the audience at this point suggested that there are more people in the country than Obama and Democrats believe who need to hear this kind of language, with its clear exposition of the unequal power relations in which working families struggle to survive, and its unapologetic prioritisation of the people whose labour makes our country work.

I suspect that I was not alone in being prepared to vocally declare my eternal devotion to Warren at this stage in the proceedings. She ended with a pledge to retain the qualitative element that has characterised her academic and professional work on the consequences of bankruptcy for families. The stories, she contended, are important. She suggested, to a rapt room, that these personal stories demand that we meditate and reflect on our qualities as a people, and on how our ideals about democracy and accountability, about hard work and its rewards, and about our individual and collective characters measure up to reality. We came to hear someone appeal to our better angels, something all too rare in this election cycle, and we got exactly such an appeal from the kind of progressive hero who is in equally short supply today.

No one doubted Elizabeth Warren when, asked explicitly about the attacks that Republicans and their allies in the financial sector are mounting on her infant agency, she declared “What fights are coming are what fights are coming, and I’m ready”. The real question is, are we ready to back her in this fight for our future?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Republican Party's plan

There are two planks in the Republican Party’s platform this election season. Power without responsibility. And a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich.

Let’s be realistic. Someone is going to have to oversee healthcare, business ethics, the financial world and environmental regulation. And who would you rather see managing these entities, or at the very least, looking over their shoulder? A government, elected by and accountable to voters? Or a corporate board, an industry consortium, committed polluters, all of whom are unaccountable to the public and whose primary concern is the health of their bottom line rather than the economic and social well-being of the working and middle classes?

Because make no mistake, the Republican Party is channelling the message of the Tea Party and railing against government intervention, which they characterise as socialist. The same kind of intervention, mind you, that Republican and Democratic governments alike engaged in during the 1960s and ‘70s which resulted in more protection for consumers, for the public and for the environment than ever before.

But what the Republican Party is really promising is nothing less than a full-court press, using all the instruments of power and the influence of government, on behalf of the obscenely wealthy, the cavalierly corporate, the blatantly polluting...all the same people, in short, whose short-term thinking and profit-oriented mindset led us into Iraq in search of quick and dirty oil, to the deregulation of industry that gave us the oil spill in the gulf, to the financial meltdown in 2008 and the soaring unemployment that followed, to the Supreme Court ruling that says that corporations are individuals and that money is free speech, all of which squeeze out the working and middle classes and throw the weakest amongst us on their own resources.

And now we have an example of what will begin to happen if the Republicans begin to win back the reins of power. In Britain, the kind of austerity regime based around cuts to public services is set to mutilate the social fabric of the country more than the most heartless and bloody-minded Thatcherites of the 1980s ever dreamed of. An economic plan based on pushing nearly half a million public service workers into unemployment (and thereby depriving far larger numbers of people of the services those workers rendered) is a recipe for disaster.

Moreover, it is baffling illogical. We are living in a moment during which the working and middle classes are buffeted by perilous economic winds. People in this country are more vulnerable than at any time in the recent past. So why choose this moment to disinvest in the public, in the safety nets that protect people? If we turn our collective back on the unemployed and on those who are struggling to make economic ends meet—because let’s be clear, that’s what the Republican Party is arguing for—we will have a far larger crisis to confront down the road.

Why would you argue against healthcare reform that asks employers to take responsibility for their employees, to ensure that those people are able to live decent lives? Why would you argue against taxes that ask those making more than six times what the average individual in the U.S. does to pay a little more? Why would you argue for deregulating the kinds and amounts of pollutants that industries can pump into our air, our water and our fields...pollutants which affect all of us, but the weakest, poorest and most marginalised amongst us disproportionately? Why would you argue that the welfare of a business (especially one bent on evading its social and economic responsibilities) is more important than the welfare of people? And why would you suggest, at a moment when intellectual, technical and economic regeneration and imagination are the path to salvation, that we should make wholesale cuts to schools, colleges and universities?

The public and the media need to be asking the Republican Party these questions, because as it is, the Party is running on the assumption that the public won’t hold them responsible for the unethical and dishonest deregulation that got us into our current mess. And while they are vocally protesting government intervention, they are plotting an intervention of historic proportions on behalf of the wealthy, the corporate and the unethical at the expense of the working and middle classes, the unemployed, and the otherwise unrepresented. That is what this election is really about: who holds the levers of power, and on whose behalf do they exercise them? Nothing less, in other words, than the future of democracy.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


As the Guardian reports, the BBC’s Nick Robinson had a bit of a fit when someone propped up an anti-war placard behind him during a broadcast on the draconian cuts that the Conservative-Liberal Coalition is pushing through. Robinson’s defence was that ‘there are many opportunities to debate whether the troops should be out of Afghanistan without the need to stick a sign on a long pole and wave it in front of a camera’. He goes on to say that although he is ‘a great believer in free speech [...] I also care passionately about being able to do my job reporting and analysing one of the most important political stories for years’.

But Robinson is one of the preening, self-satisfied species of journalists, who wears a Cheshire-cat grin, and who like many political reporters, specialises in political gossip. There is nothing to suggest that the sign was preventing him from doing his job reporting on the cuts that are set to put nearly half a million public service employees out of work.

And the trouble, of course, is that Robinson is dead wrong—there are not many opportunities to debate the merits of the war in Afghanistan. Parliament voted on the war for the first time a month ago, and it got only the most passing of coverage. The Guardian’s own Andrew Sparrow spent his day’s blog chasing rumours up and down the corridors of Whitehall, and blithely admitted at 5.55pm, ‘The Afghanistan debate is winding up. I have not been following it closely...’

The British media has been nearly as supine as its U.S. counterpart when it comes to sustained, critical assessment of the war, and has utterly failed to create a public debate about the matter, letting all three parties off the hook during May’s general election campaign. It is equally striking how little Afghanistan features in the mid-term elections in the U.S. But as the war grows increasingly unpopular with the public, neither party wants to address the issue: the Republicans because their unabashed warmongering might not go down with the public in the same way it did in 2004; and the Democrats because their own president and figures like Dianne Feinstein have made the war their own and are pushing a conflict that is imperilling our security.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in one of his painful-sounding contortions, put it best: ‘We’re not going to win this war just by staying. Quite frankly, we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency’. But the militaries in the U.S and Britain will be loath to admit what most people (Harper quite belatedly) are coming to realise: that the much-vilified Taliban will not be defeated.

The New York Times recently reported that the U.S. assault on Kandahar is actually designed to push the Taliban into talks with the Afghan government, indicating that we are ready to come to terms with a member of the erstwhile Axis of Evil. It’s no wonder people are asking why we invaded Afghanistan in the first place, and whether the bloody and interminable struggle being waged there is worth the human and economic sacrifice.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Not either an experimental doll

I've just been re-reading Shula Marks' compilation, Not either an experimental doll: the separate worlds of three South African women, which tells the story, entirely through letters, of the relationship between Mabel Palmer (a university-educated English Fabian) and Lily Mboya (a Xhosa girl who sees education as a way of expanding her horizons in the early years of apartheid South Africa). I had forgot what a touching story this is: of how people from different backgrounds struggle--sometimes succeeding, but often failing--to understand each other. An excellent and moving read.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Leaving the Party

I’ve been a member of the Democratic Party for as long as I’ve been voting for two reasons. In the first place, like most people, I joined a political party in the hope that I could have some level of input, even if only in the form of a vote, into the choice of leaders of that party, its philosophy, and the policies it chooses to espouse. And having decided to join a political party, the Democratic Party seemed the obvious choice. Its past, to be sure, is chequered, but it was this party that chose to address the Great Depression head-on, to make the argument that people and not markets matter most. It was the grassroots of this party that made the civil rights and anti-war movements its own. On every conceivable issue in the past 80 years—whether that be the war in Iraq, the need for universal access to healthcare, the need to make education accessible, the need to face up to the consequences of overconsumption, or progressive taxation—I feel that the Democratic Party has been far and away the closest to my own views.

But both nationally and in California, at this historical moment, these two arguments (the one for being a member of a political party and the other for making that party the Democratic Party) have ceased to hold water. The recent gubernatorial primary in California confirmed the extent to which ordinary party members are squeezed out of a money-driven selection process that should be open and democratic.

But as has long been the case, only candidates capable of raising millions of dollars are able to run seriously for the governorship. The voters of California are therefore treated not to any serious debate, but to an ad-fest. Or was as the case in this primary, not even that. Party officials, the threat of Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown’s name recognition and fundraising prowess, and the acquiescence of party members combined to ensure that no other significant name got on the ballot. Now I’m no huge fan of Gavin Newsom, Antonio Villaraigosa or any other of the names bandied about, but a little choice would have been nice, and the debate that it would have engendered would have let party members know the stance of whomever they voted for.

But worse still, our corrupt and money-oriented politics squeeze out opinion. Small candidates, who scarcely got a moment’s face-time in the media, were the ones with the big ideas. Not always flawlessly worked out, not always without contradictions and difficulties. But Richard Aguirre’s ideas about the public harnessing of solar power were more original and detailed, and for that, more compelling, than anything that Jerry Brown had to say. And Peter Schurman echoed the campaign backed by vast numbers of Californians (and stiff-armed by Jerry Brown and his Republican opponents) to end minority rule in California’s legislature and empower the party with a majority of votes to raise revenue to fund schools, state parks and other public needs.

These aren’t ‘fringe’ ideas, or else they shouldn’t be. They should be the bread and butter of anyone who is committed to democracy, for whom the notion of open and honest debate holds any appeal. But there was no debate and there were no challengers with the financial means (though the moral and imaginative will was certainly there) to contest Brown’s coronation. This highlights the need for public financing in U.S. politics, the need for parties rather than campaigns to take control of the primary process and mandate debates, and the need for more political parties.

If the manner of Jerry Brown’s selection was deeply problematic, the political positions of the man himself undercut what I hoped were the deeply-held principles of the California and national Democratic Parties. As Attorney General, Brown mutilated George Lakoff’s ballot initiative which sought to put the issue of minority rule in California before the electorate in the clearest terms possible. The utter vacuousness of Brown’s politics demonstrates that he shares the moving philosophy of the Republican Party: power without responsibility.

Virtually the only announcement to come out of the Brown campaign during the primary was the declaration that he would never raise taxes as governor ‘unless the people vote for them’. Presumably he means if 67% of the people’s representatives vote for them, because that is the current threshold, and I imagine that a substantial majority of Californians wouldn’t mind paying more taxes if that meant better schools, improved social services, affordable colleges and universities and accessible state parks. Or maybe Brown intends to give a chronically apathetic and uninformed public a line-item veto where the state budget is concerned. The devolution of responsibility would be very in character.

Brown’s departures from the progressive norm are hardly isolated. During the healthcare debate we had the spectacle of Dianne Feinstein continuously wriggling over whether she would support a public option, and many other Congressmen and –women following not their consciences or the direction given them by their constituents in November of 2008, but the lead of an hysterical right-wing press and radio network with its talk of socialism, fascism, government takeover and the loss of freedom.

We have a Democratic-controlled Congress supporting a war in Afghanistan which is costing the lives of thousands of Americans and Afghans, which many military strategists recognise might both continue indefinitely and actually make us less safe than we were before September 11th, which is being escalated in Pakistan, and which is almost certainly creating the next generation of Saddam Husseins and Osama bin Ladens. And in June we had the spectacle of a President who had committed himself to international justice and peace thumbing his nose at the international community and asserting that after killing 10 peace activists, Israel was the party best suited to oversee the investigation into its own actions.

So if there is no good reason to be a member of a party that discourages debate and democracy, if that party consistently betrays the ideals to which many of its members ascribe, and refuses to argue for the philosophy that has carried so many people so far, there remains one hurdle—and one which many people find daunting. ‘Who would you rather have?’ a family friend asked me. ‘Jerry Brown or Meg Whitman?’ The insinuation being that, although we might all find Brown’s contempt for democracy and his hazy policy positions unsavoury in the extreme, there’s no real choice...he’s better than his Republican opponent. Which is true. But how depressing it is, when presented with real and challenging questions about the future of our society, to always have to choose the lesser of two have to continuously justify your vote on the basis of it being the ‘less bad’ choice?

There is, though, a way in which Brown’s election would be worse than Whitman’s. He is running on blustery optimism, promising that things will get better because they always do in California. He is arguing that we can have world-class education and adequate social services for the hungry, the poor, the sick and the elderly without those doing well chipping in a bit more. He is asserting that when we make policy, we must arrange our morals around an economic bottom line. He boasts of getting around regulation as Mayor of Oakland, insinuating that all regulation is simply unnecessary red-tape—when in fact it was the lack of regulation (an absence regulated into being by right-wing Republicans) which has led to so many disasters, whether financial, military or environmental. And he assents to the view that the devolution of power to local government—which sounds commendable—will not contribute to inequality.

In other words, he sounds like a Republican. And if he does better on clean energy, on maintaining taxes for the wealthy, and on supporting public employees’ unions, he undercuts these positions by taking the right-wing route on taxation, regulation and occasional disregard for social services. And if we have Democrats underwriting the right-wing argument, who is left to oppose it? The social soullessness of Gingrich, Boehner, Whitman, Fiorina, Palin and Romney, their disdain for collective responsibility, and the concomitant writing off of equality will become a cross-party consensus, something that should be avoided at all costs.

California needs political reform and reinvigoration. We also have to learn how to think in more than two colours, and along a social and political spectrum with more than two dimensions. And to break the stultifying, unprogressive political mould in which we currently sit, acquiescently, we need to vote with our consciences and eschew the mathematics that the two major parties try to substitute for morality.

We also need to think about the long term. That might mean rejecting the candidate of a party that many of us have long supported as the better of two options. It might mean a Republican governorship. But if that can be followed by something genuinely progressive that will actually help people, is it not better than a Democrat who walks, talks and legislates a lot like a Republican? I hope so, and when I re-registered to vote last week, it was as a non-partisan, because the Democratic Party is increasingly not living up to its own progressive ideals, and is failing to deliver for the people who need it the most.

Personally, I will be voting Green, because their candidate has chosen to talk seriously about taxation, the environment, democracy and governance.