Review: Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth WarrenAntonia Felix. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2018

Summary: A biography of the Democrat U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, from the financial struggles of her family, her academic life and the research that changed her life, and her work protecting consumers that led to her Senate run.

“She persisted.” These words became a rallying cry when Elizabeth Warren attempted to read a letter from Coretta Scott King during the confirmation hearings of Jeff Session to the cabinet office of Attorney General. The letter spoke to Mrs. King’s contention that Sessions, as a federal judge had taken actions that chilled the exercise of voting rights by black citizens. She was interrupted once, warned of impugning the character of a fellow senator. The second time, Mitch McConnell stopped her, and she was forced to take her seat after the Republican dominated Senate voted to silence her. He said, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” And she did. Banned from speaking in the Senate, she read the letter on a live Facebook video.

This was just the latest instance of a persistence born of a commitment to advocate for those our system often overlooks. It began, according to Antonia Felix, in Oklahoma, and her own family’s struggles to make ends meet. She watched her mother go to work save their home when her father had a heart attack. She had a passion to teach when becoming a homemaker was society’s vision for women and struggled in her early years between these two visions. A love of debate led to a scholarship to George Washington University. Her love for Jim Warren, high school sweetheart, led to a move to Texas, and completion of her degree at the University of Houston in speech pathology. A teaching job ended when she became pregnant. Struggling with the life of a stay at home mom after a move to New Jersey following her husband’s job, she enrolled in Rutgers Law School, which she described as “an advanced degree in thinking.” Completing law school, she and Jim moved back to Houston, with a second child, a son.

An offer to teach the legal writing at the University of Houston Law Center launched her career–and led to the end of her first marriage, as conflicts between her and Jim made it clear they had different marriage and life visions. She met her current husband, Bruce, at Houston. The biography goes on to trace her legal career as she moved to Texas, Penn, and eventually Harvard.

More significant, and especially for someone like myself who works with academics, Warren was transformed by her research. When she began her legal career, she was influenced by a law and economics course taught by Henry Manne in a program funded by the conservative John M. Olin Foundation, essentially a right wing group. One of her research interests was bankruptcy, particularly in a period when bankruptcy laws had made debt relief more accessible to financially troubled families. There were many advocating for tougher laws, contending that people were gaming the system and irresponsible. She ended up studying thousands of bankruptcy cases and came to a very different conclusion that contradicted her right wing leanings. She discovered lending and credit card practices that created debt loads that pressed families to limits at which a job loss or illness would push them over the edge. Terms buried in credit card agreements and sub-prime loans for those qualifying for better terms were the most outstanding examples.

It transformed her into an advocate for consumers and led to her helping set up, under the Obama administration, the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. In a landmark journal article (reprinted in the book) Warren argued,

“It is impossible to buy a toaster that has a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house. But it is possible to refinance an existing home with a mortgage that has the same one-in-five chance of putting the family out on the street–and the mortgage won’t even carry a disclosure of that fact to the homeowner. Similarly, it’s impossible to change the price on a toaster once it has been purchased. But long after the papers have been signed, it is possible to triple the price of the credit used to finance the purchase of that appliance, even if the customer meets all the credit terms, in full and on time.”

Bank failures and the sins of Wall Street in 2008 made her a fierce advocate for regulatory reform and finally convinced her to run for the Senate seat in Massachusetts in 2012. Opposition to efforts to roll back reforms made during the Obama years has made her a visible object for attack, including her claims of Indian heritage. The book includes the transcript of an address to Native Americans where she addresses this.

Warren is up for re-election this year, and has acknowledged that she is giving serious consideration to a run for the presidency in 2020. This book does have something of the feel of a campaign piece, introducing the wider public to Warren, addressing criticisms without making new ones. But it also did reveal something extraordinary that impressed me. Here was an academic whose research changed her mind and compelled her to act on what she found. She didn’t remain a “one dimensional scholar” remaining detached from her findings. She moved to work in government to apply those findings in ways that made life better for the people she studied. She cared more about truth than ideology, and allowed evidence to change her mind, and then showed the courage of her convictions over and over in advocacy. She persisted.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advance reader copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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