Fighting for a More Equitable America
The best way to shape the future of America is to get involved, an impassioned Elizabeth Warren advised students and the Tufts community in a talk on campus Sept. 15. “Just do it,” she said. “We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and you can do it.”
Warren, the senior U.S. senator from Massachusetts, gave this year’s Alan D. Solomont Lecture on Citizenship and Public Service. She spoke to a packed Cohen Auditorium in a lively interview with Solomont, A70, A08P, the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of Tisch College, which sponsored the lecture. The informal discussion touched on her childhood, the need to reform U.S. financial institutions and her concerns about the well-being of the United States. The theme throughout was a call to action.
It was Warren's mother who first taught her about the importance of taking action. Her three older brothers were grown and serving in the military when their father had a heart attack and could no longer work. The family lost its car, bills were piling up, and they were on the brink of losing their house.
Warren watched her 50-year-old mother, who had never worked outside the home, put on her best dress, high heels and lipstick and walk to Sears, where she got a minimum-wage job answering phones. “That’s what saved our family,” Warren said. “The lesson I took from that is you get up and act.”
Later, Warren dropped out of college to get married, but continued her education at a school that cost $50 a semester; she then went to an inexpensive state law school. She was a professor at Harvard Law School for more than 30 years before being elected to the Senate in 2012.
“I had to do my part, and I did,” she said, “but I grew up in an America that was investing in kids like me; an America that had good, strong public schools; an America where my mother could work a minimum-wage job and support a family of three; an America that invested in higher education. That was an America that was building a future for its kids. We are losing that America, and we have to fight to get it back.”
Solomont asked Warren why she predicted the United States was headed toward an economic crisis long before the 2008 recession. She said the trigger point came around 1980, when “deregulation was in the air and what some financial institutions smelled was the opportunity to make money.”
During the next 20 years, she said, financial institutions figured out they could make a lot of money by “tricking people,” making their products complicated and confusing. In 1980, she said, an application for a Bank of America credit card was a page-and-a-half long; it eventually grew to 30 pages. “Credit card companies began raking in money you can’t believe, and soon mortgage products started to change.”
What had once been a family’s lifeline, she said, namely to take out a mortgage and pay it back over time, became “a cement life raft, with banks offering teaser rates that many could only afford for the first two years,” said Warren, who is recognized as a national expert on bankruptcy and the financial pressures facing the middle class.
“We had the largest financial institutions making profits by tricking people,” she said. “Then they started bundling mortgages and selling them like boxes of grenades with the pins already out. You didn’t know when they would explode, but when they did, there would be hell to pay.”
Warren worked with such groups as the AFL-CIO and the AARP to propose the creation of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, against which financial institutions lobbied heavily. The bureau has now returned about $4 billion to consumers in refunds through fines against banks and credit card companies for providing inaccurate information or unfair billing practices such as charging consumers for monitoring services they never received.
But the bureau's existence hasn’t stopped big banks and other organizations from continuing to make risky investments and lobby against consumer interests, she said.
The senator said she is concerned about the growing inequality in America. “This country is at a crossroads,” she said. “It works incredibly well for those who have lots of money, but for the rest of America, this country isn’t working so well.” America’s middle class is being hollowed out, she said, and education, infrastructure and investment in research are facing challenges.
“All we have is our voices and our votes, and if we don’t use them, this country fundamentally changes,” she said. “This country was built on democracy and opportunity for everyone: the new Americans, the kids whose parents didn’t graduate from high school, the kids who need a second or third chance to make it. The idea of America is to get together and build opportunities for the future, and the only way that will happen is if people stay engaged in issues and politics and get out and vote.”
Marjorie Howard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.