Elizabeth Warren has received some mention lately both for her work in trying to make sure the response to the financial crisis would include some teeth (neatly circumvented by the active collusion between Republicans and the Obama administration on behalf of creditors) and for her somewhat lackluster stab at a senate seat, which appeared to consist entirely of warmed-over populism. But as Jason McCullough points out, she made her name for the right reasons, and if you look at the sort of analysis she was dishing out before political consultants dumbed down her public presence, and it’s compelling stuff.
First, she dispenses with the popular and insidious notion that Americans are simply addicted to consumption. More importantly she goes after the idea that this conservative meme could possibly account for the decline of the middle class’ economic agency using hard data and some fairly detailed comparisons to other time periods, which are typically done only for the purpose of showing how much worse or more irrational modern Americans are. You don’t have to go far to find the most obnoxious examples of this kind of thinking, but it’s also present in a subtler form in the whole “go get a job” response that Representative Boehner and other high ranking Republicans have used for the Occupy Wall Street movement.
More importantly, she finds some fairly definitive prime causes for that lack of economic agency, beginning with mortgages and the costs of homes. So far, so what…but it gets more interesting when she figures out that it’s not a pursuit of McMansions that is killing the middle class wallet, but rather something altogether more fundamental:
Consider University City, the West Philadelphia neighborhood surrounding the University of Pennsylvania. In an effort to improve the area, the university committed funds for a new elementary school. The results? At the time of the announcement, in 1998, the median home value in the area was less than $60,000. Five years later, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, “homes within the boundaries go for about $200,000, even if they need to be totally renovated.” The neighborhood is otherwise pretty much the same: the same commute to work, the same distance from the freeways, the same old houses. And yet, in five years families are willing to pay more than triple the price for a home, just so they can send their kids to a better public elementary school.
Broken public schools create an aggressive scarcity of education options where the costs of not going to great lengths to get out of dysfunctional systems are staggering over the long term for the children in question. Talk to a new or expecting parent and see just what percentage of their future income and savings allotments are going to go to living in such an area or opting out of public schools altogether, and you get a better sense of why the stagnation of wages in the last few decades has hit so hard in terms of impoverishing people who at any other time in the last century would have been saving and living within their means.
She covers a number of other variables, including the way tax burdens affect two-income families more than they did single earner homes, the costs of health care even for families without chronic disabilities or illnesses, the cost of funding a child through the college education that is now mandatory for an overwhelming majority of middle class jobs, and of course the extortionate approach to individual bankruptcy and credit that is permitted by the sort of regulation she was writing against in 2005. It’s worth connecting that piece of information to the reflection on the modern nature of what is at the heart of the modern financial industry that Jason links in the same post.
At any rate, the promise of Elizabeth Warren isn’t in her public speaking but rather in having access to a political figure who speaks to policy on the basis of evidence and a genuine advocacy for people other than special interests. This isn’t Ralph Nader leveraging a brief moment of righteousness into a career of marshalling leftists into other lost causes, but rather an altogether rarer phenomenon of sincere, problem-solving activism coupled with intellect. I don’t know whether she can survive the character assassination of the Republicans and the quiet smothering of the Democrats, but I hope she keeps it up regardless of the outcome.
Just in case you made it this far, charmtrap linked Neil Gaiman’s “Thirteen Observations made by Lemony Snicket while watching Occupy Wall Street from a Discreet Distance“. I think the whole Bastille comparison is funny but less apt as a result of the peculiarities of modern American populism, but that’s an issue for another time.