A Fighting Chance, “Today the game is rigged – rigged to work for those who have money and power… The optimism that defines us as a people has been beaten and bruised. It doesn’t have to be this way.”In Oklahoma, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and her brothers grew up in “an America that invested in kids like us and helped build a future where we could flourish.” But, as she writes in her memoir,
Warren, a former Harvard Law School professor, is an expert on how Wall Street and the banking industry are destroying the middle class. She’s put that knowledge to powerful use on Capitol Hill, rapidly becoming the most authoritative and articulate voice of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. Many are urging her to run for president.
Before returning to Washington for the start of Congress, Sen. Warren talks to Bill this week about the problems facing middle-class Americans. “Washington works for those who can hire armies of lobbyists, armies of lawyers, and get just the rules they want. It doesn’t work so well for American families,” Sen. Warren tells Bill.
“The only chance we’ve got is if those families will turn back to their government and say, ‘I demand that you work for me, not for the billionaires, not for the millionaires. That you work for me.’”
BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company:
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: It’s time for everybody across this country to ask of their senators, to ask of their congressman or congresswoman: whose side are you on? Are you there for the folks who are out there trying to work for a living, or are you just there for the millionaires and billionaires?
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. You cannot have watched television the last few months without seeing Senator Elizabeth Warren talking about her book “A Fighting Chance.” And that’s a good thing, because it’s a terrific book, about how a little girl from Oklahoma, her parents struggling to make ends meet and keep a roof over their heads — how this little girl grows up to teach at Harvard Law School, becomes the nemesis of wrongdoers on Wall Street, gets elected to the United States Senate, and in record time becomes the leading voice of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. But right now let me show you something she said to me when I first interviewed her ten years ago:
ELIZABETH WARREN on NOW with Bill Moyers The middle class has been pushed right to the edge. They are on a cliff. And increasing numbers are falling off every single day. Families live in a much more dangerous economic world than they did a generation ago. They’re moms and dads who worked hard, played by the rules. They went to college. They bought a house. They had kids. And then they ended up in financial collapse.
BILL MOYERS: That was Elizabeth Warren in 2004, then a professor specializing in bankruptcy and personal finance, warning that the greed of our financial class and the increasing debt of ordinary people were leading us to economic disaster. And disaster came in 2008. Private citizen Warren was asked to lead the government task force overseeing the bank bailout. She was the prime mover in the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and should have been its first director, except that she alienated so many fat cats and their pals in Washington, that President Obama lost his nerve and wouldn’t appoint her. So she ran for the Senate in 2012 and the rest is history.
Welcome back, Senator Warren.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
BILL MOYERS: You know, ten years have passed since we had—
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: —that first talk, and the middle class is still struggling. In fact, their income, adjusted for inflation is lower than it was five years ago, and they’ve lost about three percent of their purchasing power since then. Yet stocks are soaring, the economy is expanding, and the benefits are not going to the middle class families. Why can’t Washington do better by them?
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: So I think Washington doesn’t do better by them because Washington isn’t trying to do better by them. If you look at Washington as a whole, I think this is the fundamental problem in our system right now. Washington works for those who can hire armies of lobbyists, armies of lawyers, and get just the rules they want. It doesn’t work so well for American families.
Look, we know the things we need to do. Raise the minimum wage. Nobody should work full time and still live in poverty. Minimum wage nationally hasn’t been raised in over seven years. We need to make sure that we have real rules on equal pay for equal work. We need to lower the interest rate on student loans.
In every case, we in the United States Senate have a majority. All of the Democrats have voted in favor of this. And occasionally, we even pick up a Republican. The Republicans have filibustered in the Senate. They won’t even bring things to a vote in the House of Representatives. This is really a case where one party has said, the usual rules of governing, you know, we’ll come together, we’ll try to talk about these things, we’ll try to work something out, their answer is no, no, no. They’re not there to help middle class families.
BILL MOYERS: But isn’t part of the problem that the Democratic Party is divided between its corporate Democrats, I mean, right now, more corporate and business associations, PACs, Political Action Committees, are contributing to Democrats in seven states, where the race is close this fall, than they are to the Republican challengers. Isn’t the Democratic Party so divided between its progressive wing and its corporate wing that it can’t really act in concert?
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: Well, actually, I disagree.
BILL MOYERS: Okay.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: Am I unhappy with the influence of money in Washington? You bet I am. But look at these issues. We had every single Democrat who said, it’s time to raise the minimum wage. Every single Democrat who said, and listen to this, it is more important to cut the interest rate on student loans than it is to protect tax loopholes for millionaires and billionaires. Every single Democrat who said, equal pay for equal work matters. I should throw in one more. Every single Democrat who said, your employers, it’s none of your employers’ business what kind of birth control you’re using. So it’s— we’ve got to build on our successes. And these are successes. Not in the sense that we’ve gotten them through yet.
But in the sense that we’ve pulled together, we’ve focused on them, and we’ve said, these are the things that Democrats stand for. We’re going to make sure Americans get a fair shot. We’re going to get out there and fight for America, and these are ways that we can do it. And we’ve all stood up behind that.
BILL MOYERS: But if Democrats really had their act together, if they weren’t, as so many people think, apparently feckless, wouldn’t that message be in every speech, every ad, every campaign across the country right now? Couldn’t, shouldn’t they be running a national campaign on raising the minimum wage? Which is supported by 70 percent of the public?
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: Well, all I can say is we got every Democrat to vote for it. I’m certainly out there talking about it. And I think there are a lot of folks who are talking about it in their races. You know, we need people to get engaged in this election. And to say to those who voted against the minimum wage, you’re not representing me. And that means I’m not going to vote for you anymore.
If that happens in this election in 2014, we start to see real change. I think we’ve got a lot of Democrats lined up to do this. You know, you ask us to get organized. I do want to be clear. We got this bill out there, we made them vote on it, all of the Democrats lined up for it, and most of us have given speeches across this country on it.
We need more engagement. Should we find more ways to engage? You bet. That’s why I come here and talk to you. It’s why I go all around the country when I can. Yes, we need more engagement. But the point is, I know who’s standing for working people. It’s the Democrats who are voting for the minimum wage, not the Republicans who are blocking it.
BILL MOYERS: You read the numbers. Three-quarters of Americans don’t feel confident their children’s lives will be better than theirs. And almost that many say their problems are largely due to Washington’s elected officials. So explain to me if 70 percent of the people want the minimum wage, and if three-quarters of the people don’t think the future looks very bright, how can there be such a gap between official Washington and the lived experiences of people like your parents?
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: The fundamental question is, who has the most influence in Washington? Is it working families? Or is it those who can make very large contributions to campaigns, those who can hire their armies of lobbyists and lawyers. And I think what we’re seeing is, in effect, rich people have got, you know, they got the ear of enough people in Congress to block legislation that they don’t like. That was really the point in the book, “A Fighting Chance,” that I talk about how I first went to Washington. And it was over the bankruptcy bill.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: And the idea that the credit card companies, this was back in the ’90s, the credit card companies wanted to change the bankruptcy laws so that they could improve the bottom line on their profitability. So just by squeezing families, and who are the families they were going to squeeze? Families who had high medical debts, families who have someone had lost a job, like my dad had. Families who had had a breakup, either a death or a divorce in the families. Those were the families who were going into bankruptcy. Credit card companies said, we’re going to squeeze that and keep fewer of them from going, and we’ll make a few more dollars at the end because we can get a little more money out of them on these credit card bills.
And my first thought, when I first saw what they were trying to do, this tells you as a professor, I thought, that would never happen in a democracy. What elected representative would say, I know, I’m going to vote to change these laws to help a half dozen big, multi-zillion-dollar credit card companies. I’m going to help them squeeze the families back home, and particularly squeeze hard-working, middle-class families, who’ve just gotten into terrible, financial trouble.
And boy did I find out I didn’t understand how the world worked then. I ended up getting involved. I was asked to work on a bankruptcy review commission in Washington and I just saw it day after day. It was no one but lobbyists over there. And who could hire the lobbyists? The credit card companies.
BILL MOYERS: I want to play something else we talked about ten years ago. Hillary Clinton was first lady and asked to meet with you to discuss the bankruptcy bill that was coming up for a vote. After your meeting with her, President Bill Clinton, at her urging, vetoed the bill. Let me play that for you.
ELIZABETH WARREN on NOW with Bill Moyers Mrs. Clinton took credit for that veto, and she rightly should. She turned around a whole administration on the subject of bankruptcy. She got it—
ELIZABETH WARREN on NOW with Bill Moyers And then? And then?
ELIZABETH WARREN on NOW with Bill Moyers #306: One of the first bills that came up, after she was Senator Clinton was the bankruptcy bill. This is a bill that’s like a vampire. It will not die. Right? There’s a lot of money behind it, and it just—
BILL MOYERS on NOW with Bill Moyers A bill her husband had vetoed.
ELIZABETH WARREN on NOW with Bill Moyers Her husband had vetoed it very much at her urging.
ELIZABETH WARREN on NOW with Bill Moyers And?
ELIZABETH WARREN on NOW with Bill Moyers She voted in favor of it.
BILL MOYERS on NOW with Bill Moyers Why?
ELIZABETH WARREN on NOW with Bill Moyers As Senator Clinton, the pressures are very different. It’s a well-financed industry. You know, a lot of people don’t realize that the industry that gave the most money to Washington over the past few years was not the oil industry, was not pharmaceuticals, it was consumer credit products. Those are the people, the credit card companies have been giving money. And they’re— they have influence.
ELIZABETH WARREN on NOW with Bill Moyers And Mrs. Clinton was one of them, as senator?
ELIZABETH WARREN on NOW with Bill Moyers She has taken money from the groups, and more to the point, she worries about them as a constituency.
BILL MOYERS: So, can we ever have a government that works for everyday people? A government that we can trust, when our elected officials switch sides like that and pay more attention to the donors than to the voters?
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: I think this is one of the hardest questions in democracy, the hardest questions that we face as a country right now. The government runs for those who can make their voices heard. And they mostly make their voices heard through their lobbyists, through their campaign contributions. And that means over and over and over the tilt is in favor of the rich and the powerful.
Every rule that gets written just has, you know, just a little more, a little twist, a little opening, a little loophole for those who’ve already made it big. And it’s taken the legs out from underneath our middle class, our working families, it’s taking hope away from our next generation. This is the problem we’ve got to solve and we’ve got to solve it now.
BILL MOYERS: But isn’t it time to get real ideologically? The neoliberal movement of the last 30 years has run itself into the ground. And you know as well as I do, it still, nonetheless, has a hold on establishment Democrats.
To be frank, Mrs. Clinton, for all the admiration and respect she commands for her years in public life, is the embodiment of that establishment, that movement. Do you think the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party can put the country back on a path away from corporate and plutocratic control?
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: The way I see this is that we change as a people. The issues that face us are more visible than they were before the 2008 crash.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: We have a lot of new people in the Senate in particular. And a lot of new ideas for how we should be pushing to build an America going forward. Let me put it this way, because this is how I see it. There are two key things that we need to build a country, to rebuild our middle class.
The first is that we need a set of rules that just works. We knew this coming out of the Great Depression. Nobody should be able to steal your purse on Main Street, and no one should be able to steal your pension on Wall Street. We need tough rules so that financial markets are fair, so that they’re transparent, so you don’t get cheated.
That’s one part of it. The second part of it is that we have to agree together to build the things that only government can build. And I think of it this way. The things that help us build a future, we have to make the investments in education so that every kid gets a fighting chance. We have to make the investments in basic infrastructure, in roads and bridges and power grids and all those things.
And the third thing, we have to commit to and build again is our investment in research. This is what has made us such an extraordinary people. I talk about these because together, this is how we build a future. It takes lots of individual initiative, lots of people who make good decisions; some people will make bad decisions. But this is the part, the core that gives us the opportunity to build a future. And we need to be committed to that.
BILL MOYERS: But can you get that commitment if you don’t have an open debate on the very issues you talk about? I mean, is it healthy? I believe you when you say you have no plans to run for president. I don’t think you really want to run for president. But isn’t it essential for a party to debate those issues within its own ranks?
And isn’t the best way to do that, because I don’t see it happening in the Senate, in a presidential race where in the debates, as we saw with the Republicans in 2012, in the debates the issues are raised between opponents who nonetheless have different views on the future that you just described? And shouldn’t you be in that race if you want to get these issues in 2016 before the American people at a time when they are focused?
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: You know, now people are focused. And we need them focused in 2014. Mitch McConnell is on the ballot in 2014. It is Mitch McConnell who led the fight to say, we’re going to keep the interest rates high on student loans so that we’ll have the revenue to be able to fund the loopholes for millionaires and billionaires on their taxes.
That issue is on the table. Minimum wage is on the table. Access to birth control is on the table. Equal pay for equal work is on the table. We have to be out there talking about the issues. You’re darn right that’s what we have to do. You know, part of what bothers me is when people talk about Washington, they talk about gridlock. This is the most frustrating word for me. That’s right. Because gridlock sounds like a bunch of cars got to the intersection at the same moment and everybody’s just too damn stubborn to back up. That’s not what’s wrong in Washington. What has changed is fundamental so that all the old rules, you know, the things we all work on together, roads, bridges, the Highway Transportation bill, education, funding, the National Institute of Health, that stuff went through. Everybody wanted to do it. Everybody saw. It’s how you make a stronger America.
And yet now the Republicans block on every one of those. And they won’t give an inch on protecting loopholes for billionaires, for Fortune 500 companies. Let them have every tax advantage. Don’t make them pay a fair share. And when you get that far out of balance, we can’t get this country moving forward.
And this is what frustrates me is it’s a self-inflicted wound. You know, it’s a tough world out there. You look around this world. There’s terrorism, there’s environmental catastrophe looming. A tough competitive economic environment worldwide. We need to be pulling together in order to address the really hard questions out there. And instead this idea that somehow party politics that the Republicans have got to have their ideology ahead of all and that they’re willing to drive this country over a cliff for it, that’s a really scary, scary message that’s coming from the Republicans right now. And that’s—
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain it? You—
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: —but it’s why when you talk about— do we need to do better? Do Democrats need to do better? Of course we need to do better. Of course we do. But look at the danger these guys are posing. We have got to make these differences clear and we’ve got to get people engaged to say, wait a minute, I’m not voting for somebody like Mitch McConnell who says it is more important to protect billionaires than it is to protect kids who are trying to go to college.
BILL MOYERS: It seems to me there’s something official Washington won’t talk about including many progressives. John Maynard Keynes, the great economist of the last century said quote “The same rule of self-destructive financial calculation governs every walk of life. We destroy the beauty of the countryside because the unappropriated splendors of nature have no economic value. We are capable of shutting off the sun and the stars because they do not pay a dividend.”
And isn’t it the case that we’re likewise shutting out millions of Americans who work hard for a living, can’t find a decent job at a living wage because our political and our financial elites consider dividends more important than the lived experience of real people?
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: I think that’s right. I think that’s exactly where we are in this country right now. And I think this is what we’re trying to fight back. You know, I frame this as the question of how we build a future. And I talk about the investments we make together. And how those investments give every kid a fighting chance. That that’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to build opportunity. This is about our children and our grandchildren. This is about the kind of country we want to be. This is about the kind of people we are. We aren’t a people who are just blind in the pursuit of profits. That’s not who we are. And we can’t let—
BILL MOYERS: Well, it seems at the moment we are.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: We can’t let those among us who are control our government and direct our country. If those are the people they want to be, so be it. But our government is supposed to be there to work for us, for all of us, for this whole country, to help build a future, not for some of our kids, but for all of our kids. That is our moral responsibility. That’s what we are required to do. We are called to do this.
BILL MOYERS: I recommend people read “A Fighting Chance,” your latest book. But I tell you, I go back quite often to “The Two-Income Trap” which is what we talked about ten years ago.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: We did.
BILL MOYERS: Why middle class parents are going broke. And ten years after you wrote this— ten years after we knew this was a burning issue and you predicted that we were going to have a crisis in America if we didn’t deal with it, it’s worse.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: You know, Bill, there are pieces we have to remember that have gotten better. We’ve got a consumer agency fighting on our side. We’ve— we— but it is worse. It’s worse because families are pressed harder than ever. Families are squeezed right to the edge all over this country.
The only chance we’ve got is if those families will turn back to their government and say, I demand that you work for me, not for the billionaires, not for the millionaires. That you work for me. That you put a set of rules in place that give me a chance, that give my children a chance, that give my grandchildren a chance. That’s our only hope for this country. And I tell you, we’re getting down to the eleventh hour on this. We can’t take much more of this. We can’t shut the government down again and just blow through billions of dollars for nothing.
And shake the confidence of the rest of the world that looks around and says, what’s happened to the United States? Here was this optimistic, prosperous country that is so intent on an internal political fight that it won’t even take care of itself much less lead the rest of the world. We can do better than that and we must do better than that.
BILL MOYERS: Senator, let’s continue this conversation online. The book is “A Fighting Chance” by Elizabeth Warren. Thank you very much for joining me.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: Thank you, dear. It’s good to be here.
BILL MOYERS: At our website, BillMoyers.com, my interview continues with Elizabeth Warren, and you can watch our past interviews with her and see just how right she was about the economic predicament of the American middle class and the financial dangers that lay ahead, including the subprime mortgage crisis.
That’s at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.
Producer: Gina Kim. Segment Producer: Lena Shemel. Editor: Rob Kuhns. Intro Editor: Sikay Tang.