The Other Woman: Elizabeth Warren and the 2016 Election

The Other Woman: Elizabeth Warren and the 2016 Election

Senator Warren is not running, but she will be a major influence this year. 

March 31, 2016

This article is a preview of the Spring 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazineSubscribe here

She is the other woman of American politics—an unabashed progressive with a compelling life story, a woman who made it from hardscrabble roots on her own, not in partnership with a husband president. She made it all the way to teach at Harvard Law School, and she did it as a single mom by way of Oklahoma.

Notwithstanding the Sanders campaign, Elizabeth Warren is widely recognized as the leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in Congress. She has defined, in a compelling phrase, why the economy is not serving ordinary people—the rules are rigged (see interview with Warren, below). Warren is a hybrid of the breakthrough appeal of Hillary Clinton as a woman leader and of Bernie Sanders as a progressive straight-talker. Unlike Sanders, she is a shrewd legislator with major practical accomplishments to her credit, one who knows how to play both an inside and an outside game, and how to lead from the left.

More than one Democratic strategist has suggested that if Warren had chosen to run, she might have handily beaten both Clinton and Sanders for the nomination. She has many of the strengths of Clinton and of Sanders without the blemishes. But of course, Warren did not run. At this writing, however, she is playing a fascinating behind-the-scenes role that could yet significantly influence this year’s outcome.

For starters, Warren is continuing to stoke the progressive base and to articulate themes well to the left of Clinton. At the Netroots Nation convention in Phoenix last July, she declared:

Insider Washington watched one of its own representatives nearly die from a gunshot to the head—just a hundred miles away from here—then refused to hear the country’s calls for commonsense gun reform.

Insider Washington worries that we’ve been too tough on Wall Street while the American people know that the banksters who broke our economy belong in jail.

Insider Washington labels any idea with a hint of spunk or ambition as “radical and outside the mainstream,” while millions of Americans show up for rallies or chip in ten bucks to support a democracy that reflects our true values.

Well I’m here to make an announcement to Insider Washington: America is far more progressive than you are!

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sits between Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Senator John McCain, right, and Sentor Elizabeth Warren on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, January 24, 2013, during the committee's confirmation hearing for committee chairman Senator John Kerry to replace Clinton. 

Warren is one of the few Senate Democrats and the only woman not to have endorsed Hillary Clinton. She has resisted public and private pressure from the other women senators to get on board. Early on, when Sanders seemed a pure protest candidate, her holdout struck some as almost churlish. Now it seems shrewd.

Warren’s purpose was and is clear—to influence Clinton to become more of a full-throated progressive. Whether the credit is due to Warren, to Sanders’s broad appeal, or to the leftward shift of most rank-and-file Democrats, Clinton has indeed moved left with each succeeding primary. Now, as the likely nominee, Clinton will sorely need not just the support but the enthusiastic backing of both Sanders and Warren, and their active efforts to rally what will be a somewhat dispirited progressive base.

However, Warren’s efforts are not just aimed at influencing Clinton on the issues. Warren’s recent speeches suggest that her pressure on Clinton is substantially directed at what sort of economic team Clinton would appoint. It obviously galls Warren that two Democratic presidents in a row have picked senior officials who came straight from Wall Street and soon went back to Wall Street. During 2009 and 2010, when drastic overhaul of a calamitous financial system was possible and necessary, and a Democrat was newly in the White House just as Franklin Roosevelt was in 1933, it was the influence of those officials that kept reform modest and preserved the business model of the big banks.

Warren was a major player in those battles, the most influential leader of the loyal opposition to Obama and his economic team, first as head of the Congressional Oversight Panel that Congress created to monitor the bank bailouts, and then as a senator from Massachusetts. It is a mark of her tactical brilliance and toughness that she simultaneously did battle with Obama’s top two financial officials, economic chief Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and yet persuaded the president to personally champion her own prime legislative goal, a strong and independent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. When Obama, prodded by Wall Street types, decided not to appoint her as permanent head of that bureau, Warren found herself an even more influential job, winning a Senate seat from Massachusetts. In that role, more than any other senator, she made sure that Summers would not succeed Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve.

By all accounts, Warren is looking for firm commitments that Clinton would not be the third Democratic president in a row to hand the top economic and financial portfolios to Wall Streeters. This is doubly challenging, since the first of those presidents was Clinton’s own husband; and Hillary, like Bill Clinton, famously raises a ton of money from the financial industry. A line that repeatedly finds its way into Warren speeches and op-eds is “personnel is policy.” It is an astute observation.

In the speech to Netroots Nation, Warren declared:

Three of the last four Treasury secretaries under Democratic presidents have had close Citigroup ties. The fourth was offered the CEO position at Citigroup, but turned it down.

The vice chair of the Federal Reserve system is a Citigroup alum.

The undersecretary for international affairs at Treasury is a Citigroup alum.

The U.S. trade representative is a Citigroup alum.

The person nominated to be deputy U.S. trade representative—who is currently an assistant secretary at Treasury—is a Citigroup alum.

A recent chairman of the National Economic Council at the White House is a Citigroup alum.

A recent chairman of the Office of Management and Budget went to Citigroup immediately after leaving the White House.

Another recent chairman of the Office of Management and Budget is also a Citi alum—but I’d be double counting here because now he’s the secretary of the Treasury.

And those are just the most visible parts. The revolving door spins for all the deputies and assistants and special assistants, too. …

How would the world be different today if, when the economic crisis hit, Joe Stiglitz had been Secretary of the Treasury and Simon Johnson and Robert Reich had been key economic advisers? It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. Personnel is policy. [emphasis added]

In January, Warren’s office released a report about 20 notable enforcement and prosecution failures in recent flagrant cases of corporate crimes (see “Dangerous Bedfellows: The Stalemate on Criminal Justice Reform,” Rena Steinzor, page 72). In a New York Times op-ed, Warren wrote:

Presidents don’t control most day-to-day enforcement decisions, but they do nominate the heads of all the agencies, and these choices make all the difference. Strong leaders at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Labor Department have pushed those agencies to forge ahead with powerful initiatives to protect the environment, consumers and workers. The Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, a tiny office charged with oversight of the post-crash bank bailout, has aggressive leaders—and a far better record of holding banks and executives accountable than its bigger counterparts.

Meanwhile, the Securities and Exchange Commission, suffering under weak leadership, is far behind on issuing congressionally mandated rules to avoid the next financial crisis. It has repeatedly granted waivers so that law-breaking companies can continue to enjoy special privileges, while the Justice Department has dodged one opportunity after another to impose meaningful accountability on big corporations and their executives.

Each of these government divisions is headed by someone nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The lesson is clear: Personnel is policy. [emphasis added]

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Senator Elizabeth Warren, flanked by Senator Charles Schumer, left, and Senator Tammy Baldwin join supporters of the ‘‘Seniors And Veterans Emergency Benefits Act’’ sponsored by Warren which would provide a supplementary cost-of-living payment to Social Security beneficiaries and recipients of veterans benefits, Wednesday, March 9, 2016, on Capitol Hill in Washington. 

There is also an ad hoc coalition of reform groups, including Public Citizen, Americans for Financial Reform, the Revolving Door Project, Bold Progressives, and others that are directing the same message at Clinton, using the website PresidentialAppointmentsMatter.com. They have petitioned both Clinton and Sanders to commit to not appointing Wall Street people to key top economic posts.

It’s hard to know how such commitments would be enforced, but Clinton will be under pressure to introduce her senior economic team well before the election. Obama appointed his in June 2008, and it disappointed many progressives because it included a lot of the usual suspects. If Clinton is elected president, Warren (and Sanders) will also be voting on confirmation of appointees, in what is likely to be a closely divided Senate.

The three most powerful such positions are Treasury secretary, head of the National Economic Council, and chair of the Federal Reserve. Robert Rubin and Larry Summers held both of the first two jobs, and Summers coveted the Fed position. Janet Yellen has a 14-year term as a member of the Fed Board of Governors, but her tenure as chair expires in 2018. The second-tier economic jobs are director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and chair of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). In the Bill Clinton and Obama administrations, people who were safely pro–Wall Street got all four of the top jobs, and a liberal sometimes chaired the CEA—a staff position rather than one with direct power.

Who is jostling for the top economic posts in a Hillary Clinton administration? The possible candidates include former OMB Director Peter Orszag, a Rubin protégé now vice chair of investment banking at Citi and soon to take a similar job at Lazard; Antonio Weiss, a former head of mergers and acquisitions at Lazard, counselor to current Treasury Secretary Jack Lew (Weiss’s appointment to be a Treasury undersecretary, subject to Senate confirmation, was blocked by one Elizabeth Warren); Gene Sperling, who has held several senior economic posts in the Clinton and Obama administrations as well as stints on Wall Street, but never Treasury secretary; and Gary Gensler, currently chief financial officer of the Clinton campaign. Another Wall Street man very close to the Clintons is Tom Nides, who left his job as chief operating officer at Morgan Stanley to be a deputy secretary of state under Clinton and is now back at Morgan Stanley as vice chairman. Ron Bloom, investment banker and adviser to trade unions and architect of Obama’s auto rescue, has also been rumored as a Clinton cabinet pick, but much more likely as Commerce or Labor secretary than for one of the power positions.

Of these, Gensler is the one who might be acceptable to both centrists and progressives. He is a onetime Wall Street insider (co-head of finance at Goldman) who got religion as an unexpectedly tough regulator at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and became an ally of Warren. He has both the Wall Street experience and the anti–Wall Street experience. Clinton goes out of her way to let it be known that she also consults Joseph Stiglitz, the rare progressive to have held senior posts including chair of the Council of Economic Advisers and senior vice president of the World Bank, and who is even more of a progressive now than then. It would be truly revolutionary if Clinton were to appoint him as either Treasury Secretary or chair of the National Economic Council.

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, left, and Elizabeth Warren, center, listen to President Barack Obama announce the nomination of former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, to serve as the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), Monday, July 18, 2011, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. 

I have no knowledge of any direct conversations between Warren and Clinton about any of this. It seems to be all about signaling. Clinton has obviously heard the message, though she has kept commitments vague. During the March 9 Democratic presidential debate, she did say in response to a question about her economic team, “I will be looking for people who will put the interests of consumers first, who will do more to try to make sure Main Street flourishes. And I will very much reach out and ask for advice as to who should be appointed, including to Senator Warren and many of my other former colleagues in the Senate.”

One other name that keeps coming up is Larry Summers. According to several sources, Summers is banging on the door of the Clinton campaign but the campaign is keeping him at a prudent distance. What does Summers want? He has held every top economic policy job except chair of the Federal Reserve, a career-capping post that was snatched away from him when the nomination proved toxic to Senate liberals, led by Warren—one of the very few times in presidential history that senior figures in a president’s own party, in a public spat, dissuaded him from making a high-profile nomination before it was even sent to the Senate. Summers, at 61, is almost a decade younger than Yellen. But it would take some doing for a President Hillary Clinton to dislodge the first woman chair (and a successful one) of the Fed in favor of a contender who has already been blocked once by Senate Democrats.

Summers, lately, has been highly visible, in op-eds and at events not far from the Clinton campaign, geographically or ideologically. In the last few months, he has spoken at the Peterson Institute, Brookings, and the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, which is a spin-off of the Center for American Progress, the think tank closest to the Clintons. In these speeches and op-eds, he has expressed concerns about wage stagnation and long-term slow growth and made the case for public investment. He has even offered qualified praise for a Sanders op-ed complaining about excessive financial industry influence on the Fed. Summers seems to be rebranding himself as more of a progressive, in keeping with the times and the shift in the Clinton campaign. So far, say my sources, despite the intervention of Robert Rubin, Summers’s longtime patron and confrere, the Clintons have not put out a welcome mat.

Summers and I had a revealing email exchange about the Wall Street revolving door that so troubles Elizabeth Warren. The exchange began with a pained message from Summers, objecting to the fact that a Prospect article by David Dayen on hedge fund speculators and Puerto Rico mentioned that Summers worked for the financial firm D.E. Shaw, one of the players in the speculation in the possible default of various kinds of Puerto Rico bonds. Summers pointed out that he does no work on Puerto Rico for Shaw, and characterized the reference to him in the piece as “drive-by character aspersion.”

In the course of the exchange, Summers objected to the revolving-door criticism and wondered what sort of post-Washington financial consulting work would be legitimate, adding that he continued to do the kind of lecturing and consulting that he did before entering government: “I’ve turned down opportunities of the kinds pursued by Paul Volcker and by most former treasury secretaries at substantial cost. What former financial official in your view has behaved appropriately since leaving a high position in the USG [U.S. government]?”

Well let’s see. Three who immediately come to mind are Sheila Bair, the former pro-reform chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, who then went to the Pew Charitable Trusts and is now president of Washington College; Michael Barr, the Assistant Treasury Secretary who drafted much of what became the Dodd-Frank Act and is now back teaching law at the University of Michigan; and the late Harvey Goldschmid, perhaps the most effective progressive SEC commissioner, who returned to Columbia to teach law after his term expired.

But Summers is right—these are the exceptions. The revolving door is the norm. Summers is paid about $600,000 as a university professor at Harvard, and makes several million dollars a year on the side from speeches and Wall Street affiliations. Most people would consider his regular gig at Harvard a pretty good full-time job.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Senator Elizabeth Warren questions Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew as he testifies before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committee during a hearing to examine the Financial Stability Oversight Council annual report to Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 25, 2014. 

My guess is that Warren will endorse Clinton when her nomination becomes inevitable. But there is plenty of room between an endorsement and deciding to work hard for a ticket. One could even imagine Warren on the ticket, especially if Clinton gets the nomination and is eager—desperate—to enlist the support of the Warren-Sanders wing of the party, where most of the excitement now is. A ticket comprised of two women would be a breakthrough and a risk. The calculus would have to be that such a ticket would balance the enthusiasm gap now enjoyed by Trump, and that an even wider gender gap would cut in Clinton’s favor. It would also set up Warren as Clinton’s likely successor, something that would surely excite the base. However, this is a long shot because it would shift Warren’s Senate seat from Democrat to Republican, since Massachusetts now has a Republican governor who would appoint a successor to serve for two years.

It is a mark of Warren’s influence and political acumen that, as someone yet to endorse a candidate, she could well have significant influence over the next president’s economic team. She is surely right that personnel is policy, a phrase that is original to her. I know of no other case of a senator from a potential president’s own party pursuing this sort of strategy. Elizabeth Warren plays progressive hardball and plays it well.

 

Banking As Usual: An Interview with Elizabeth Warren

Robert Kuttner: Since the financial crisis of 2008 and the enactment of Dodd-Frank, what has changed and what hasn’t changed in the business model of the big banks?

Elizabeth Warren: The big banks have not fundamentally changed their business model. They’re still looking for the maximum profits, however they can wring them out, and they are willing to absorb high risks in order to produce those profits. That’s how they got the economy into trouble in 2008, and that’s what makes me very nervous about where we are today.

The good news is that Dodd-Frank has backed the banks out of some very risky practices. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau means that building multibillion-dollar businesses around tricking families doesn’t work anymore. Dodd-Frank has also forced the banks to take on higher capital requirements, which means they can absorb more risk. So there are real changes, and Dodd-Frank is worth defending, but it simply hasn’t gone far enough.

Where hasn’t it gone far enough?

Part of it is how the banks take on these risks. And we are talking about the biggest banks; this is not about the community banks. In 2014, lobbyists working for Citigroup got a provision passed to blast a hole in Dodd-Frank by repealing the so-called swaps pushout rule. The idea behind the rule was simple: If a big bank wanted to enter into certain risky deals—like the credit default swaps that had been at the heart of the 2008 crisis—they had to bear all of that risk themselves instead of passing it along to taxpayers. Citigroup got that repealed.

As a result, banks can now take nearly $10 trillion in additional risks onto their balance sheets. For American taxpayers, that’s pretty scary. It means the banks have more risk, and it also means that regulating those banks is now much harder. Instead of a regulator just following basic banking practices—is there adequate capital, are their loans performing—the regulators have to know a lot about the derivatives market, which is much more complex. It’s a much darker market, meaning there’s not a lot of visibility into what’s happening, and it’s far harder for regulators to police. It’s both extremely profitable for the banks and extremely risky for the taxpayers.

So in effect, the so-called shadow banking system—products like derivatives—got taken inside the big banks.

Exactly right. Traditional shadow banking activities have been pulled inside the biggest financial institutions. Another problem is that the banks are just too damn big. The six biggest banks in this country are now 36 percent larger than the six biggest banks were in 2006—before the crash.

CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner speaks with Professor Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) before testifying at the panel hearing on Tuesday, April 21, 2009. 

And with more concentration and more market share than before the collapse.

Yes, the American people were told they were too big to fail; and, despite Dodd-Frank, they are now even bigger. Dodd-Frank did not break those big banks apart.

Is there an analogy between the run-up to the housing bubble and the role that the big banks played in it, and the current situation with bank investments in an energy bubble?

In a structural sense, yes. But the energy exposure is not nearly as wide as the housing exposure was. For banks that have deep exposure in the energy industry, there’s real reason for concern. They could lose a lot of money if low oil prices continue. But the risk is less systemic. In 2008, all the big banks faced the same kind of risk—up to their eyeballs in the housing market and mortgage-backed securities.

So, on balance, is there less systemic risk in the banking system today than on the eve of the 2008 financial collapse?

We do have greater capital requirements, which reduces systemic risk. But with six of the biggest banks now being a third bigger than the biggest banks were before the financial crisis, it’s hard to say there’s less systemic risk. And with those half-dozen banks pursuing very similar business models, if one fails then several of them are likely headed over the cliff together. Also, the regulatory capacity of our regulators to keep up with these ever-more complex institutions and financial products is not adequate, which means that the risk in the system is very difficult to identify. Size, parallel business models, weak regulatory oversight—each risk magnifies the others.

What about consumer rip-offs? The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which you successfully got included in Dodd-Frank, has helped, yet there are still all these sources of fee income and interest income at the expense of consumers. That’s a big source of bank profits.

I’m deeply impatient for change, but the signs of change are real. And I’ll give you a couple. The consumer agency has only been up and operational for a little over four years, but it has already forced the largest financial institutions to return more than $11 billion directly to consumers—directly to the 25 million consumers they cheated. And that starts to matter, not only because—you know $11 billion here, $11 billion there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money, playing off the old Everett Dirksen line—but because the banks themselves are starting to realize that consumer lending is no longer the Wild West, that it is no longer a lawless space where they can sell any piece of trash they can put together and they won’t get caught. So we’re starting to see some progress on that front.

And the other part that gives me hope is that the consumer agency has continued to lean forward. It has not been a tentative agency. It’s been careful to document everything that it does, to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t,’ but even so, it stays hard and true in pursuit of its mission to level the playing field, to give families a fighting chance. I think that’s starting—starting—to change the whole consumer finance market. Cheating people just isn’t as profitable as it used to be.

One of the criticisms of the big banks is that instead of lending money to the real economy, they take risk-free money from the Federal Reserve and make risk-free investments in Treasury securities, for risk-free profits.

That’s exactly right.

And yet, in a somewhat depressed economy, are traditional lending opportunities out there?

There’s a circular problem here. If the big banks won’t lend to small- and medium-sized businesses, small- and medium-sized business start to dry up and the big banks say, “Hey, there aren’t many small- and medium-sized businesses to lend to.”

The real problem is that the business model for the big banks has shifted. They now do two kinds of lending: at one end, make loans to the corporate giants. Those loans have to be handcrafted, but they’re very profitable, so it pays off. On the other end, they’ll lend to consumers. Those are much smaller loans, but they are all done based on the numbers—you know, on FICO scores, number of years living in the same residence, and so on. So consumer lending becomes a mass business that’s driven by spreadsheets. Caught in between are the small businesses, which require the same kind of careful, handcrafted look before the lending decision is made, but there’s not enough profitability in those loans to sustain the overhead. So the middle is thinning out. There’s credit available at the two ends, but not in the middle, and the real Main Street economy suffers. Over the long run, that shift in lending will have a devastating effect on our economy.

And meanwhile, the big bucks are also made from the capital market activity, from trading rather than investing.

Yeah, and that’s exactly why we need a new Glass-Steagall Act to break up the biggest banks. Breaking the banks apart would have two profound consequences. First, just to make them smaller. Second, to change a business model that lets giant banks use the low-cost, FDIC-guaranteed funds in grandma’s savings account to fund high-risk activities in the shadow banking market. Right now, giant banks have a big competitive advantage over everyone else in shadow banking and over everyone else in traditional banking. This is how the big banks beat out the community banks even though they often offer an inferior product to consumers.

That’s still there despite Dodd-Frank.

AP Photo/Steven Senne

Democratic candidate for the Senate Elizabeth Warren, center left, addresses a crowd as sons of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Edward M. Kennedy, Jr., center, and former Representative Patrick Kennedy, right, look on during a Warren campaign stop in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston Monday, November 5, 2012. 

It’s not only there despite Dodd-Frank, it is there in part because of the swaps pushout repeal that Citigroup and their friends were able to drive through in 2014 that we fought against. Also, by keeping commercial banking and investment banking together—which used to be prohibited by Glass-Steagall—regulatory oversight is more slipshod. It’s not because the regulators are bad people; it’s because they are bank regulators trying to regulate giant financial conglomerates that are involved in commodities trading [and] other activities that are almost impossible to fully police. Today, a bank regulator needs to know whether there’s adequate insurance on a ship in the Strait of Hormuz in order to evaluate whether or not there’s adequate capital set aside against the risk of loss. So one of the consequences of this big, complex system is that neither the banking nor the shadow banking is adequately regulated.

What would a new Glass-Steagall for the 21st century do? Would it simply restore the law that was repealed in 1999, or are there new tricks that Messieurs Glass and Steagall didn’t anticipate in 1933 that need further regulation?

The financial markets have become much more complicated since the 1930s. The new 21st-century Glass-Steagall Act that I introduced with Senators John McCain, Angus King, and Maria Cantwell would cover new types of complex and risky financial products that have emerged. It also fills in the holes that the regulators punched in the original Glass-Steagall.

Also, our proposal includes some discipline for shadow banking. Right now, certain instruments that trade on the shadow market get preferential treatment if a debtor fails. The bill eliminates that, which would have the sobering effect of requiring those trading in the shadow markets to pay more attention to credit risks.

What other measures that were either not included in Dodd-Frank, or that were watered down by the regulations carrying out Dodd-Frank, would you like to see strengthened?

There are two basic principles we should be focused on when we’re talking about financial reform. First, financial institutions shouldn’t be allowed to cheat people. Second, financial institutions shouldn’t be allowed to force taxpayers to bail them out.

On both fronts, Dodd-Frank made real progress. But there’s work left to do. The consumer agency made it much harder to cheat people—but cheating still happens. Take a look at the car-loan market, which looks increasingly like the predatory pre-crisis housing market. But the CFPB doesn’t have oversight over auto dealers who may offer deceptive car loans. We should fix that.

And I already mentioned that while the capital requirements in Dodd-Frank made us safer, there’s still too much risk in the system. Beyond a new Glass-Steagall to break up the biggest banks, we need the Justice Department and the SEC to get serious about enforcing our laws against financial fraud—and that includes holding executives responsible. I keep pointing out that it is not legally possible for a corporation to break the law unless individuals within the corporation broke the law. If we want to see real changes on Wall Street, break out the handcuffs.

You and other critics have called for a drastic simplification of the financial system, both to increase its transparency to regulators and to consumers, and to reduce its market power and tendency to pile on systemic risk. What would a simplified financial system look like? Could it serve the real economy with merely normal profits rather than super profits?

It’s not only possible—we’ve done it before. After the last major financial crisis—the Wall Street Crash of 1929—policymakers diagnosed what had gone wrong and changed the laws to make sure that excessive speculation and risk-taking on Wall Street couldn’t push the economy over a cliff. They put a cop on the beat—the SEC—to enforce basic marketplace rules. They created a targeted government safety net—FDIC insurance—to make it safe to put money in banks, creating security for depositors and stability for the banking system. And they implemented Glass-Steagall.

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks during the International Association of Fire Fighters Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. 

What was the result? For half a century, those creative new rules worked. There wasn’t a single serious financial crisis. No crises, and the financial sector did its part to help produce sustained, broad-based economic growth that benefited millions of people across the country.

Then the 1980s swept in political change. “Deregulation” became the watchword of the day—less oversight of Wall Street and no more Glass-Steagall. And not long after the cops were blindfolded and the big banks were turned loose, the worst crash since the 1930s hit the American economy.

The moral of this story is simple: Without basic government regulation, financial markets don’t work.

I’d add one other thing. A simpler financial system wouldn’t just help consumers and regulators—it would help investors in financial firms. Many of these big firms are too opaque for investors to truly understand. Simpler structures and clearer business lines would give investors a better chance to monitor the firm’s risk-taking and sound the alarm when they think management is going too far. In many ways, smart investors with millions at stake should be our best regulators.

What is the connection between the financial industry’s concentrated economic power and its political power?

This is how the game is rigged. Armies of lobbyists and lawyers flood the hallways of Congress and regulatory agencies, urging that every law and every rule tilt just a little bit more in favor of the rich and the powerful. Corporate executives and government officials spin through a revolving door, making sure that the interests of powerful corporations are carefully protected. Powerful Wall Street businesses pay barely disguised bribes, offering millions of dollars to trusted employees to go to Washington for a few years to make policies that will benefit exactly those same Wall Street businesses. And corporations and trade groups fund study after study that just so happen to support the special rule or exception the industry is looking for.

Washington works just great for a handful of wealthy individuals and powerful corporations that manipulate the system to benefit themselves. But for everyone else, Washington’s not working so well. And if we don’t change that, this rigged political game will break our country.

Are there any other comments you’d like to add?

Washington can keep on working for the rich and powerful—at least for a little while longer. But the American people are onto them, and I believe that change is in the wind.

 

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