Washington has become Wall Street’s “field of dreams.” There, the money conglomerates engage in their beloved sport of financial speculation, cheered on by a small but powerful group of public officials who have sold out the rest of the country.
Deregulation was a home run for the financial industry. Wall Street’s friends in Washington sacked the rules of the game, unleashing the hedge funds, banks, investment firms, insurance companies and other speculators who made billions before the crash, then got billions more from the taxpayers after the crash.
Meanwhile, as today’s New York Times points out, almost nothing has been done about “derivatives,” the virtual technology for the speculation that drove our economy into the dugout three years ago. Federal agencies that were supposed to issue new regulations to prevent another debacle have been tied up in knots by Wall Street lawyers.
Jobless and fearful for their kids’ future, people are furious about what happened. But it was always going to be a daunting task to mobilize the public behind the necessary reforms when they are so complex, and anything drafted to appeal to directly to Americans’ wallets – say, by providing a cap on credit card interest rates, or low-rate mortgages, or other forms of financial relief – would have inspired the financial industry to retaliate with nuclear weapons. Neither the President nor anyone in Congress were willing to start that fight, principled as it would have been.
So it has all come down to Elizabeth Warren, the brainiac Harvard law professor who suggested, in a law review article in 2005, that Congress create a new federal agency with the mission of protecting consumers against false advertising, misleading contracts and the general thievery of the financial industry. Democrats proposed the agency as part of the Wall Street reform legislation in 2009, and after the industry thought they had whittled it down to something they could easily live with – or simply get around – Congress created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the President signed it.
Warren was the obvious person for the job, and almost immediately Americans began calling on President Obama to nominate her for the post.
What Wall Street didn’t realize at first is that it is way, way easier for Americans to get behind a human being than a thousand-page piece of legislation that has been lawyered and lobbied into mush. America has become a celebrity-driven culture, and while Elizabeth Warren is no Lady Gaga, she is one of a small number of outsiders that have occasionally busted up the D.C. establishment – just as Ralph Nader did in the 1970s, and Jimmy Stewart fictionally did in the Frank Capra movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Whether President Obama will nominate Warren to the position has become the defining question of his Presidency for millions of Americans, especially those who voted for “change we can believe in” in 2008.
When confronted with demands by civil rights leaders to take action against racial discrimination in the late 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt’s legendary retort was “make me do it.” Whether he ever said that, the strategy he suggested is literally page one of the best manual for citizen empowerment and political organizing.
Let’s put it in more contemporary terms. President Obama has made it clear he doesn’t want to nominate Warren. It’s just another fight he’d rather not have. He embraces consensus, not controversy.
But the President has to know she’s the best person for the job. So the burden is on Americans to make it impossible for him not to nominate her. Part of that means punishing the people who are working against her – members of Congress, and those in the Administration – because they are doing Wall Street’s dirty work. These are the same people who let Wall Street plunder our nation and then bailed Wall Street out with our money.
My guess is, we can make Obama do it.