This year’s most fearsome movie heroine is Lisbeth Sander, the hacker vigilante who outwits corporate and political evildoers with her superior investigatory skills, not to mention some kickboxing and the deft use of a taser. “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” smashes and hacks her way through the government officials, business executives and journalists that comprise Sweden’s lazy and corrupt Establishment. They do everything they can to stop her, but – I’m about to give away the ending – Sander ultimately triumphs, exposing decades-long corporate and government conspiracies.
Elizabeth Warren shares none of Sanders’ characteristics – except an exceptional intellect – but when it comes to inspiring fear and loathing among the denizens of Washington and Wall Street, she is every inch as frightening, as has been pointed out over the last few days in profiles and posts across the mediascape.
Warren, a bankruptcy professor at Harvard Law, long criticized the practices of America’s banks and credit card companies in law reviews and academic pieces. In 2005, when the financial industry was lobbying Congress to make it harder for the average American to declare bankruptcy, Warren penned a landmark analysis that concluded that most Americans sought bankruptcy protection not because they were freeloaders but because they could no longer afford to pay their medical bills. Long before the current crash, Warren proposed the establishment of a federal agency to protect consumers against credit card tricks and other financial abuses.
In November 2008, in a rare example of a perfect congressional appointment, Senate President Harry Reid put her in charge of the congressional task force monitoring how the $700 billion in taxpayers' bailout money was spent. She has demanded answers to the same question we ask here: “where did the money go?” The results of her investigations, which can be found here, pull no punches.
Back in 2008, no one could have expected that Congress would create a financial consumer watchdog agency of the kind Warren advocated for years. But her powerful and outspoken performance as chair of the bailout oversight panel has made her the obvious and only credible candidate to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created by the otherwise innocuous financial “reform” legislation Congress passed a few weeks ago.
Which, of course, has got Wall Street fired up, members of Congress tied in knots and the White House cornered. Unlike the Byzantine complexities of the financial swindles and the ostensible legislative “solutions,” none of which garnered public attention much less support, the question of whether the President will appoint a skilled lawyer/consumer advocate to protect consumers, or whether he will instead choose a Wall Street insider as he did when he appointed Treasury Secretary Geithner and White House economic advisor Larry Summers, is one the public and press can easily grasp.
The appointment raises the kind of simple and straightforward “whose side is he really on?” question that Obama has so far been able to soft peddle, though he unceremoniously surrendered on the public option in the health care bill and on “too big to fail” banks in the financial reform bill, to name just a few instances of his unilateral disarmament.
Make no mistake: Warren is a highly sophisticated lawyer that knows all the tricks of the financial industry and how to use the powers of government to stop them. This expertise will be essential. I wrote a ballot proposition, approved by California voters in 1988, that regulates the insurance industry. Having spent the last twenty-two years defending it against incessant lawsuits by industry lawyers and not infrequent efforts of elected state officials to hobble it, I can tell you that few decision-makers in the federal government have the technical skills and expertise to go head to head against the battalions of lawyering orcs deployed by big financial firms. Warren does.
Which brings us back to the fascinating spectacle of the hypocritical Washington establishment trying to grapple with her candidacy. She is, literally, made for the job, and a spontaneous grassroots campaign for her appointment is mounting around the country. But the politicians, obeying their paymasters on Wall Street, are trying to figure out a strategy to sabotage her nomination. It’s almost comic to behold. Republicans should be hailing Warren as a savior of beleaguered taxpayers, but one of their Senate leaders said that her tenure as chair of the bailout watchdog was “marked with ‘controversy”” and implied that Warren doesn’t have the necessary qualifications.
It’s the same for some Dems: Senate Finance Committee Chair Chris Dodd, who had never met a financial “innovation” (or industry lobbyist) he didn’t embrace until the whole rotten system collapsed two years ago, damned Warren with faint praise, then suggested she couldn’t be confirmed. He floated the name of FDIC Chair Sheila Bair, but she said no thanks.
Nor has the Obama administrationt been particularly supportive. Two weeks ago, Treasury Secretary Geithner was forced to dispel rumors that he is opposed to Warren by mouthing some platitudes about how “capable” and “effective” she would be in the post. A White House spokesperson told reporters, “We’ve got many good candidates. I know that the president will look at this job and the several other jobs that are created as part of this legislation and make an announcement.”
Warren’s appointment could be one of the few meaningful victories for consumers in the aftermath of the Wall Street deregulation disaster. She is not your typical accommodating political appointee. She does not appear likely to “play ball” with Team Obama or anyone else inside the Beltway when it comes to protecting consumers against the pillaging financial industry. The White House is well aware that once appointed, she would be very hard to fire, especially for doing her job with the zeal it requires. Having never served in such a position, Warren has not yet been tested, so my assessment of her political spine is partly speculation. But if I’m right, she's at least as threatening as Lisbeth Sander.