Why I Support Elizabeth Warren and the CFPB

Jun 2, 2011Karen S. Burnstein

elizabeth-warren-150Nominating Elizabeth Warren to head the CFPB would give progressives a cause worth fighting for.

When I was young, in the '60s, I rarely lacked for great causes to support. Today, it often feels that I spend most of my time pushing back against ideas and policies infected by passionate zeal and stunning, ahistoric illogic. Now comes an opportunity to act for, not against.

I've been watching the current struggle in and out of Congress to preserve the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as a national commitment to restoring a strong middle class with a financial system that is robust but accountable and transparent. The fight, of course, also involves the gifted Elizabeth Warren. Imagine, we could let a woman of great intelligence, vision, wit, warmth and common sense run the institution she first proposed and then helped create. And oh yes, she actually knows the field -- as a Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard, she's written many scholarly articles and texts on commercial transactions and debtor creditor issues. But she is no stuffed shirt. She's published two popular books, including the "Two Income Trap: Why Middle Class Mothers and Fathers are Going Broke."

In this climate, perhaps it's not so weird that the House (and too many members of the Senate) want to gut the agency and prevent Obama from naming Elizabeth Warren as its first director. Not weird maybe, just sadly emblematic of the trouble we're in. "To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.," Lincoln wrote. So, I am signing every bloody petition I can find supporting the agency and Warren, including urging the President to make an interim appointment. Interim appointments may be disfavored, but they are legal. I don't care if those who threaten to veto any regular nominee gloat over "abuse" of process by the man they love to hate. What matters is that Obama's naming of Warren means someone who can do a great job gets to do that job.

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I doubt I need to make an argument to fellow progressives about the urgency of seizing one of our last opportunities to use these troubled economic times to get at our true cause. To simplify, government's retreat from principled and thoughtful regulation licensed investment banks, credit agencies, insurance companies, and Wall Street gurus to put greed above reason. We permitted them to persuade ordinary citizens (and pension funds and homeowners) that securitized instruments, of similar efficacy to carney-sold patent medicines, were worth buying. We also allowed them to sell the idea that wishing could repeal the law that what goes up must come down.

Nobody is entirely innocent; money's promise is for most of us a siren's call. And, as a nation, we've willfully scanted education in civic and financial literacy in schools at all levels. So guilt is not worth focusing on. We need instead a future practice of clear rules and tough oversight. And we need to remind ourselves that Adam Smith's concept of an invisible hand did not contemplate that hand's picking the pockets of the people whose individual decisions and actions, if the market works perfectly, let supply match demand.

Well, enough lecturing. The MAIN POINT: If you want PT Barnum (and Gordon Gekko) to define our national ethos, help cripple the agency and run Elizabeth Warren off. If you prefer Lincoln's vision of what we can be, then there can be no doubt that Elizabeth Warren and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau deserve our support.

Karen S. Burstein is an attorney in New York, a former NY State Commissioner, State Senator, City Auditor General and Family Court Judge.

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