This article is adapted from Elizabeth Warren’s book A Fighting Chance, published in April by Metropolitan Books.
My story seems pretty unlikely, even to me. I never expected to run for office—but then again, I never expected to do a lot of things in my life. I never expected to climb a mountain. I never expected to meet the president of the United States. I never expected to be a blonde. But here I am.
Whenever I think of the meltdown, I think of Flora. She was probably in her 80s by the time we spoke in 2007. She and her husband had retired and moved to a small town in the South to be near her family. They bought a modest house. Flora’s husband had passed on, and she was on her own now. Until recently she had been doing fine, getting by on her Social Security check each month.
Flora explained that a few years ago she’d gotten a call from “a nice man from the bank.” He’d told her that because interest rates were low, he could give her a mortgage with a lower payment. She’d asked him what would happen to the payment if interest rates went back up. He’d assured her that “the banks know about these things in advance,” and that he would “call her and put her back in her old mortgage.”
She had taken the deal, and before long her payments had shot up. She paused, then said quietly, “He never called.” The new monthly payments swallowed nearly every penny of her Social Security check. She had tried delaying her payments, borrowing on credit cards, going to a payday lender, but it had all come crashing down.
The Consumer Bankruptcy Project [Warren’s research project on the impact of the law passed in 2005] had promised Flora $50 in return for participating in an hourlong interview. “I’ll be living in my car,” she said, “at least for a while. I don’t know how I’ll get mail, so can you tell me how to get my $50 check? I really need it.”
That’s the real story behind the meltdown: the mortgage market sank, one Flora at a time. Some homeowners made bad decisions or tried to game the system, but many others got trapped by lousy mortgages sold to them by sophisticated financial institutions that should have known better.
The housing crash ripped a huge hole right through the middle class. A home isn’t just a place to live; for most families, it’s their most valuable asset. It’s the savings plan, the retirement plan and the inheritance all wrapped up in one big, bright package. Pay off the mortgage, and a family has a comfortable life raft, come what may. But if the mortgage is “underwater” and a family owes more than their home is worth, that life raft is made of cement.
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For months I assumed that sooner or later some regulator would think to himself: “The banking system just collapsed—I wonder if any banking executives did anything illegal?” I figured it was just a matter of time. But the silence stretched out. No perp walks. No mass indictments.
I don’t know for sure if anyone at the giant banks engaged in criminal activity in the months and years leading up to the financial meltdown. But that’s the point: I don’t think anyone knows for sure. Where were the full-scale public investigations? Where were the armies of auditors, seizing hard drives and poring over financial statements? Where were the teams of regulators who were supposed to be checking the books all along? Where were the signs—any signs at all—that somebody with real power was taking this responsibility seriously?
Think of it this way. Big banks give their regulators certified financial statements every three months, year after year, showing that the bank is in good shape. Meanwhile, they sell billions of dollars’ worth of mortgages that stink to high heaven, dress those mortgages up in phony-baloney AAA-rated wrapping paper, and peddle them to retirement funds and local governments across the country. Then the banks suddenly need tens of billions of dollars in government money just to stay afloat. The government gives the banks that money, but never puts major resources and manpower into finding out whether the sudden, gaping holes in the banks’ balance sheets were caused—at least in part—by illegal activity.
So the high-powered CEOs collect millions of dollars, and Flora moves into her car.
* * *
It was August 2011. the very popular Republican Senator Scott Brown had been in office for only a year and a half, but in November 2012 the seat would be up for grabs again. I got a call from a local Democratic Party official. “Get your name out there,” he said enthusiastically. “Stir things up!” After offering a few more thoughts about why I should run, he paused. “Of course, I don’t think you’ll win. But don’t take it personally—I don’t think anyone can beat Scott Brown.”
Run and lose. Gee, that sounded like fun. Maybe I’d do that right after I deliberately slammed my fingers in a car door.
But the guy who called had a point. I had never run for any office. Plus, I wasn’t born in Massachusetts, or even New England. I was from Oklahoma, of all places, and when I get a little excited, I have a twangy accent. I was not only a professor, but a Harvard professor. When the all-important question came up—“Which candidate would you rather have a beer with?”—I would lose, hands down.
In mid-August, I went to a gathering in downtown New Bedford. Fifty or so people showed up, and I spoke for about fifteen minutes, talking about the hollowing out of America’s middle class and about how it would get worse if the Republicans in Congress kept cutting back our investments in one another.
As the crowd thinned out, a woman in her mid-50s walked over. Her face was flushed, and her hair was a tangle of tight curls. She looked hot and tired, maybe a little angry.
“I walked two miles to get here.”
OK, she had my attention.
“I walked because I don’t have a car that runs. I don’t have a car because I don’t have a job.”
As we stood facing each other, she laid out her life in just a few sentences: “I have two master’s degrees. I’m smart. I taught myself computer programming. I’ve been out of work for a year and a half. I’ve applied, I’ve volunteered, I’ve gone everywhere, but nothing. Now I don’t know if I’m ever going to get a real job again.”
I held out both hands and she took them. We stood there, not moving. I muttered something bland like “I’m so sorry,” but she didn’t give any sign of hearing me.
She focused again, looked me straight in the eye and said: “I’m here because I’m running out of hope. I’ve read about you for a long time, and I’m here to see you in person, to tell you that I need you, and I want you to fight for me. I don’t care how hard it gets, I want to know that you are going to fight.”
I looked back at her and said, “Yes, I’ll fight.”