Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren met with David Axelrod, one of President Obama's senior advisors, Wednesday night. On Thursday, President Obama announced sweeping new restrictions on the largest banks: they will no longer be able to operate hedge funds and new policies will restrict how large a bank can be. Obama also called for an end to the obscene profits and enormous bonuses at firms that claim any additional fees or taxes would have to be passed on to consumers.
Is there a connection between Warren's meeting and Obama's proposed reforms? And, more importantly, could an increased role for Warren in Obama's administration be good news for people who would like to see better bankruptcy laws and more bank and lender accountability?
Possibly yes, to both. Warren is an expert on bankruptcy who has spent two decades studying not just the economics of bankruptcy but its effect on real people. Her landmark study in the 1990s showed that the majority of people who declare bankruptcy do so not because of profligate spending but because of unexpected life events like divorce, loss of a job or enormous medical bills. Warren admits that it was not what she expected to find, and that this study changed the focus of her research. Her book The Two Income Trap: Why Middle Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke, builds on this idea, pointing out that core costs, like mortgages, health care, transportation and child care have all increased enormously over the last few years. In addition, if families are living paycheck to paycheck on two incomes, they have twice as much chance that one of the breadwinners will lose their job, and then send the family spiraling toward poverty.
Warren has been an outspoken advocate for better bankruptcy laws, and testified against the bill in the hearings before it was passed in 2005. Last year, she was appointed chair of the congressional oversight panel appointed to investigate TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program). Under her direction the panel has published easily-understood reports calling attention to the Treasury's failure to ensure that taxpayers receive a fair deal. She's also proposed a Financial Product Safety Commission, along the lines of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. This commission would be able to regulate financial products like mortgages and credit cards based on fairness, simplicity and appropriate risk. President Obama is insisting that any overhaul of financial rules include this commission; rumors are swirling that he will appoint Warren to head it.
That would be the banking industry's worst nightmare. The major banks argue that The Financial Product Safety Commission would bring us back to the 1970s, with double digit interest rates and a sharp dip in available consumer credit. But it seems likely that most bankers are more concerned over limits to their bonuses than limits to the average Americans access to credit. Appointing Warren would tell the banks that Obama is serious about regulating banking abuses.
Obviously, the commission hasn't been created yet, and Warren hasn't been appointed to run it. But it's hard not to see that only good things will come of having a powerful advocate for the financial distressed given such a role.
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