A Fighting Chance - Elizabeth Warren

The cover for Elizabeth Warren's "A Fighting Chance"

"A Fighting Chance" is inspiring.  In it, Elizabeth Warren tells her story.  The writing is superb, and the stories are gripping.  She includes everything from learning about the power of her voice on the debate team to moving beyond the just world hypothesis (that poor people are poor because they don't work hard) to her research as an academic to her running the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to her run for Senate.

One thing that this book drove home for me was an understanding of the gains that women have made over the past few generations (and I am aware that these issues are still big problems).  Elizabeth Warren experienced a tremendous amount of self-doubt because she wanted college and a career (in addition to a family) but she had pressure to exclusively focus on family and let her husband focus on a career.  It boggles my mind that someone as awesome as Elizabeth Warren would have to go through that.

The book mixes human elements (eg, stories of people went bankrupt) as well as the economics, history, and policy context around these issues.  All of this combines together to show that the way our financial system currently works isn't how it always worked, that it has really big problems, and that those problems hurt people.

Warren is also very good at subtly pointing out how the framings that conservatives use on these issues are weird.  Eg, many people think that it is reasonable to plan around worst case scenarios, so being overly optimistic would seem naive, and conservatives might paint liberals as being overly optimistic about human nature when discussing bankruptcy laws.  The flip side of that, though, is that conservatives are being optimistic about how banks behave absent regulation.  To be clear, I'm not saying that one framing or the other is more right than the other -- both framings are right.  People are of mixed natures, at times altruistic and at times greedy, and that applies to the people running banks as much as everyone else.

The book also helped me understand the concept of the Foucauldian idea of the general versus the specific intellectual that I had encountered before in policy debate.  At a high level, the critique is that relegating decisions over to a group of experts can lead to bad decisions for a number of reasons (eg, group think, malice, self interest), which is one of the purposes of having general intellectuals who are good at making ethical decisions but who aren't invested in one particular area of expertise.  Warren doesn't use these overly-academic terms, but she does talk about how the finance experts used a lot of expert-sounding jargon to hide their decisions from public scrutiny and about how the finance experts systematically made bad decisions for bad reasons (eg, assuming that people were poor because they didn't work hard without ever actually studying that or having any data to support that claim).

This book will make you angry (that's probably true even for folks of different political beliefs, though perhaps for different reasons).  It will remind you about some of the horrible things that happened only a few years ago.  It will point out many of the ways that the causes of those problems were corrupt efforts designed to serve financial elites rather than just a natural effect of the market.  It will also point out how our responses to financial crises serve those same elites rather than the American populace as a whole.  "A Fighting Chance" will make you angry because you should be angry, and it will also make you proud of what America can do when we put our minds to something.  I highly recommend it.