Saturday, May 31, 2014

Book Review: A Fighting Chance by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)

I had the pleasure of hearing Senator Elizabeth Warren speak to a filled-to-capacity Wadsworth Theater in West Los Angeles earlier in May 2014.  I found her very self-confident and a pleasant speaker on the subject of her tenth book, A Fighting Chance (published by Metropolitan Books, April 22, 2014).

Careers are streams of serendipity -- a collection of near-random events, people moving in and out of roles and leadership, tapping each other on the shoulder asking, “Who wouldda thunk?” Careers are like pick-up games in the chronicle of life. 

Elizabeth Warren’s life is a string of pearls, some broken, but mostly shimmering.  These are the lessons I learned from listening to her speak so graciously that night and from reading the intriguing stories of her life.

Viewing her as a role model, a woman in leadership, she successfully transitioned through the challenge of a too early and immature choice of a first spouse, through the birth of two children, to the discovery that she would never perform the part of a stay-at-home-Mom.  That chapter concluded with an amicable divorce, her law degree, and hanging out her shingle as a solo Attorney at Law. 

Warren’s career has a striking resemblance to that of Joanie Caucus from the ‘70s Doonesbury comic strip by Garry Trudeau. Caucus gets accepted by U.C. Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law. Warren graduated from Rutgers School of Law – Newark.  Both women blasted their way through limiting expectations of the 70s, 80s and 90s on into the turn of the 21st Century.

A Fighting Chance is an autobiography in the sense that it reveals the personal and family origins of her three biggest, latest battles:
  • the effort to reform federal Bankruptcy Laws, a battle she admits was lost,
  • the war on two fronts against the Great (Modern) Recession – the Consumer Oversight Protection Commission (COP) and the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) within the Dodd-Frank Act, and
  • her 2011-2012 campaign against Scott Brown for the U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts.

Any one of these battles would have beaten down lesser women, but Elizabeth Warren prevailed in all but the first.

When the stores are told around little girl campfires or at Emily’s List strategy sessions, the wars waged and won through sheer will, wonkiness, and wisdom by Senator Warren will fuel the fires of hope and optimism that,

            “This is what girls DO!”

Other threads that weave themselves throughout her life:

Entrepreneurial team builder:

Senator Warren is and always has been a great team-builder.  She identifies people around her, often smarter than she in some essential aspect of the endeavor they will face.  She looks for those with “a lean and hungry look about them” – not because they are unscrupulous, but because they crave challenge and opportunity as their lifeblood’s nutrition.  Again and again, talented people appear and reappear in her life in new roles that are essential to the success of the new project, law, regulation, commission, or campaign.  These people do not simply play supporting roles.  They are partners in the best sense of the word.

Her family members take on duties and responsibilities almost at will.  Her daughter, Amelia, co-authored two significant books on household finances and personal financial management. Her son and her husband come in and out of the chapters of her life, willingly providing key support at the right juncture, in the right measure.  Partners, all.

It is fascinating to see how Elizabeth Warren attracted the best and the brightest minds, first, on her law school research teams; then at her legislative workforce; at the COP and the CFPB; and finally, the thousands who helped her design, build, and implement a successful Senate campaign. 

Prolific thinker and writer:

Prolific doesn’t begin to cover the broad expanse of her writings on these subjects. lists a total of ten books written by Senator Warren on indebtedness, bankruptcy, securitization, and family finances in crisis.  In addition to her own books, she has co-authored chapters in others’ books, journal and news articles, blogs, and reports.  For a complete listing of her writings and collaborations, see her CV at Harvard Law where she has been the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law since 1995.  Her writings constitute a course by themselves in the field of bankruptcy, family finance, credit laws and financial regulations.

Senator Warren is responsible for an extensive and intensive body of research and analysis on all facets of bankruptcy from the intricacies of the law all the way down to the nitty gritty impacts of bankruptcy on individuals and families.  Nobody knows more about the factors that toss people over the brink of bankruptcy than Elizabeth Warren.  And nobody knows more about the sausage factories of bankruptcy, banks, and regulators – how they craft their slingshots that catapult American families into that financial abyss.

Creative and responsive regulator:

In crafting the innards of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the one agency that could provide average citizens a defense from predatory financial gimmicks, Elizabeth Warren used technology, team work, and transparency as the tools to build that fortress.  How the agency implemented their whistleblower complaint hotline is a blueprint we might wish for regulators and corporations to consider in similar endeavors.

Fire in the belly:

As you read her words or see her speak, she is enflamed to the core by her essential belief that people and politicians must work tirelessly to re-built, re-craft, and re-claim the American middle class.  Elizabeth Warren is not an empty, vacuous salesman for some unattainable idea that “somebody must do something.”  She wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about how to make effective change happen.  She shakes another hand among thousands of supporter, listens to the story each one tells about how their lives have been ravaged by our elitism. Ever true to her fundamental values, she built an extraordinary $42 million campaign fund fueled by over 80% from individual contributions of $50 or less each – one handshake at a time.

When Elizabeth Warren says she will fight for them in Washington, she knows she has big shoes to fill in the shadow of Teddy Kennedy.  But, you know she will do exactly as she says.  She is a fighter.  She is gracious, intelligent, savvy, and now politically astute.

Law Professor:
Rutgers School of Law–Newark, 1977–1978
University of Houston Law Center, 1978-1983
University of Texas School of Law, 1981-1987
University of Michigan, visiting professor, 1985
University of Texas at Austin, research associate, 1983-1987
University of Pennsylvania Law School, 1987 where she received tenure
Harvard Law School, visiting professor, 1992; received a permanent position as the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law in 1995

Policy Advisory Roles:
National Bankruptcy Review Commission, advisor, 1995-2005
FDIC Advisory Committee on Economic Inclusion, member, Nov. 2006-Nov. 2010
Congressional Oversight Panel, chair, 2008-2010
Special Advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Assistant to the President of the U.S., Sept. 2010-July 2011.

Senator from Massachusetts:
November 2012 – elected as the first woman from Massachusetts, taking over as the state/s Senior Senator, holding the seat formerly occupied by Teddy Kennedy
Serves on the following committees:
Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs,
Special Committee on Again,
Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions