… “I was in a high school where everybody was a click better off,’’ [Elizabeth] Warren recalled.
“It’s not just that they had so much,’’ she said. “They were just confident. They had the assurance that it would always be there.’’
Money, and the anxiety it can create for families like the one she grew up in, has consumed Warren ever since. It is the focus of her books about struggling middle-class families, her work at Harvard on bankruptcy law, her Washington service as President Obama’s consumer protection adviser, and, now, her campaign for the US Senate.
The seeds of that worry, that fear of not having enough, were planted on the Oklahoma plains. Financial comfort has since come to her, along with professional success – her Harvard salary alone exceeds $350,000. But money has, in her mind, always been about much more than dollar bills. It has been shorthand for security, acceptance, and family stability…
Which reminded me that I hadn’t gotten around to posting a link to David Bernstein’s Boston Phoenix column on Warren’s “Dr. Phil Years“:
… Between 2003 and 2005, Warren was the go-to dispenser of financial straight talk for TV’s daytime-talk-show host. Appearing on episodes with titles like “Going for Broke,” “Money Makeovers,” and “A Family in Crisis,” Warren comes across much as she does as a Senate candidate today. Dressed in bright-colored pants-and-jacket suits, she flashes her bright, toothy smile, then leans forward and gestures forcefully to deliver the blunt, terrible economic truth as she sees it.
It was part of a deliberate decision Warren made 10 years ago, when she was already over 50, with a prestigious quarter-century academic career, to seek out a broader audience — not only on Dr. Phil, but by writing and promoting books for a mass audience, and by building relationships with political figures…
At the time, she says, not all of her colleagues in the hallowed halls of academia were quite so impressed with her new direction. Many looked down their noses at her TV exploits. Some economists (Megan McArdle of the Atlantic, for one) publicly disputed her key arguments. Her name even vanished from the New York Times for five years, last appearing a month before her first Dr. Phil appearance, and not showing up again until Congress appointed her to a bank-bailout oversight commission in December 2008, according to an archive search.
And you don’t have to be a Harvard fellow to find something mockable in her work from the time, which combines motivational-style cheerleading, tough-love lectures, and checklist-oriented advice…
Americans have always been prone to confuse the idea of money as a resource — the barterable counters that ensure “security, [social] acceptance, and family stability” — with money as a reward, the dick-measuring tool of which some people are deserving and others unworthy. Resource money, while vital, has limits; there’s only so much personal security, health, friendship, family ties that can be achieved by the raw application of dollars (as Steve Jobs, for instance, found out). Reward money, Monopoly-game dolla-dollas, are unlimited and therefore forever inadequate; if the only point is to have more than the guy in the next cube, the business across the street, the financier at the top of this year’s Forbes 100 list, there’s never enough chips to ensure one’s standing in the game. And if money is a “reward”, then not having money indicates a lack of social worth — social programs are not a safety net, but an encouragement to laziness and immorality.
Warren’s Senate campaign — and, it would seem, her career, “mockable” daytime-tv stints as well as academic research — is about resource money. To the legislators, lobbyists, and media enablers who’ve turned Congress into one more arena for reward-money gaming, this is a deeply alien, therefore highly suspicious, concept. But if we’re going to survive as a nation, we need (once again!) to start disentangling the resources we have in common from the rewards of “economic virtue” or “fiscal vice”.