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Thursday, April 15, 2010 05:32 am

An inside outsider takes on Wall Street

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Elizabeth Warren
PHOTO BY CLIFF OWEN/MCT

Wall Street banksters – who could possibly love them?

OK, presumably their mommas do, and possibly their pet dogs, but that’s it. The general public loathes them and would be delighted to see the whole bunch tarred, feathered and deported to a barren atoll, where their punishment would be living with themselves.

These preening, narcissistic elites turned America’s financial system into a rigged casino game that paid off big-time for them. Then it crashed, wrecking our real economy and making life miserable for millions of people. Yet, there they are, still on their exalted thrones, still playing casino games (now with our bailout funds) and still lavishing obscene bonuses on themselves.

Despite their perfidy, they’ve not been made to pay any price by our public officials. Americans of all political stripes have watched in dismay as both Democratic and Republican leaders rushed to pat the hands and soothe the fevered brows not of us aggrieved parties, but of the banksters.

Democrats at least publicly scolded the Wall Street chieftains, while such Republican bosses as Rep. John Boehner of Ohio and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas have turned public dismay into disgust by openly blowing kisses to the disgraced bankers. Boehner and Cornyn have been pledging that their party will keep fending off legislative restrictions on executive pay if Wall Street would only show a little return love in the form of more campaign cash for GOP coffers.

Good grief, is there no sanity, no smidgen of integrity? Are no public officials on our side?

Meet Elizabeth Warren. She heads an independent agency that Congress set up in 2008 to monitor and report on the government bailout of Wall Street – and the main thing you need to know about her is that the big shots of finance despise her. Now that’s refreshing!

 Warren doesn’t play the smooth insider game of Boehner, Cornyn, Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers. She doesn’t because she’s not a Wall Street insider. “Dang gummit,” she says in her native Oklahoma twang, “somebody has got to stand up on behalf of middle-class families.”

While she doesn’t have the power to reform the Street’s ingrained culture of greed, she can shine a light on it – and she has been a fearless and tenacious griller of Gucci-clad bankers and weak-willed regulators. Her admiring husband describes her as a grandmother who can make grown men cry.

Coming from a working-class family, Warren knows firsthand what it is to face financial crisis (including foreclosure) and to feel the crushing power of uncaring banks. “I learned early on what debt means, how vulnerable it makes people,” she told the New York Times last month. At age 16, she won a debate scholarship to college, then worked her way into law school and ultimately became a leading authority on bankruptcy.

Despite her success as a lawyer, she hasn’t forgotten her populist roots and purpose. Warren is Wall Street’s worst nightmare: a middle-class champion who gives a damn about workaday people, is smart and tenacious – and can’t be bought.

She is now bringing her background, legal expertise and moral outrage to bear on a proposal that she conceived and developed: a new agency with real regulatory teeth that would exist solely to protect consumers against banker deceit, scams and greed. Big bankers keel over in a dead faint at the very mention of Warren’s proposal for a totally independent Consumer Financial Regulatory Agency, and they’re lobbying ferociously to kill it ... and to demonize her.

However, the Wall Street reform package already passed by the House does include the independent CFPA she proposed. The Senate bill also includes a CFPA, but wimps out by putting it in the soft, banker-coddling hands of the Federal Reserve. The fight rages on, and its hard to have much faith that Washington would really go against Wall Street – but Warren’s a real fighter, and she has strong progressive supporters both inside and outside the Capital City.

She gives us someone to cheer for – and to back. To join Elizabeth Warren’s gutsy push on our behalf, contact the grass-roots coalition called Americans for Financial Reform: ourfinancialsecurity.org, 202-263-4533.  

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist and author.

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