Warren is the Candidate of Consumer Rights Professionals — and that Is Why I Will Not Be Voting for Her
The other day I was trying to think of a way to explain to some fellow Bernie Sanders’ supporters who Elizabeth Warren’s base is in her campaign for the Democratic nomination. “Have you ever been a conference call with her?” I asked. The question illicited some giggles; it was telling in itself that this question was my go-to. But I continued, “Well I have, and when she speaks, all the nonprofit people listen. She is their champion. She is the candidate that they have been waiting for.”
At this point I am on my third blog post about Warren so some people might understandably think that I dislike her. Quite the opposite. I am not like some Sanders supporters who believe her to be some secret agent of Wall Street. In fact if there was a debate on which candidate Wall Street hated more, there would be some good arguments for why it is Warren. While Sanders poses the most threat to them, many in that world still look at him as a joke who never in a million years will get the nomination let alone the presidency. Warren on the other hand is the face of the most costly (low bar I know) set of regulations against them in my life time. She has credentials that they take fairly seriously. And many of them simply have a grudge for the time they appeared before Congress and went viral because Warren dragged them for filth.
As Sanders’ possible nomination becomes harder to ignore the scales could tip but the point is that Warren is considered an enemy by Wall Street. And specifically she is because she embodies a consumer rights movement that since the 1970’s has been the only check on their power in the United States.
But we should not mistake Wall Street’s scorn as a measure of what candidate will best take on Wall Street. After all, the consumer rights movement did not stop the foreclosure crisis or Great Recession; it has not stopped the enormous growth of inequality that in fact has run parallel to its own growth; and it has not stopped Wall Street from effectively holding most of the federal government, including under President Obama. In fact, it is Sen. Warren’s embodiment of the consumer rights movement that creates a bit of a paradox for me: as a consumer rights attorney I recognize her as an admirable colleague, but as a democratic socialist I know that our movement will never be able to turn the tables and win a government by and for working people.
Why hasn’t the consumer rights movement been an effective counter to the power of the finance industry?
The consumer rights movement is largely made up of nonprofits, though it also includes some private practitioners like me, with a few key legislative champions like Sen. Warren and more recently Representative Katie Porter. Its focus has been on the empower of, surprise surprise, consumers.
There’s an important difference between “consumers” and “working people,” both in composition and in framing. Under capitalism, practically everyone is a consumer; it is not a class or discrete group but rather a role that all periodically inhabit (including yes, the bankers). Correspondingly the goal of the consumer rights movement is not the empowerment of any group of people, but rather creating “fairness” in the market.
It has a very similar ethos to antitrust: fervent belief in managerial-based capitalism where “moral hazards” in private ordering are corrected by state intervention or watchdogs. “Moral hazards” are a term in economics referring to situations where market incentives work to encourage socially ill behavior. One of the most oft-cited examples in consumer rights is deception. Businesses can generally make more money through information disparities: or to put it simply with an example, a car loan where you think your interest rate is 9% is more likely to be taken over a car loan where you know the interest rate is 15%. The other major field for the consumer rights movement is where consumers are not also customers, and often are the actual product, and thus there is no “the customer is always right” incentive. This includes debt collection and credit reporting.
The consumer rights movement has a rigid dogma of what I call “Market Facilitation Theory”: the belief that all regulations should focus on incentivizing or otherwise steering the market to socially beneficial behavior. The professionals in the consumer rights movement essentially see themselves as stewards of the market.
Thus, unsurprisingly, the movement is dominated by professional groups (NACA, NCLC, etc.) and lobbyists (CFA, AFR, etc.). Community groups and people directly impacted are a minority, if present at all. There are some exceptions (New Economy Project, Debt Collective, various AME and other Black churches especially in the South), but they are limited.
This was an interesting dynamic to come upon after years of traditional community and labor advocacy on my part. While that model has its own problems of paternalism and tokenization, I would never walk into a legislative meeting without a rank and file worker, a survivor of police violence, or a family member thereof ready to tell their story.
Conversely, though I am admittedly new to this world, I have not had a single lobbying meeting yet on consumer rights where an affected person was present. When the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued its new debt collection rule, almost every single major consumer rights group asked for *advocates’* stories and organizational comments rather than asking for debtors themselves to share their experiences and attempting to mobilize debtors en masse.
This is generally explained by advocates in two ways: (1) debtors are ashamed to tell their stories, and (2) the subject is too technical. To which I would respectively answer: bullshit and bullshit. Just from at most an hour’s work I got multiple people affected by predatory debt collection to make comments to the CFPB. The CFPB complaint database, as well as sites like the Better Business Bureau and Yelp, show that plenty of debtors are not shy about speaking truth to power. And as to the technical aspects of the subject, what aspects do exist are rarely brought up by the consumer advocates because we all know that politicians can’t exactly be trusted to understand anything beyond a 5 minute shpeel in plain language.
But while I could spend all day complaining about the problems I have with the consumer rights movement (have not even touched on the weird machoism of many advocates), I want to focus specifically on the consequences of the “steward of the economy” mindset.
Management, even “nice” management, is not on your side.
As self-appointed stewards of the economy, consumer rights advocates are not just focused on fairness. More than anything else, they are focused on order. They do genuinely care about fairness and about consumers get cheated, but they also have a vested socio-economic interest in preserving capitalism. Quite frankly, consumer advocates do not exist outside of it.
This allegiance becomes most visible when radical change is put on the table and consumer advocates look the other way. The silence of the major consumer advocate groups on the Loan Shark Prevention Act, which would end payday lending in the country and improve literally all of our clients’ financial situations, is deafening (with the notable exception of Consumer Action, kudos to them). Who has supported the bill conversely are both academics and economists who understand those supposedly derailing “technicalities” and community, labor, and political groups like Center for Popular Democracy, AFSCME, and People’s Action.
To put it simply, the interest of the consumer rights movement’s clients are not the same as the interests of the consumer rights movement. Their alignment is contingent on maintaining the current economic system where they are poor, they are preyed on, they are clients and consumers. My job is not compatible with a socialist world, or at the very least will be a lot less profitable. Which is fine with me, I would welcome the change to switch back to being a barista in a post-Green New Deal cafe worker cooperative.
In all seriousness, I think fellow young professionals, both in the consumer rights movement and in “social justice” work generally, are being faced with an important choice in this presidential election. You can make the comfortable choice, the choice that is probably the best for your career in the short-term, and just hope that a more benevolent management of capitalism stops climate catastrophe and ends the authoritarian rule of the economy by the finance industry. Or you can make the hard choice, the choice that could earn you scorn from your seniors and supervisors, but the choice that I know many of you know is the only one that can bring real change to the people who we work for. I guess that’s the more straightforward question: who are you working for? Are you working for the consumer rights movement, the placement of professionals to balance the scales to instill fairness but maintain inequality, or are you working for working people, those who are suffering under the current system and the only people who can change it? Which side are you on?