Louis Brandeis’ book, Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It, was published 100 years ago, but it has a strong parallel to Elizabeth Warren’s latest book, A Fighting Chance, according to reviewer Jill Lepore. Brandeis contends “that the country was being run by plutocrats and, especially, by investment bankers, who, by combining, consolidating, and aggregating the functions of banks, trusts, and corporations, controlled both the nation’s credit and the majority of its resources—including the railroads—and yet had not the least accountability to the public or any sense that the functions they had adopted were essentially those of a public utility.” He wrote:
“The power and the growth of power of our financial oligarchs comes from wielding the savings and quick capital of others. The fetters which bind the people are forged from the people’s own gold.”
One hundred years ago, the Gilded Age plutocrats used savings in banks to build giant, monopolistic conglomerates controlled by the shareholders instead of the people who had deposited their money into bank accounts. Brandeis’ book originally appeared in Harper’s as essays. Its compilation of facts and figures shows the massive control that banks wielded:
J. P. Morgan and the First National and the National City Bank together held “341 directorships in 112 corporations having aggregate resources or capitalization of $22,245,000,000,” a sum that is “nearly three times the assessed value of all the real estate in the City of New York” and “more than the assessed value of all the property in the twenty-two states, north and south, lying west of the Mississippi River.”
When Brandeis republished Other People’s Money in 1933 at a cost of $.15, the book was designed to influence President Roosevelt’s administration. The result was a number of anti-trust reforms and financial-industry regulations that grew the middle class during the middle decades of the last century.
While Brandeis’ book deals with the banks’ use of savings, Warren’s A Fighting Chance shows how banks today use the massive debt of the middle class to make money and wield control. With the repeal of financial reforms starting in the 1980s and the loss of the wall between commercial and savings banks from investment banks came the fetters on people from excessively-high interest rates on credit cards and mortgages. People were lured into a sense of false security with “teaser” rates before they faced the shock of skyrocketing interest rates.
Warren first published about bankruptcy in a monograph with Teresa A. Sullivan and Jay Lawrence Westbrook, As We Forgive Our Debtors: Bankruptcy and Consumer Credit in America (1989). Studying 2,400 bankruptcy petitions filed in 1981, they discovered that many of them belonged to the middle class. Over half were homeowners, and many were women rearing children. In The Fragile Middle Class: Americans in Debt, published six years later, Warren reported on personal-bankruptcy filings a decade after her first study. She found that between 1979 and 1997, the number of these filings had increased by 400 percent.
Part of Brandeis’ work led to abolishing child labor and establishing maximum-hour and minimum-wage laws. These laws lost the power to help the middle class, starting with insufficient increase in minimum-wage during the late 1900s. Warren’s work concluded that women holding jobs and raising children become more economically vulnerable, not less. “For middle-class families, the most important part of the safety net for generations has been the stay-at-home mother,” Warren and her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, wrote in The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke (2003). As wages grew stagnant for the middle class in the early 1980s, married women, like Warren’s mother decades earlier, were forced to get a job to help the financial crisis. Once the family grew dependent on the second income, there was no cushion for wages that continued to be stagnant.
The only answer for struggling families was to spend savings. Once those were gone, they took on huge debts. The final step was filing for bankruptcy. Financial crisis for a two-income family is the loss of one of these jobs. Warren and Tyagi reported, “Having a child is now the single best predictor that a woman will end up in financial collapse.” Between 1981 and 2001, the number of women filing for bankruptcy rose more than six hundred per cent.
During the battle for Massachusetts senator in 2012, Scott Brown tried to paint Warren as an Ivy League elitist. A Fighting Chance shows a far different picture. The divorced Warren was a single mother when she worked to get her college degrees and a registered Republican until the mid-1990s. It was her study of bankruptcy that destroyed her faith in unfettered market systems and “crony capitalism.”
A parallel to Elizabeth Warren’s work is Robert Reich’s research that has been recently promoted in the documentary, Inequality for All based on his book Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future.
A recurring visual during the film is a suspension bridge superimposed over a graph of wealth concentration of wealth during the 20th century. The two high points are 1928 and 2008 when equality peaked in the United States. Immediately following both these peaks were crashes—the Great Depression and the Great Recession. At both these high points, the top 1 percent took home over 23 percent of the national income. Currently, 400 people in the United States have more wealth than the bottom half of people in the U.S. That’s 400 people with over $2 trillion who have the same wealth as over 150 million people in the United States.
The Golden Age from 1945 to about 1975 disappeared with the anti-union legislation and rapid increase in college tuition. Taxes were also high during this period of time, as much as a 70-percent marginal rate, but they shrank rapidly starting with 1980. At the same time, taxes on the middle class such as sales taxes and payroll taxes (including Social Security) rose.
During the time shown by the suspension bridge, other trends parallel the suspension bridge concept in reverse. Wages grew during the middle of the 20th century as did union memberships. By the 1980s, wages stayed stagnant and union membership shrank.
In his work, Reich goes farther than Warren to show how the rigged system destroys not only the people but the corporations. When workers lose an adequate share of the nation’s income, they can’t buy anything. Lower consumption equals lower corporate earnings. In a vicious cycle, resulting layoffs causes even lower corporate earnings and more layoffs. In short, it is the majority of people who are the job creators, not the wealthy.
A common perception among conservatives is that people are poor because they won’t work. As more and more people struggle, that perception is gradually changing. The following chart shows that during the past two decades, more and more people understand that people who work hard cannot climb out of poverty. By 2012, less than one-fourth of the people blame “not working” instead of “not earning enough.”
Reading A Fighting Chance and watching Inequality for All (http://inequalityforall.com/) provide a great background for the problems we face and the ways that we can move forward.