U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was heavily recruited to run for president in 2016. Proponents saw her as a more liberal alternative to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with less political baggage. After Warren declared emphatically last spring that she would not be running, the media left her alone about it.
But since then, Warren has been called one of the most popular senators in the country. She is considered a potential running mate to the eventual Democratic nominee. Most recently, she has been in the news for her attacks on Donald Trump, ripping into the Republican frontrunner on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and in a Twitter tirade late last month.
Robsham Theater hosted Warren on Friday afternoon as the keynote speaker in a weekend conference on economic inequality. Sponsored by the Jesuit Institute and titled “Growing Apart,” the conference sought to discuss the implications of inequality with panels, speakers, and presentations of papers and research projects by Boston College students. Warren focused her talk on the causes and effects of American inequality and what she sees as the rigged economic system in the United States.
Warren began by acknowledging generally positive trends in corporate job growth and the stock market, plus the decreasing unemployment rate, which is now 5 percent compared to its peak of 10 percent in October 2009, just after the Great Recession. But she remains concerned, she said.
“Here is the hard truth: despite the cheery top-line numbers, America’s middle class is in deep trouble,” she said.
Warren focused much of her talk on those earning very low wages despite working full-time. For the 50 percent of the American public that does not have any savings in the stock market, she said, the economic recovery is invisible.
“The booming stock market just looks like a train that is leaving the station while you’re left behind on the platform,” Warren said.
“I wanted to be here to talk to people who care about…how we can create an America that works not just for those at the top, but those on the bottom, those in the middle. We are going to make decisions as a people about what kind of country we’re going to build going forward.”
Warren said that there have been deep structural changes in the United States in the last 30 years. She told a story about how when she was 12, her father had a heart attack and could no longer work. Her mother found a minimum-wage job at Sears and earned enough money to save their family’s house. Warren eventually moved on to a commuter college. She worked hard there, but she attributes her success to something more.
“I grew up in an America that invested in kids like me, an America where a janitor’s kid could become a United States senator,” she said.
Warren then traced the roots of modern economic inequality in the United States. After the Great Depression and World War II, she said, Americans enjoyed about 40 years of uninterrupted and unprecedented economic growth in the middle class. GDP and wages increased across the board. Ninety percent of the country got about 70 percent of all income growth from the late 1930s to the late 1970s.
Warren argued that the pivot point in American inequality was 1980. She said 99.5 percent of the income growth in the last 36 years has gone to the top 10 percent of earners. She attributed that inequality to supply-side or trickle-down economic theory, which she said means deregulating industry and giving tax breaks to corporations to fuel job and general economic growth.
“What [deregulation] really means is ‘Let’s tie the hands of the regulators and turn loose the big banks and…corporations to do pretty much whatever they want,’” Warren said.
She criticized outsourced jobs and big risks like the subprime mortgage crisis. Warren argued that those policies pursue short-term profits at the expense of the working class, and she called for increased taxes to support services like public infrastructure, health, and education, which have seen decreased funding since the 1980s.
“The trickle-down experiment started during the Reagan years has failed America’s middle class,” she said.
She said politicians in Washington made that failure possible.
After Warren’s critique of the current system, she laid out policy goals. She argued for an expanded Social Security program, a higher minimum wage, immigration reform, increased taxes on the wealthy, and an end to subsidies for fossil-fuel companies.
After Warren’s main talk, she answered pre-selected questions from the audience. The first asked how those on the other side of the aisle can be convinced to support policies to help decrease inequality. Warren talked about infrastructure, which she compared to plowing a field—it helps the economy grow. She called for a multi-trillion-dollar investment in America’s roads and public transit, and was especially critical of the MBTA system, which she called outdated.
“How many of you drive a 40-year-old car?” she asked. When nobody raised their hand, she said that the Boston area shouldn’t be using 40-year-old trains.
Another question asked how government regulatory agencies can get around divided legislatures. Criticizing the U.S. Senate, Warren said bodies like the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Labor (DOL) could enact rules to bypass Congress. She hailed a DOL rule announced April 6 that requires investment portfolio managers to act in their clients’ best interests rather than their own.
Pumping her fists and mouthing “thank you” over and over, Warren finished her talk by calling for a fight against what she views as an unfair system.
“I wanted to be here to talk to people who care about…how we can create an America that works not just for those at the top, but those on the bottom, those in the middle,” she said. “We are going to make decisions as a people about what kind of country we’re going to build going forward.”
Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor