Elizabeth Warren's Anti-Democratic Platform
Updated: Apr 19, 2020
Politicians are notionally our employees. Yet they’re the only help we hire who routinely mislead us about what they’ll do on the job. Would you hire a gardener who wouldn’t tell you which trees he planned to chop down, or a contractor who charged five times as much as he said he would? Probably not. Yet for some reason we accept it as normal for politicians to evade and overpromise and lie.
To be sure, it’s difficult to evaluate candidates on sound bites and slogans, which are most of the information we have. And we don’t sign a contract with them, so we have nothing to hold them to.
But we can pay attention to what they do put in writing before we elect them. We’re not supposed to actually read their policies and take them seriously; after all, hardly anyone does. But if we did, we might be less shocked and surprised when we see them in office.
Elizabeth Warren is the Democratic front-runner, the senator with a hundred plans. How much substance is behind them? Let’s read her platform.
After decades of largely flat wages and exploding household costs, millions of families can barely breathe. For generations, people of color have been shut out of their chance to build wealth. It’s time for big, structural changes to put economic power back in the hands of the American people.
This entire paragraph is just plain wrong.
We all understand household economics. If we spend less than we earn, we build wealth. If we spend more, we go deeper and deeper into debt, until eventually creditors cut us off. If we live on the edge, we leave ourselves vulnerable to financial shocks.
Although none of us has complete control over our earnings and expenses, we have more than anyone else. We choose where to live, when to have kids, how much to consume, and what debts we take on. We choose a career, and as we develop in it we don’t face “decades of largely flat wages” at all, we see our paychecks grow steadily over the years. Chances are you’re making more than you were five years ago, and less than you’ll make five years from now.
It’s not easy to manage household finances, in fact it takes most of us 40 hours a week to earn enough to keep our standard of living afloat. And modern society gives us a million ways to blow a fortune that our grandparents couldn’t have imagined.
We have a word to summarize these challenges: adulthood. To leave your parents’ nest to make your own living is to assume the responsibility to balance your budget, or to accept the consequences of not doing so.
So much for common sense. What worldview does Senator Warren’s evocative language reveal?
She’s describing a very different model of American households. We’re not hundreds of millions of individuals with diverse lives, talents, and needs, we’re a “class” of interchangeable basket cases all in the same circumstances. We don’t develop skills and earn more over time, our wages stay flat decade after decade. We don’t choose homes and families and spending habits, instead costs we had nothing to do with just “explode” in our little robot faces. Are we even alive at all? The senator reckons we’re only “barely” breathing.
So she’s going “rebuild” us all. If you’ve tried to help someone in your own life, you probably noticed how limited your influence is. People are hard to help, and no one can “rebuild” someone else. That’s not a word one applies to other people. Senator Warren is objectifying you and me and the rest of the citizenry.
“It’s time for big, structural changes to put economic power back in the hands of the American people.”
Given her economic model, it’s difficult to find a charitable interpretation of this sentence. She’s made us out to be automata, and automata can’t hold power. They’re not moral actors with free will. They can’t make decisions.
And her specific policies scrape economic decisions out of the 50 states and move them to Washington. She means to exert more control over banking, agriculture, tech, small business, airlines, education, corporate governance, manufacturing, wages, energy, collective bargaining, consumer credit, child care, housing, corporate finance, and health care.
Nor could “economic power” mean “disposable income,” because she’ll be taking that too. She plans to double the federal budget. Imagine what would be left of your pay stub after income tax, FICA, Medicare taxes and other withholdings are subtracted twice. Imagine filing your federal income taxes and doubling the tax you owe.
The kindest interpretation of this sentence is she put no thought into it at all, because it completely contradicts her platform. She perhaps hopes that industries Washington directs more actively will provide us all better service, but none of her plans devolve more power to us citizens.
Washington works great for the wealthy and the well-connected, but it isn’t working for anyone else. Companies and wealthy individuals spend billions every year to influence Congress and federal agencies to put their interests ahead of the public interest. This is deliberate, and we need to call this what it is—corruption, plain and simple. That’s why Elizabeth has proposed the most ambitious set of anti-corruption reforms since Watergate to fundamentally change the way Washington does business.
“The public,” of course, doesn’t have “an interest.” America is 328 million people with conflicting interests. There is literally nothing Washington can do that “works for everyone.” If Congress considered a bill that the sun should come up tomorrow, it would be opposed by reflective tape manufacturers, insomniacs, and the vampire lobby.
Senator Warren and her colleagues are operating an enormous, ongoing prisoner’s dilemma experiment in which we’re all the subjects. We’re obliged to fight for policies that make us the winners, because millions of other people will be trying to make us the losers. America was founded on the recognition that people will always try to use government to gain advantage over each other. That’s why they enshrined the rights of the people to petition and speak their minds about the government.
Obviously, influencing the federal government is not like influencing your town council. You can’t just drop by the Tuesday night meeting and speak your piece. The inevitable consequence of a few hundred people in Washington ruling over hundreds of millions is that only corporate entities can be part of the process. You can’t make a difference on your own; if you’re going to be heard you must do so as a group of thousands or millions.
Thousands of people, though, cannot sit down in a meeting with a Congressman. So just as inevitably, groups must hire professional lobbyists to carry their message to the capitol. Some of them represent businesses, some labor unions, some environmental groups, but all of them represent a concern of thousands or millions of people. It’s easy to hate on oil company lobbyists, but they have money to lobby only because they speak for millions of regular people who care about lower prices at the pump. If citizens are to be permitted to petition the federal government at all, lobbyists are an immediate consequence and a sign that they’re doing so.
Senator Warren doesn’t want to remove the need for citizens to influence Washington. On the contrary, her policies would increase our dependence on people like her. But if the private sector’s agents manage to influence politicians, she calls that corruption.
In other words, “How dare you citizens approach me in this manner!” she is saying. “You may cast a vote for a Congressman every two years, a President every four, or a Senator every six. Your vote will not decide the election outcome, but nevertheless you will accept whatever laws the winners see fit to enact. And you will be silent in the intervening time, lest you corrupt Our deliberations.”
“Save our democracy” indeed.
Together, these sweeping, structural changes will end the dominance of money in Washington, taking power away from the rich and powerful and putting it back where it belongs – with the American people themselves.
This sentence is breathtakingly dishonest. Her website describes 54 plans, not one of which leaves American citizens with any more power. If she were ending the dominance of money in Washington, why would she need to seize trillions of citizens’ savings?
Money is just the medium of exchange that helps us all convert what we contribute into what we want. To hold part of the economy “beyond the reach of money” is to say it’s beyond the influence of citizens and under the control of an unaccountable elite. To show that’s better, she would have to explain why we can trust the elite to do better on their own. Can you find where she does this? Neither can I.
What we can find very easily is Senator Warren offering taxpayer’s money to buy her way into office. Are you struggling with student debt? If you vote for her, she’ll “cancel” up to $50,000 worth. I would find that offer hard to resist.
It would be wrong to say she’s buying your vote. It’s just that, if you can help her win, things will get much easier for you financially.
But what about Trump?
What about Trump? What about Joe Biden? What about those other candidates who are even worse?
Those are good questions. Whataboutism is in fact the larger moral, because Senator Warren is simply following the playbook of successful politicians for decades. The same ones who created the problems she’s promising to fix.
Perhaps her imperious attitude secretly appeals to you? Of course she has to talk down to us, misrepresent basic facts, and play at our emotions, because most voters just aren't very bright. Liz and I, though, we’re operating at a whole other level. Democracy is all well at good for marketing, but look at the problems all around us. The truth is we just need a strongman or strongwoman to take power and set things right. If a few facts get mangled in the process, I can overlook that.
That’s exactly what Hayek’s Road to Serfdom warned of in 1944.
In an ideal world, we would simply leave the job unfilled. We would notice that one candidate speaks to us like children, plays at our emotions, evades hard questions, misrepresents simple facts, denies basic economics, makes absurd promises, and lies frequently. Meanwhile the other candidate...well...does much the same.
Unfortunately, the machine is going to install one ruler or another. We can’t stop it. We voters must hire someone who will have enormous power over the lives of hundreds of millions of people, and we must choose from the short list that have made it through the Establishment’s filter.
But what we can do is be honest about what’s in front of us. We can refuse to get excited about a candidate who regards us as automata, who speaks to us in platitudes and contradictions, and who assumes we won’t notice.
We may still be stuck with a two party system, but the first step in getting it to crack is simply to stand firm on what we know to be true about economics and life, to notice when we’re being sold short with narratives of victimhood, and to stand firm on freedom.