Elizabeth Warren

Coalition for Sensible Safeguards Speech - June 5, 2018

Elizabeth Warren
June 05, 2018— Washington, D.C.
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Warren presented this address at Georgetown Law.

Thank you, thank you. It's good to be here with everybody this morning. Thank you, thank you. So thank you to rob. Thank you to Public Citizen and to the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards for organizing this symposium. You are leading a lot of tough fights on behalf of the American people, and I am glad to have this opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with you. Thank you for your work, this important work.

Let's talk about toasters. Back when I was a young woman in the 1970's, I liked to make toast for breakfast and one morning I popped a few pieces of bread into the toaster oven. I got busy doing six other things and quickly forgot about the toast. So when I see smoke pouring out of the toaster oven, I grabbed the handle, pulled out the tray and see four slices of bread that are on fire. I mean as in flames leaping into the air. Always a quick thinker, I screamed.

And threw the thing toward the kitchen sink. Now, three of the pieces landed on the target. The fourth piece went high and set the little cute kitchen curtains on fire. I screamed again and then I grabbed a cereal bowl and threw it at the curtains. I found out screaming and throwing things was probably not my best strategy. I grabbed the towel, I beat on the toaster until everything seemed quiet, let it cool down and I unplugged it. Now, that may have been the year I started so many kitchen fires that my daddy actually gave me a fire extinguisher for Christmas. But that says something about my skills.

But I want you to think about toasters for a minute. Back then our toaster oven had an on-off switch and that was it. And on meant on which meant it was possible to leave toast under that little broiler all day and all night until the food burned, the wiring melted, and the whole thing burst into flames. At some point someone had the bright idea of adding a timer and an automatic shutoff. That changed made it a whole lot harder for distracted mothers or for anyone else to leave the toaster running until it set the kitchen on fire.

30 years later, while I was working on an article about how the government could protect consumers from predatory financial companies, I thought about those old toaster ovens. By then, it was all but impossible to buy a toaster that had a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house, but by the 2000's, it was possible to refinance a home with a mortgage that had a one-in-five chance of costing a family their home and putting them out on the street. In fact, it wasn't just possible. Those mortgages were being sold and bursting into flames all across this country.

So why the difference? Why the difference between toasters and mortgages? The United States government was the difference. Regulations were the difference. By 2007, the year I was writing this article, a government agency actually monitored toasters for basic safety, and if anyone tried to sell a toaster that had a tendency to burst into flames, there was an agency that would put a stop to it.

In fact, government regulations ensured the basic safety of pretty much every product offered for sale. Agencies like the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency worked to keep us safe. No lead paint in children's toys. No medicines laced with rat poison. No cars without functioning brakes. And no exploding toasters.

But in 2007, there was no government agency that would stop the sale of exploding mortgages. After the financial crisis, we fought for that Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that would be a strong cop on the beat, making financial products safer. We fought and we won. Can we do a big round of applause over that?

And now I will reassure you that if you think that applauding for agencies makes you a nerd, think about this. That little agency has already put strong regulations in place on mortgages, on student loans, on credit cards, and it has forced big financial institutions to return more than $12 billion directly to the consumers they cheated. That's an agency that works for America.

Now, as Rob alluded to, the agency is under attack now. The Trump administration and an army of lobbyists are determined to rig the game in their favor, to boost their own profits. The cost to the consumers be damned. It's not just the CFPB under attack. In agency after agency across the federal government, powerful corporations and their Republican allies are working overtime to roll back basic rules that protect the rest of us.

So why is this happening? Why favor the profits of Wall Street banks over the economic security of American families?

The answer's pretty simple -- corruption. Giant corporations and wealthy individuals are working in the shadows to make sure that government works for them, not for the people. To hide what they're doing, big corporations and Republicans here in Washington often claim that regulations are bad for our economy. They go on and on about how big government restricts freedom and makes it harder for businesses to succeed.

That is a big greasy baloney sandwich. In fact, a big greasy baloney sandwich that's been left out in the sun so long that it's started to stink.

Let's talk about real freedom, freedom from being cheated by those who care about pumping up their own profits and don't care about you. Regulations are about setting the rules of the road, plain and simple. That's all they're about. Done right, strong, clear regulations protect the freedom of every American. How free would you be if companies were allowed to lie to you about their businesses in order to trick you into investing your life savings in their stock? How free would you be if no one had to wash their hands before they handled your hamburger? How free would you be if companies can pass little white pills as antibiotics even if they weren't? Don't tell me that all rules do is restrict freedom. Good rules empower people to live, work, and do business freely and safely.

Regulations have three basic functions. First, they provide the basic framework that permits commerce to flourish, to ensure that we get what we've been promised, that a gallon of gas is really a gallon and not almost a gallon. That pills labeled as antibiotics really are antibiotics and they aren't contaminated with something else. We get what we're promised.

Second, regulations keep thieves out of our pockets. Rules are how we make it illegal to steal your purse on Main Street or your pension on Wall Street.

And third, regulations level the playing field for everyone competing for our business. Because of regulation, good companies that do right by their customers don't have to compete against cheaters. Competition shouldn't be about who can hide the nastiest and most profitable trick somewhere in the fine print. It should be about who offers the choices that consumers like best. That's good for customers and it's good for upstart competitors who think that they have a better product to offer.

So let me say this outright. Well-designed regulations allow for more freedom and more safety for each of us personally, more freedom and more opportunity for small businesses and startups, and more freedom and more security for workers who are building a future for their families and more freedom for every business that is willing to compete straight up on the quality of its goods and services.

The so-called war on regulation isn't about freedom. The war on regulations is waged on behalf of giant companies that don't want to follow any pursuant to the rules. So let's call it what it really -- follow any rules. So let's call it what it really is. It's a war on public health, a war on truly free and competitive market, a war on American workers, a war on American consumers.

Republicans in Washington talk about regulations like it's some kind of uncontrollable Frankenstein's monster with an independent will all its own, a beast that will chew our bones. They use the word "regulation" like a magic incantation, a fierce word that can be repeated three times to ward off the evil of big government.

But American history tells a very different story about regulation. More than a century ago, the Industrial Revolution began to stir and factories strikeouted up all around this country. The Industrial Revolution radically altered the American economy, and it generated enormous wealth, but it also wreaked havoc on workers and their families. As industrialization spread across this country, families poured in from farms into the cities only to land in workplaces that were monstrously unsafe. Wages were paltry and hours were grueling.

Now, America's response to this was not to abandon the technological innovations and improvements of the Industrial Revolution. We didn't send everyone back to the farms. No. Instead, we came together as a country and through our government we changed public policies to adapt to a changing economy. In other words, we adjusted the laws, the regulations to keep much of the good and get rid of much of the bad.

Over time, the list of new laws and regulations grew. A minimum wage, workplace safety, worker compensation, child labor laws, the 40-hour workweek, the right to unionize. These protections set up guardrails so that giant corporations could no longer exploit workers just to boost their own profits.

And in addition to protecting workers, America also took steps to protect our financial system. From colonial times until the early 1930's, America pretty much took the economic world the way it was. Booms and busts were just part of the way it worked and there wasn't much we could do about it. Sort of like the natural cycles of the moon. And those crashes hurt. Sure, they took down speculators but they also took down farmers and small business owners and employees and millions of people who got swept away by massive economic forces that they could not control.

And then the big one hit, the Great Depression. Unemployment skyrocketed, peaking at more than 20%, bread lines swelled across the country, frightening rumors caused Americans to rush to empty their bank accounts, triggering even more crises. In the midst of this chaos, Franklin Roosevelt stepped in with this bold idea -- we can do better. We can end regulation to end the boom and bust cycles and that is exactly what he did.

In the wake of the Great Depression, America put in place strong laws and rules that stabilized our financial system. FDIC insurance made it safe to put money in banks. The SEC was built to be a cop on the beat. Not a cop on the street but a cop on Wall Street. And Glass-Steagall, checking accounts, savings accounts, were safe from Wall Street risk taking.

For more than 50 years, half a century, those rules stayed in place and they worked. The devastating economic crashes were gone. Regulations brought us economic stability, and the financial services industry served the American people rather than the other way around. Regulations to protect workers, regulations to protect financial marketplaces and make them fairer, the GDP was climbing and America's middle class was getting a huge share of all that growth. We were on a roll, and in the 1970's, environmental issues moved front and center, and the safety of American families came under review again.

You know, this may be hard to believe for some people in this room, but back in the 1950's and 1960's, big American cities were smothered with thick layers of nasty, dirty smog. People sucked down toxic chemicals on the way to work. Little kids breathed in dangerous substances on school playgrounds. Factory owners spewed their filth in the air and didn't care because they didn't pay the cost of pollution. The auto manufacturers weren't held responsible for tailpipe emissions from the cars they built. But the millions who suffered asthma attacks, developed lung cancer and died from heart disease because of dirty air paid a terrible price.

During one Thanksgiving week back in 1966, a severe smog crisis choked New York City, killing hundreds of people. Think about that. People demanded action, but big corporations pushed back hard. Big car makers said they would never be able to meet the deadlines to reduce emissions that it would cost too much to adapt their vehicles, that they would go bankrupt. By the way, you notice they sound exactly like big corporate interests today that are fighting greenhouse gas restrictions.

But people prevailed. The new Environmental Protection Agency was born. Congress passed the Clean Air Act giving the E.P.A. the authority to put in place strong new rules, and clear deadlines to protect all of us. The result, from 1970 to 2016, common air pollutants fell 73%. Today, the Clean Air Act saves more than 160,000 lives every year. 160,000 people, our neighbors, our families, 160,000 people every single year. That's what good regulations can do.

What America has accomplished through strong public-centered rules is a truly amazing story. So where are the cheerleaders? Where are the defenders of regulators who make sure that most of us don't work in factories where equipment could kill us or don't drive cars with defective brakes? Where are the parades and the special citations for the federal employees who make sure that cancer treatments really are cancer treatments and that the air is clean enough for our babies to breathe and grow and flourish? Where are the thank you op-eds and the national holiday to celebrate that infants are no longer strangled in poorly designed baby cribs and that airplanes rarely crash? What happened? How did those regulators and the regulations designed to protect American people become the enemy?

The answer, once again, is not complex. The answer is corruption. By the 1980's, corporate giants who didn't want to follow the rules have a plan to fight back. They figured they could improve their profit margins by rolling back those rules and the best way to do that was to control the rule makers. So they made political contributions. Then lobbied those same elected officials to leash up the regulators. It was called deregulation, but that was just code for, let the rich guys do whatever they want. Let them die. Let them cheat. Let them steal. And if anyone asks, pretend that it was a good thing.

Now, that sounds a little bit harsh. Well, consider what happened in the financial services industry. Remember all those tough rules that FDR put in place after the Great Depression, the ones that worked to make our economy safer for half a century? When Reagan began his systematic campaign of deregulation, those rules came under attack and they stayed under attack year after year after year, president after president, regardless of party. For decades the Fed and other bank regulators just looked the other way as big financial institutions found new ways to trick their customers. The SEC was badly outgunned. Credit rating agencies signed off on the safety of pools of mortgages that were more like boxes of grenades with the pins already pulled out. And the wall between high-risk trading and boring banking was knocked down as Glass-Steagall was repealed.

The result should have surprised exactly no one. After another boom in 2008, our economy came crashing to the ground, dragging along tens of millions of Americans who lost their homes, who lost their jobs, who lost their savings, who lost the very lives they had spent decades to build. Thirty years of deregulation. A crash that nearly brought our economy to its knees. A recovery now that has left most Americans behind.

And what is the Trump administration's answer? More deregulation. More deregulation. Make this government work better and better for the richest and the most powerful. Oh, sure.

Back in 2016 candidate Trump made big promises to drain the swamp, promises to fight for working people, promises to ignore lobbyists, promises to stand up to wall street. Well, it is clear now that those promises were just part of the scam, a scam that has paid off handsomely for Wall Street, paid off handsomely for every corporation that can hire an army of lobbyists or drop big money at a nearby Trump Hotel. Pay off handsomely for every billionaire or corporate executive who has pocketed part of the $1.5 trillion tax giveaway. Paid off big time.

But for American families, the payoff still hasn't arrived. And there's more payoff for big corporations as the Trump administration rolls back worker protections. The agenda -- take away overtime pay from millions of workers, delay rules to limit workers' exposure to chemicals that cause lung disease and cancer. Stack the national Labor Relations Board with people who have spent their careers busting unions.

And how about the important environmental protections that protect the health of our families, the ones we put in place to make sure we can drink the water and breathe the air? Well, President Trump started by appointing Scott Pruitt to head the E.P.A. Corruption oozes out of his office. [laughter] From wasting hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to cutting deals to make himself rich to doing the bidding of the highest paid lobbyists.

Consider clean water. The clean water rule is designed to protect drinking water, but industry opposes the rule because it means they can't dump toxic chemicals in the water or spread toxic waste on ground where it might run into drinking water. And since industry doesn't like the clean water rule, Scott Pruitt has come up with a plan for ending it. Or think about pesticides. Three years ago the E.P.A. decided to ban a dangerous pesticide that puts our children at risk. But right after Scott Pruitt met with the CEO of Dow Chemical, the rule was gone. Or power.

The clean power plan is the biggest step we have taken to fight against climate change, but once Scott Pruitt met with executives from big coal, the E.P.A. announced its plans to end the rule. In just over a year, the administration has worked to roll back more than 60 environmental rules, from revoking car emission standards to undercutting efforts to limit methane gas, in the name of deregulation, Pruitt has told corporations they can boost their profits by poisoning our waters, fouling our air, contaminating our food, and threatening the very planet we call home.

All told, the Center for American Progress estimates that Pruitt’s rollbacks will cost the American people about $260 billion a year, and some of those costs will be measured in hospital admissions and funeral bills. The same attitude permeates the Trump administration. Betsy DeVos, secretary of education, has delayed the rules to keep for-profit colleges from scamming students. Mick Mulvaney, controlling the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has rolled back the oversight of payday lenders. Ryan Zinke, interior secretary, has pushed more off-shore areas to risky oil and gas drilling. President Trump has even worked to weaken the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the agency that makes sure that toasters don't explode. He has nominated a new chair who has opposed safety protections for table saws and nominated a new commissioner who defended companies that knowingly, knowingly sold all-terrain vehicles that tipped over and crushed children to death.

I could keep going on, but these examples make one thing clear. President Trump and his team have embarked on an aggressive effort to kill the rules that protect the American people from corporate predators.

Ok. Now is the part where we need to state the obvious. No. I don't think every regulation is good. Sometimes regulators get it wrong. Sometimes old rules need updating. Sometimes rules should be eliminated outright, and the corruption of our rule-making process now runs so deep that sometimes rules get perverted into government-sponsored protections for giant corporations instead of protection for the American people.

On this one, you don't have to tell me. One of the most significant regulatory rollbacks enacted by the current Congress eliminates a thicket of anti-competitive restrictions that reduce access and drive up the cost of hearing aids for millions of Americans. Now you might ask me how I know that. I wrote the bill to roll back the regulations. I worked with conservatives to advance it and I got it signed into law by President Trump. Yeah.

These kinds of regulatory changes, the pro-competition, pro-consumer changes, they aren't what the Republicans' agenda is all about. No. The Republicans are working to insulate big corporations from accountability and responsibility. They are trying to make government work better and better for fewer and fewer people.

This is a critical moment for our country. The Republicans control both Congress and the White House and they are using their control to fulfill their corporate deregulatory agenda that promotes profits for executives and investors over the safety, security, and opportunity of everyone else. And, yeah, that's pretty grim.

But I am here today because I am an optimist. I am an optimist because I believe that change is possible. I know it is hard. Ending the war against America's families will take us a lot of fights on a lot of fronts. We can't win until we pry our government free from the grip of the rich and the powerful.

And that's why in the coming weeks I will introduce sweeping anti-corruption legislation to clean up corporate money sloshing around Washington and make it possible for our elected government to actually work for the American people again. My plan will padlock the revolving door between government and industry. It will eliminate the ability of government decision makers to enrich themselves through their government service. It will empower federal agencies to pass strong regulations that benefit the public by ending corporate capture of the regulatory process.

Ending this war on public safety and competitive markets will also require standing up and making the case loud and clear. Strong government rules matter. We cannot, we must not accept a government that works only for the privileged few. Government remains the best tool we have to create a level playing field so everyone, white, brown, black, young, old, everyone gets a turn. Government is the best tool we have to make sure that everyone, male, female, rich, poor, everyone who pitches in gets a shot at success. Government matters and we cannot be afraid to say so.

Change is coming. When we send a message that corporate profits and powerful interests cannot overpower the health, safety, and economic well-being of hardworking families, we fire a warning shot. This is our time, our responsibility, our chance to build a country where government works not just for the rich and powerful but government that works for the people. That's what this is about.

Thank you, all.