Elizabeth Warren used to be an interesting, heterodox thinker, says columnist David Brooks. Then she ran for president.
The most important campaign news of the summer was Elizabeth Warren’s surge. Early in the year, her campaign was foundering. She was in fifth place, with a mere 6% support.
Now she is rising toward the top, with former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders. She’s drawing huge crowds — 15,000 in Seattle recently. She has the highest favorability rating of any candidate. If you ask Democrats whom they would vote for if they didn’t have to worry about electability, her support rises even more.
She’s achieved all this not with some ephemeral debate moment gimmick, but by campaigning well and being relatable, substantive and, yes, likable. Domenico Montanaro of NPR reports that she has taken 45,000 selfies with voters. That’s dedication.
She has also done one more thing. She has made sure that her policy views conform to progressive orthodoxy. This is an important transformation for Warren. When she emerged on the public stage she was a completely heterodox thinker, who deviated from the liberal mainstream with abandon.
Warren’s breakthrough moment was a 2003 book called “The Two-Income Trap,” which she wrote with her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi. That book centers on an astonishing statistic. In 1981, about 69,000 women filed for bankruptcy. By 1999 that figured had jumped to nearly 500,000. This was happening despite the fact that women’s wages were rising rapidly.
The conventional view at the time was that Americans went bankrupt because they spent too much on fancy cars, vacations and baubles. Warren and Tyagi exploded that myth. Instead they pointed to something more paradoxical. The surge of women into the workforce had made many women’s economic situation worse.
Many women entered the labor force to give their family more financial security. But an ironic thing happened. All the new dual-income families started bidding up the price of housing in neighborhoods with good schools. They started bidding up the price of day care and college tuition. Two-income families found they had less economic security, not more.
“Even as millions of mothers marched into the workforce, savings declined,” Warren and Tyagi wrote. This is the two-income trap. And the results were especially devastating for single-income families and single mothers who had to compete in the hyped-up, dual-earner world.
Warren did not argue that women should leave the labor force. Instead, she favored helping parents by providing them with school vouchers and school choice. “Fully funded vouchers would relieve parents from the terrible choice of leaving their kids in lousy schools or bankrupting themselves to escape those schools,” Warren and Tyagi wrote.
“An all-voucher system would be a shock to the educational system, but the shakeout might be just what the system needs,” they continued. This is exactly the argument that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos uses to support school choice.
Professor Warren also supported proposals to help families afford day care, but she opposed the approach that candidate Warren now advocates. Back then, she called taxpayer-funded day care a liberal “sacred cow”: “Any subsidy that benefits working parents without providing a similar benefit to single-income families pushes the stay-at-home mother and her family further down the economic ladder.”
Professor Warren supported ways to help make universities more affordable, but she opposed the sort of government subsidy proposals that candidate Warren now supports. “Are state governments supposed to write a blank check for higher education, allowing universities to increase costs with abandon?” she asked. “The more-taxes approach suffers from the same problem the more-debt approach engenders. It gives colleges more money to spend without any attempt to control their spiraling costs.”
“The Two-Income Trap” is filled with interesting and heterodox proposals. Warren supported many progressive policy ideas and many conservative ones. She wanted to eliminate the tax on savings. She opposed more government regulations on housing, because such regulations reduce the incentive to build more housing.
In that book, she harshly criticized many Republicans. She also criticized the women’s movement for being na´ve about economics, and she criticized Hillary Clinton for flip-flopping on important issues for the sake of political expediency.
There are two core tensions that make the book so fascinating. Warren and Tyagi are both working women and feminists. And yet they provide case after case in which stay-at-home moms provide an important safety net for their families. Warren and Tyagi want Americans to have children, but they provide case after case in which childbearing strains family finances and leads to bankruptcy and misery.
In 2016 Warren and Tyagi wrote a new introduction to their book. It’s hard to believe this introduction was written by the same people. The 2003 book is intellectually unpredictable and alive. The new introduction is paint-by-numbers progressive boilerplate. The original book described a complex world in which people navigate trade-offs and unintended consequences often happen. The new introduction describes a comic book world, in which everything bad can be blamed on greedy bankers.
This is the problem with politics in a dogmatic age. Everything conforms to rigid ideology. Independent, evidence-based thinking? That goes out the window.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.