The Professor Got Educated

I wish every voter in the country would read this article. Okay, relatively few will, but I’m convinced she’ll be our next president anyway. From “The Education of Elizabeth Warren” in the New York Times, here’s a much shorter version:

By 1981, Ms. Warren and her husband had secured temporary teaching posts at the University of Texas, where she agreed to teach bankruptcy law. She quickly earned a reputation for lively lectures, putting students on the spot and peppering them with questions and follow-up questions…

Even visitors to her class got the treatment. One of them was Stefan A. Riesenfeld, a renowned bankruptcy professor who had come to lecture on the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978. The law, which had expanded bankruptcy protection for consumers, was already under attack by the credit industry, which argued that it made personal bankruptcy too attractive.

Even so, Mr. Riesenfeld explained to Ms. Warren’s class, those who filed personal bankruptcy were “mostly day laborers and housemaids who had lived at the economic margins and always would,” she wrote in her 2014 memoir.

“I asked the obvious follow-up question: ‘How did he know?’” Ms. Warren wrote. After more questioning, it became clear that not only did Mr. Riesenfeld have no real answer, he was irritated by Ms. Warren’s probing.

The subject struck close to home. When she was growing up in Oklahoma, her father’s heart attack had thrown their household into precarious financial territory, forcing her mother to take a minimum-wage job answering telephones at Sears.

She remembers being fearful as she lay in bed at night listening to her mother cry. “She thought I had gone to sleep. I didn’t know for sure the details of why she was crying, but I knew it was bad and that we could lose everything,” Ms. Warren said.

(Later, the oil glut of the 1980s would destroy her brother David’s once-thriving business delivering supplies to oil rigs. Her brother John, a construction worker, would also struggle after the oil market collapsed….)

She wanted answers, more than Professor Riesenfeld could provide….

Dozens of people would eventually be involved in the … analysis of a quarter million pieces of data gathered from bankruptcy cases filed from 1981 through 1985.

Among the researchers was Kimberly S. Winick, then a University of Texas law student … While Ms. Warren didn’t talk a lot about her views, Ms. Winick said she believed that the project’s initial theory was that, “If you filed bankruptcy, you must be cheating.”

“Liz was from a more conservative place,” Ms. Winick said. “And she was somebody who had worked very, very, very hard all her life. And she had never walked away from a debt. And I think she kind of started with the view — let’s see what people are doing and how they’re cadging on their debts and screwing their creditors.”

That was the conventional thinking of the day….

While the [bankruptcy files] did not tell the whole story, they provided enough evidence for Mr. Warren and her co-authors to write, “Repeatedly, we have been surprised by the data and forced to rethink our own understanding of bankruptcy”.

… Over the years, the research elevated Ms. Warren’s status, from little-known Texas professor to sought-after lecturer, writer and consultant in bankruptcy law. It also set the stage for her career in politics.

In 1995, Mike Synar, a former Democratic congressman from her home state, asked Ms. Warren, by then a Harvard professor, to advise a special commission reviewing the bankruptcy system….

It was during that period, in 1996, that she switched her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat, though she insists that her essential conversion was from “not political” to “political”.

“I didn’t come from a political family,” she said. “I hadn’t been political as an adult. I was raising a family, teaching school and doing my research,” she said.

Then she went to Capitol Hill.

“I quickly discovered that every single Republican was on the side of the banks and half the Democrats were,” she said. “But whenever there was someone who would stand up for working families, it was a Democrat.”

She added, “I picked sides, got in the fight, and I’ve been in the fight ever since”.

merlin_159494604_bb8319a0-292c-4940-9d65-d3e2c6834404-jumboUniversity of Texas, 1985.

An appropriate addendum.

Make Voting Easier and Make Everyone Do It

Today’s Washington Post has 38 suggestions from a variety of people on “How to Fix American Democracy”“How to Fix American Democracy”. My favorite is by two Louisiana State professors. It’s the first one on the list: “Require Everyone to Vote”.

A more accurate title for their suggestion would have been “Make Voting Easier and Make Everyone Vote”. Their suggestion:

A long-standing defect in U.S. suffrage law is the treatment of the electoral franchise as a privilege that is denied too easily and often because of an ugly prejudice or a convenient pretext. Let’s re-imagine the democratic right of voting as a citizen’s obligation. In our doppelganger ally down under, Australia, voting is compulsory. They have far higher turnouts, and their elections boast greater legitimacy.

We can and should make it much easier to carry out this civic duty: Keep polls open for an entire week, not a single day, and make sure that polling places are easily available — distributed across states according to population density. In addition, let’s expand mail-in voting (which is how citizens who serve in the military routinely vote). Public transportation to the polls should be free. A national registry of voters can be created if hospitals automatically submit birth certificates; this way, voters could be identified by their Social Security number, and arbitrary state requirements could not be used to unfairly penalize them. Anyone who fails to cast a ballot would be subject to a fine, the funds from which could be used to support the costs incurred by this compulsory program.

Instead of permitting voter suppression, which stands out as a blemish on our less-than-fully-democratic system, we should be defining the voter as a national citizen. In reversing the emphasis from suspicion of fraud to across-the-board inclusion, we would come closer to being a “representative democracy” — what we’ve always claimed we are. And at least we’ll be able to say with greater authority that candidates look foolish (or bigoted) when they refuse to consider the interests of the entire body of citizens.

Like most improvements, this has little chance of being adopted until the Democrats control all three branches of the government. But individual states could implement it immediately.

Since young people vote less than old people, and poor people vote less than rich people, making everyone vote would increase the percentage of voters who are young or poor. I think that would be a very good thing to do, but maybe people who don’t bother to vote now because they aren’t interested in politics or don’t follow the news would be bad at voting.

Another suggestion (“Persuade Voters to Keep Clicking”) includes thoughts about ill-informed voters:

Inept, corrupt or extremist political leaders are harming our democracy. So, too, are the voters who don’t check if what they are reading, hearing or viewing is true. Our democracy’s problems are not just caused by bad leaders but also by indolent voters.

Citizens who don’t care about politics have always existed. As have those who vote without knowing much about who or what they are voting for — or against. But things have changed. Today, the failure of these voters to “click again” and find out more about their choices threatens all of us. The Internet makes apathetic voters especially vulnerable to the manipulations of demagogues, particular interests or even foreign powers.

The Founding Fathers worried about the impact of the uneducated or ill-informed on American democracy. James Madison argued, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” Thomas Jefferson hoped that education would be the antidote: “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. … They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

It is a paradox of our time: Information has never been easier to find and yet we have all become more vulnerable to misinformation, manipulation and propaganda. The Internet is both a marvelous source of insights and a toxic channel through which weaponized lies freely circulate.

That’s why the author of this last suggestion and several other contributors say we need to make sure voters are better-informed. One of them, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, says we should teach critical thinking skills to every student every year. I’m in favor of making Americans smarter and better thinkers, but it would be quicker and probably more effective to make 24-hour cable “news” channels like Fox News and CNN illegal.

The Truth Shall Set You Free

Albion’s Seed is a very long book by the historian David Hackett Fischer. It explains how four regional cultures from England were transferred to different parts of colonial America.

For example, the fact that English aristocrats controlled the settlement of Virginia but had little role in the settlement of Massachusetts explains important differences between the history of the South and New England, even up to the present day.

“As early as 1642, the Massachusetts Bay Colony required that all children should be trained to read by their parents or masters”. Partly out of fear that Satan (the Old Deluder) was always trying to cloud people’s minds, “the Old Deluder Law compelled every town of fifty families to hire a schoolmaster and every town of one hundred families to keep a grammar school which offered instruction in Latin and Greek”.

Contrast this attitude toward literacy and education with that expressed by Governor William Berkeley of Virginia in 1671: 

“I thank God there are no free schools nor printing (in Virginia), and I hope we shall not have these for one hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!”

In fact, the aristocrats who ran Virginia believed in education for their offspring. It was the lower classes, including slaves, who were supposed to remain ignorant: “the penalty for a slave who tried to learn how to write was to have a finger amputated”