Elizabeth Warren and the Definition of "Controversial"

Over the last few days, Connecticut
Senator Chris Dodd and Treasury
Secretary Tim Geithner
have made the case that Harvard professor
and Congressional Oversight Panel chairwoman Elizabeth Warren is too
controversial a figure to head the new Consumer Financial Protection
Bureau (CFPB). This, then, raises the revealing question of how
Washington defines "controversial?"

Recall that the charge of "too controversial" was not made by Senate
Democrats (or at least not at the volume they are being made against
Warren) against Gary Gensler,
the former Goldman Sachs executive appointed by President Obama to head
the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. It was not made by most
Senate Democrats against Larry Summers, a hedge
fund executive
subsequently appointed to a top economic position in
the administration. It was not made against Citigroup
executive Jack Lew
when last week he was appointed to head the
Office of Management and Budget. And it wasn't made against Tim
Geithner, who orchestrated massive
taxpayer giveaways
to major banks during his time at the New York

And yet, according to Democratic-run Washington, D.C., Elizabeth
Warren - an academic not connected to the financial industry or past
corrupt governmental decisions; a regulator working to protect
taxpayer's bailout money - may apparently be too controversial to be
confirmed by a Democratic Senate.

The message to both today's generation and the future generation
of citizens who may aspire to work in government is pretty clear: If you
are personally/financially connected to private for-profit corporations
that underwrite political campaigns - even the ones that helped destroy
the economy - then Washington has no problem with your appointment to a
position overseeing those same private corporations. But if you forge
an independent path and are not connected to those corporations and to
that sluice of corporate campaign cash, you are suspect - and probably
will have trouble getting a job in government. Why? Because the former
cadre of insiders poses no real threat to the economic status quo -
while the latter kind of independent outsider like Elizabeth Warren
might actually rock the boat. Defining "controversial" this way, thus,
creates a perverse incentive system: Going through the revolving door is
rewarded as noncontroversial, while refusing to go through the
revolving door is effectively punished as too controversial.

This is how corruption tends to work most often in D.C. On a day
to day basis, it's far less the brazen money-for-votes schemes, and far
more the narrowing of the political debate and the distortion of
political language itself. In this case, it's the hijacking of the
concept of "controversial" so as to marginalize an agent of change. And
if that hijacking ends up preventing Elizabeth Warren from heading the
CFPB, then, indeed, the status quo will - once again - have won.

UPDATE: Kudos to Sen.
Tom Harkin
, the AFL-CIO, SEIU and other progressive leaders/groups
for using their platforms to push the White House to appoint Elizabeth

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