Soon after Elizabeth Warren sounded off onstage at the second Code conference, she went viral. A short Re/code clip from the interview is headed toward three million views on YouTube; Warren’s digital director, Lauren Miller, said the clip is “officially the most-watched [Elizabeth Warren] video ever.”
During the interview with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher — which you can watch here in its entirety, or read in the transcript below — Warren talked about Silicon Valley’s libertarian streak, her passion for America’s middle class, her struggle to found a consumer agency and President Obama’s beef with her over trade agreements. She repeated her call for collective investment in education, infrastructure and research, and explained why she isn’t running for president.
“I have a full-time job,” Warren responded after Swisher asked.
Could you beat Hillary?
“That’s not something I put energy into,” Warren answered.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Walt Mossberg: We are really thrilled to be able to bring out, I think it is fair to say, possibly the most exciting political leader we have in our country right now, whether you agree with her or not. That is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Thanks for coming.
Elizabeth Warren: Glad to be here.
Mossberg: We thought we’d start out with an easy question for this audience.
Warren: I am ready. Okay.
Watch the whole interview here:
“Think about what it would be like to try to start a small business if you had to also hire your own police force to do it. If you had to build your own roads to do it.”
Mossberg: We just had Evan Spiegel up here, 24 years old, who has built a very successful company. There are a lot of people out there who build companies, but I think you have expressed a point of view when talking to folks who have done this that they really can’t take full responsibility for building it. “You haven’t built that.” Is that something you subscribe to, and can you explain it?
Warren: What I said is that we have all helped build the world in which others can build more. The way I think about this is it is sort of like: Collectively, we all help plow the fields. We help pay for the security. We help pay for the roads and the bridges. We help pay for the water. We help pay for the education systems. We help pay for the basic research. That is what we do in America. That is the social contract. And then from that, it creates the kind of environment where some people come along and, boy, they lay down the seeds that grow amazing things. And God bless, good for them that they do that. It helps produce jobs for everyone else. It helps produce goods for everyone else. It helps produce prosperity for everyone else. But that is what we do together. And that is how I see it.
Mossberg: So, you said it because you think people forget the shared part of it?
Warren: I said it because somebody asked me the question about class warfare, and I don’t think this is about class warfare. What I think this is about is about how we grow more prosperous together. And we do some of that by investing and reinvesting in the basics — in the core — so that there is a real opportunity for growth and for innovation. Think about what it would be like to try to start a small business if you had to also hire your own police force to do it. If you had to build your own roads to do it. That would make it pretty darn hard.
And so the way I see this is this is part of what has made America prosperous. And it is part of what really worries me today, because that core investment, the part that makes us a place to grow businesses for the future, it seems to me we are just underinvesting and underinvesting and underinvesting in that today. And as a result, we have an infrastructure that is crumbling beneath our feet. We have an education system that is failing millions of our young people. We have a research system right now where the front end — the core research part that only America can be the patient investor in the long haul — that core research is getting harder and harder. It is drying up for NIH. These are powerful policy questions, and I raise them because we need to talk about them.
Kara Swisher: There is a mentality of Silicon Valley, of libertarianism — it is a very strong ethos there. And Silicon Valley has been an engine for growth across the country. The people are becoming celebrities, the tech leaders are to be looked up to. How do you imagine that they need to give back, then?
Warren: Look, I am delighted to see people who want to get out there and try to build something new, who want to innovate on something else. I just think that is fabulous. I celebrate it. I think that is one of the most exciting things you can do, is to start your own business, is to have your own ideas to get out there and fight for it.
Mossberg: Particularly in the tech community and Silicon Valley, is there anything that bothers you about it?
Swisher: The libertarian …
Mossberg: There is a sort of sense that, you know, “Let’s just keep the government away from it as much as we can, and just go right …”
Warren: Wait a minute.
Mossberg: “We are okay here by ourselves,” and, you know.
Warren: Come on, I think you actually do people an injustice by that description.
“We don’t know what kid is going to be the kid who is going to come up with the next idea. But we are pretty darn sure that we are all going to be better off if all our kids get a better education.”
Warren: You know, my sense of this world is that there are a lot of people who don’t want to see regulations that they feel hold back businesses. On the other hand, they want to see big businesses that stifle innovation. There are a lot of ways that you can do that to keep startups from being able to start, from being able to grow, from being able to innovate. But come on, everybody relies on the infrastructure we are all building. No one says, “I am going to take a bunch of babies, and I am going to educate them myself so that they can do my work with me in the future.’ We invest in education. We do it together. We invest in roads and bridges. And we do it together.
I don’t think that is any different in Silicon Valley than it is anywhere else. If anything, a place that so values the innovation that comes from the mind, it seems to me, is a place that values our fundamental, it values education, it values growth. And that is a big part of where we make collective investment, because we don’t know what kid is going to be the kid who is going to come up with the next idea. But we are pretty darn sure that we are all going to be better off if all our kids get a better education. If we could take that whole distributed curve and move it over by getting it better educated, by giving them more opportunities.
Swisher: You have suddenly really exploded onto the scene. Why do you imagine this is happening now?
Warren: You describe it as “explosion.” I would describe it as 30 years, which feels really slow. Because I am doing the same work I have been doing.
Mossberg: You started with the bankruptcy stuff as an academic.
Warren: I started by studying families that failed. And I think a big part of that is I came from a family that was hanging on by its fingernails to our place in the middle class. And I started by studying the families that failed. I was by this point a professor of law, and I was studying the folks in bankruptcy. And I really started this research very much wanting to discover how they were really different. They are certainly different from me and my family and the people I knew and cared about. And what unfolded over time was not only were they not different, they were us. It was America’s middle class that was starting to fail.
And so my research then expanded like other kinds of innovation. You kind of take off from one idea and go into the next. And it was about what is going wrong, what is happening to America’s middle class. To me the middle class and the strength of the middle class, the solid nature of the middle class, the dependability of the middle class was what defined America. This is what coming out of the Great Depression — that we spent 30 years, 35 years, 40 years, 50 years — this is the heart of what it meant to be America. That we invested in the future. We invested in those things I was just talking about, in education. What did a grateful nation say to returning veterans? We will give you a GI Bill, NDEAN loans, investments in state universities that made it possible for a kid like me to go to college. I graduated from a commuter college that cost $50 a semester.
That was the America that we were building. We invested in roads and bridges and infrastructure, in power. Why? Not because we knew who was going to develop the next great business, but we were pretty darn sure we were going to need electricity. And so we all invested in creating those infrastructures. Let me just get one more because they are critical. We invested in research — and this was a remarkable thing that defined us as a country at a time when nobody else was doing this. We made a big investment in research on the idea that if we built a big pipeline of ideas, our children could build lives that we could only dream of and we did that for nearly half a century. We made the investment.
“I’ll tell you exactly what happened. Ronald Reagan was elected president. And it happened right here in California.”
Swisher: So, from your perspective, what happened?
Warren: I’ll tell you exactly what happened. Ronald Reagan was elected president.
Warren: And it happened right here in California. They were the ones who sent him there. But I say that only partially as a joke. It is a milestone. It is a turning point, and ideas were changing. It is 1980, and what starts happening in 1980 is, instead of the idea that we are going to grow this country by making these investments together, and then let opportunity go crazy, they came up with another idea. Supply-side economics. Trickle-down economics. It had two parts to it. The first one was to say, “Cut taxes.” Cut taxes in good times. Cut taxes in bad times. Cut taxes for those at the top. And then how are you going to make that work? Well, then, the answer is you’ve got to start cutting investments. And that means cut investments in education, cut investments in infrastructure, cut investments in research. Look at what has happened to NIH research. Look at what happened to all of our federal investment and research. As a proportion of GDP over the last 35 years, it has been cut nearly in half.
Mossberg: Didn’t it go way up under Clinton, though?
Warren: If you want to do how the chart works, it is a proportion of GDP, it is going up until about the ’70s. It starts leveling off; it starts going back down as a proportion. There are upticks, but we never recovered. It is like with NIH. We doubled the NIH budget in the early 2000s, late 1990s. Does that sound fabulous? Except if we just left NIH on its projected budget, where it needed to be, the adjustment for research dollars don’t go as far in medical. You would have to use a little different adjustment. We are down about 25 percent in effective spending over the last 12 years in NIH. So you can pick periods where it upticks, but the point is, you look at the whole time period, and the answer is we are not making the same kind of investments.
Swisher: At the same time, you can say this was the period that the Internet took off. These great companies were created …
Swisher: Apple, Google, Facebook, all the others.
Mossberg: All these things, Microsoft. I mean, haven’t they somehow changed the world?
Warren: Absolutely have. And has there been innovation? You bet there has. But look at what has happened overall if we don’t invest in opportunity, if we don’t invest in creating a future. So you look from 1935 to 1980, when we are making all the heavy investments in education and infrastructure and research. And what happens to the 90 percent — not the top 10 percent, but the 90 percent? And the answer is, during that time period, they scoop up about 70 percent of all income growth in America. Okay. Top 10 percent did better, but that is great. 70 percent are getting it. In other words, what happens is that as our country gets richer, our median family is getting richer; and as our median family is getting richer, our country is getting richer.
Right: 1980 to 2012, because that is where we got the data. How does the 90 percent do? How much of the growth and income of that period of time did they get? The answer is zero. None. One hundred percent of income growth in that time period went to the top 10 percent. So what has happened to us under supply-side economics is, as America gets richer, the median family is not doing well. It is not about opportunity — not just for some, but opportunity for all of our kids. And here is where I think this becomes so important. This is not just about haves versus have-nots. This is really about, what is the job of government? In part it is to think about the long arc. How do you want a country to operate? Long arc. And the answer has to be that we have got to take every one of our children and just move them up as much as we can in terms of the patient.
“When you invited me, that is why I said yes. It is that I actually do want to see more people in the tech industry engaged in government. I want them to care about it.”
Mossberg: How can the government think about the long arc when everyone in the government, including you as a senator, has got to start, you know, get elected, start raising money for the next campaign. You’ve got to start making promises, start thinking in terms, if you are a senator, in terms of six years. If you are a house member, in terms of two years, then, different states. If you are governor, maybe it is four years. How do you get the long arc in there?
Swisher: And most people in this audience think politics is broken. “We don’t want to be a part of it.”
Warren: There is another way I can reframe your question, or I could just restate the fact [Swisher] stated, and that is to say, “Look, we are held accountable — every two years, or four years or six years — to our bosses. I am held accountable to the people in Massachusetts, and if the people in Massachusetts don’t think I am doing my job, they can do something about it. The way I think we get change in this entire system is I we get more people engaged in the political process, as they hold more people like me accountable, and they hold more people across the government accountable. If there is real accountability, if there is real engagement, we will make better decisions as a country. I believe that.
Mossberg: So, talking about the tech industry, [Swisher] is right. A lot of people in the tech industry, yes, they’ve got a bunch of lobbyists in Washington, but as they go about their work and their day, they are very happy to just sort of never think about the government and to think about what you need to do. Some of our biggest tech companies have parked a lot of cash overseas and done a lot of things. They don’t have to pay very much tax here relative to the large amounts of money they make or they accumulate. How do we fix that? Does that bother you?
Warren: That is part of why I wanted to be here today. When you invited me, that is why I said yes. It is that I actually do want to see more people in the tech industry engaged in government. I want them to care about it. I want them to care, but not spend every minute worrying about it. I get it. I wouldn’t want to have to if this weren’t my job now. But I do want people engaged, because it really does matter. It matters for the world in which, in the short run, you will grow your business. It matters in the long run for the world in which your children will grow up, and the world in which your grandchildren will grow up. America will change profoundly if we continue down a path that says, when are we going to invest in opportunity for the thin slice at the top? We are going to privatize opportunity in this country. If that happens, we are not fundamentally the same country. We are not the country that innovates and creates a future.
“I am not running for president. I have a full-time job.”
Swisher:You are driving a lot of Democrats crazy these days, which is fantastic.
Warren: I do my best.
Swisher: I know you are, and you are doing an excellent job. What do you think your role is? You said you are not running for President — or you are running for President?
Warren: I said I am not running for President.
Swisher: Why are you not running for President?
Warren: I am not running for President.
Swisher: Yes. But why?
Warren: I have a full-time job.
Swisher: I get that, but other people like to be President. They move on.
Warren: Then go ask them.
Swisher: I know, but why don’t you want to be President, then? Can’t we just give it to you? It is normal for people to ask that. Why don’t you think that would be a …?
Warren: You started with a question about explosion, and what I answered you is that I am working on what I have worked on all my life.
Warren: And that is the health, the strength, the survival.
Mossberg: And you couldn’t have done that as president?
Warren: This is mine. Of America’s middle class.
Warren: And I am looking for every way I can to move the needle on that. And I thought I would spend my whole life as a teacher. That is where I thought I would be forever. And then I had an idea for the consumer agency. I could tell you a whole story about how we made that happen — which was very much with tech help, is how that happened. But then I ended up running for the United States Senate because I thought it would be the best way that I would have a chance to move the needle on what I cared about. I am out there doing my work as best I can.
Mossberg: If you woke up tomorrow and changed your mind, do you think you could beat Hillary?
Warren: You know, that is not a question that I put any energy into. I put energy into the question, if I wake up tomorrow morning, can I think of one more way to give more kids an opportunity to build something, to get more people to engage in that and say, “Yes, that matters to me. I really do care about that.”
“I like Snapchat. That is a good name. Think how the world would be different if somebody else got to name the government agencies. They could all just work so much better.”
Mossberg: You were the driving force behind the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Warren: Named by those who would never want anyone to remember the name. Right.
Swisher: What did you want to call it?
Warren: I don’t know, but I like Snapchat. That is a good name. Wow. Think about that, how the world would be different if somebody else got to name the government agencies. They could just work so much better. Okay. I am in.
Swisher: What would you have called it?
Warren: I just call it the Consumer Agency.
Mossberg: How did tech help you do that, and how does it use tech?
Warren: Two questions. Here is what happens. So, we are living in a world where many financial institutions, including some of the largest and most famous, had figured out that you could make a lot of money by tricking people on consumer financial products, mortgages — it actually starts out in the credit card area. It migrates to mortgages and payday loans and lots of areas. And they figured out, “Man, there are billions of dollars to be made annually by just fooling people on — yes, it is all down there in fine print in page 31 in mice type that nobody could ever read and legalese — and you could just make a lot of money from folks.”
And man, I just thought this is just fundamentally wrong. I get contracts. People on both sides, we can talk about this from a libertarian point of view, these things have to be enforceable, but you’ve got to understand both sides. So you have to have a chance to be able to do that. I am teaching law at this point, and there are a lot of laws that would prohibit many of the things that they were doing. But the problem was all this law was scattered among the whole bunch of agencies. And none of those agencies saw their first job as protecting American families. That was nobody’s first job. And nobody got past their first job, which meant that this just was not happening. So these guys were just kind of turned loose to do what they want to do.
I thought that this was outrageous, and so I had this idea for this little agency — Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is what it eventually became — and the idea was to gather up the laws that were out there, get them to one agency. Give that agency the tools to be able to enforce it, the resources to do it, and then, damnit, hold them responsible for doing it. So you had one place to go if there was a serious problem. And see if you can get this market cleaned up so that good products can compete with bad products on a level playing field, because everybody understood what they were buying, what they were seeing.
So I go down to Washington, the financial crash hits, and I start talking to people about this idea, and I will talk to anybody who will give me a listen. And people gave me the same two answers — almost everybody I went to see. And the first answer was, “Huh, that is an interesting idea. That could actually make a difference in how these markets work.” And the second thing they said to me, almost across the board, was, “Don’t do it.” And the reason they said don’t do it — they said you can never win. There is no possible way you can win, because this is going to cost some big banks real money. And they have lots of money to spend on lobbying, and they will sweep through this town with their lobbyists, and you will end up with nothing. With nothing. That is what you will come away with. So ask for something small. Ask for bunches of little things, and maybe you will get one or two things, and just count yourself lucky that you didn’t get totally steamrolled by the banks.
Now, I listened to that, and when people told me, “Don’t do it,” I thought what they were saying to me, was “Try harder.” You know, it’s kind of the Nancy Drew series of Girl Policy Maker. And so I thought okay, I will just figure out how to do this harder. So I thought, how am I going to do this? Well, get organized. First conference call I had, I think I had three people, which I think legally does not qualify as a conference call. But you know, three becomes six, and then it becomes 12, and then it becomes 24, and you kind of go off. And then it began to hit me and others who were explaining this to me organized by groups. So get some groups involved in this — yes, it is not their first thing, but somewhere on their list. And I always just say on this, “God bless the AFLCIO.” They said this affects their members. “Yes, we will pitch in. We will be part of this.” And AARP said, “We will be part of this.” SCIU said, “We will be part of this.” NAACP said, “Count us in. We want to be part of this.” Partnership for Women and Children said, “Yes, we want to be part of this.” Ultimately we got over a 100 groups involved, and we still between us had about $1.85 to spend on this.
“This couldn’t have happened, I don’t think even five years earlier. The fact that we could do all of this by email, Facebook, this, that — we could get out and find cheap ways to communicate to people all across this country.”
But here is the difference, and here is why I say it was a moment in time. This couldn’t have happened, I don’t think, even five years earlier. The fact that we could do all of this by email, and kept pushing out the groups that we could — Facebook, this, that — we could get out and find cheap ways to communicate to people all across this country. And no, not everybody in America woke up every morning and said, “This is the day we get the Consumer Agency,” but by God, enough did. Enough people pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed and wrote or telephoned their senators, their congressmen and congresswomen, and here comes the best part. Actually there is another little twist in this story.
So we finally get this thing up and running, and the banks are saying, “No, never, it will never happen.” I mean they really are. They said, “We will kill this agency.” That was their language; their lobbyists were using in print for attribution. “We will kill this agency.” Financial reform will not go through with this agency. We struggled. We pushed. God bless Barney Frank — he jumps in, he pushes it through the House. We get through the House, and then it goes over through the Senate, which was always going to be the place where the bankers figured they could fight this thing off. It goes to the Senate Banking Committee. I still remember the day. It is in Banking Committee, it is back and forth, the whole financial reform. Will it have a consumer agency, or will it not have a consumer agency, is part of it. A lot of talk back and forth.
I can remember the Friday morning when I got the phone call. And the call was, “The agency is dead. You are not going to get it.” And I said, “Why not? And what happened?” And they said they are going to report the bill out of committee, and it just won’t have the consumer agency in it. In other words they were going to kill it, but nobody would have to vote against it. And I said, “Couldn’t we get a vote, even if we are going to lose the vote?” And they said no. Because nobody wanted to be on record voting against the interests of people who take out mortgages and credit cards, but there were some who wanted to be able to help the banks out here. So the idea was just to smother this little agency, just smother it in the crib, before they reported out. And so I said, “How long have we got?” I still remember this call. I said, “How long have we got before it is going to be public? And they said, about three weeks, because there are other things that have to be cleaned up on swaps and derivatives and other parts of the bill before it is ready to come out. And I remember getting on the phone as soon as I hung up, and said, “We’ve got three weeks to do everything we can just to get a vote. Let’s just get a vote.” Because my view was, I didn’t care if it made a lot of folks in Washington angry. I wasn’t looking for a job there. My job was to do what I could to try to get this consumer agency through. I am a teacher. And that is how it happened.
Swisher: But you didn’t get the job.
Warren: Well, we got the agency. That is what I cared about.
Warren: We got the agency, and we got it not because we spent — do you know the banks were spending more than a million dollars a day lobbying against this agency and financial reform? We pushed back against that. We beat the biggest, toughest lobbyists in Washington, and we did it by just having people who were connected online who pushed hard enough, who made it embarrassing enough, who got enough people who wrote enough articles that it made it out there.
Swisher: It is an exciting story.
Warren: It is an exciting story. I still get very excited.
Swisher: “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Warren: It is not enthusiasm about politics. It is about enthusiasm about what you can do. I mean, do you realize how the world changed when we got the Consumer Agency through? That little agency has been operational now for … I think it is just under four years. It has already forced the biggest financial institutions in this country to return about $5 billion directly to people they cheated. Just think about that, and talk about a warning shot across the bow. That is government that works.
Swisher: I get that, and as soon as I get home, I am running for mayor of San Francisco.
Swisher: You have inspired me. But I have other goals that aren’t as nice, so I would be a terrible politician.
Warren: Yes, you would.
Swisher: I would be a terrible politician.
Warren: That’s okay. Lots of people do.
“Our only chance for survival is to innovate our way out of this.”
Swisher: Do you think politics is broken? A lot of what is going on in the tech economy is affecting jobs. Larry Page talked about this, that you are going to need fewer jobs. We are going to get self-driving cars. You don’t need drivers. A lot of what is happening in tech is reducing jobs, it has the potential to reduce jobs, has the potential to be this instant-gratification economy that we talk about. How do you look at this changing economy?
Mossberg: This is a big part of Silicon Valley right now.
Warren: This goes back to where I started. Maybe I am turning into a great politician, because I keep saying the same thing.
Swisher: And you are very good at it, by the way.
Warren: No. No. But look, that really is the heart of it. Our only chance for survival is to innovate our way out of this. We are not going to stop tech so that lots of people can work. That is like saying, “Oh, let’s get rid of heavy equipment and have everybody dig with a spoon, because lots of people will be employed.” No. That is not going to work, but it means we have to invest in the places where it matters. And basically, the two keys for that — it is brains, we don’t invest in brains. And we have to invest in the people who are willing to go and do the long, long-arc research. The ones who a generation ago figured out the things we use now. We have to be willing collectively to make those investments, because we can’t just say, “Oh, we are going to figure out the application of something.” No. We don’t know where it is going to come from. You have got to be willing to invest in poetry majors. You have to got to be willing to invest in people who are doing not just the research that has a 97 percent chance that it is going to produce something. You have got to be willing to invest in the home runs that don’t come very often but that completely change your vision of the world. Those are the investments we need to make.
Swisher: We are going into another Presidential election. It is an election where we will have a new president, not an existing president. Do you imagine the candidates that are there — can they be that bold? Most people feel like you have pushed Hillary Clinton to be a little bit bolder, moved her off to the left a little. Do you think you have, or no?
Warren: Look, I want everybody to be bolder. We need boldness in our leadership. We need lots of people who will get out there and …
Mossberg: Including people who disagree with you. Could they be bolder?
Warren: Absolutely. Look, that is how you get better. You listen to people who don’t agree with you. You listen to the part of their argument that is saying, “Dang, you know, that is a piece I should pull back in, and I should account for.” Also, you need data. You need information. And people who disagree here are sometimes the best at coming up with some facts that are not terribly convenient, or things you want to look at.
Mossberg: Are you conscious of pushing your party to be more to the left, or radical, or whatever you want to call it, or bolder or whatever?
Swisher: I mean how do you describe it — are you populist?
Warren: Yes. I am populist. That is fine, but the point is not so you can get everybody in a box and say, “Oh, you only get to go that far out …”
Swisher: But there are the realities of policy; it feels so partisan and it never seems to end, it seems to get worse every year. And I think it is real. I don’t think it is just fakery.
Warren: You are right.
Swisher: Before, it was a little bit Kabuki theater. Now it is quite real. Or at least it feels that way. How do you change that? How do you get that? Because at some point, partisan has got to end. Correct? Or maybe not.
Warren: Well, it is both halves. You do what you can from the inside. You try to talk to as many people as you can. You keep offering ideas. Look, I have co-sponsored a bill originally with Sen. Coburn from Oklahoma who, I think it is very fair to say, is a very conservative Republican. And now he has gone, and now with Sen. Langford, also very conservative, because we come together on an issue about whether or not when the government makes these giant settlements that it makes right now with the big financial institutions — but any kinds of these settlements for wrongdoing, whether or not the terms of the deal — ought to be public, so the American people can see it. We both think it should be. And so we are working on a bill, and trying to get it through both the Senate and the House. Almost got there last time around with Sen. Coburn in the last session. We started over, and we have gotten it through committee now.
Now there is a place where we reach out, but the other half, look, it is partly inside. Person to person, these are the things you care about. These are the things I care about. How can we do these things together? And there are pieces where we can. It is also though about the outside, about trying to engage more people. You really do want to say to the American people, “You realize we have not been able to get a basic transportation bill through in forever?” The American Society of Civil Engineers says we are backlogged on how much we ought to be rebuilding our roads and bridges. That core infrastructure — power grids — it is about $2.4 trillion, and just deferred maintenance, what it is going to take to bring us up to 21st century standards. A 21st century country needs 21st century infrastructure. That is not Democratic or Republican.
“A 21st century country needs 21st century infrastructure. That is not Democratic or Republican.”
Mossberg: How do you get that done from the outside?
Warren: By getting more people engaged. By having more people who care, who say to their representatives, who say to their senators, “Hey, listen bud, you’ve got to get this one done. Not fooling around. You’ve got to get it done, and no more of this for another six weeks or eight weeks, and you are going to do some accounting shenanigans so that you can pretend that it doesn’t add to the deficit and that it came out of some mythical pot of money where only unicorns feed at other hours.” I mean it is just crazy business that goes on, the number of hours that goes into this stuff. No. We actually need to belly up to the bar and say, “We’ve got to spend money before it all falls down around our ankles.”
Swisher: Does that mean the wealthy should pay more taxes?
Warren: Look, I believe in progressive taxation. I believe that everybody should pay a fair share. Yes, I do.
Mossberg: Do you think we have a progressive tax structure now, in fact? Maybe in theory, but in fact?
Warren: I think we do not have a sufficiently progressive tax structure right now, and I think we have far too many corporate loopholes. I think that the only people who pay full freight on the corporate side are small businesses instead of big businesses, and I think that wildly disadvantages small businesses in America. And I think it is something every small-business owner should be outraged about, that they are the ones who have to pay full freight. And it is others who got away with moving the money over so …
Mossberg: Most polls that I can recall show that small businesses hate higher taxes, and actually are Republicans.
Warren: Well, let me start with they hate higher taxes for themselves, and I get that. The problem is that we have got a tax system that — well, I just explained what I think the problem is — a tax system that is so latent not just with loopholes, with loopholes that takes $1,000-an-hour lawyers to figure out how best to exploit. Now who does that? Some startup business with eight employees? I don’t think so. Who does that? Somebody running a shop on the corner? I don’t think so. Who does it? Giants do it, and that is how they make more money — by paying less, by exploiting these loopholes. You asked me a question earlier, and we never got back to it, but is politics broken? Here is a big part of how it is broken. They then hire all of the lobbyists in Washington to make sure that every one of those loopholes is carefully protected. Indeed, the perfect loophole for each of those lobbyists is a loophole that is exactly big enough for my client to slip through, and not a single person. And so competition, instead of being competition to build the next great this or the next great that …
Swisher: Just say “Hyperloop” whenever …
Warren: Whatever. Instead of competition for that, it is competition to get Washington to give you a special break at her expense.
Mossberg: How do I get that?
Warren: That is where politics is fundamentally broken.
“Someone at NIH was saying to me that he is competing to try to hang on to a young researcher. And who is he competing with? Another country for which this researcher has no ties, no familial ties.”
Swisher: We only have just a few more minutes to talk. Let’s talk about in Massachusetts — a lot of medical device companies and stuff, IP very important to protection. Obviously, here it is an important thing. How do you look at that area?
Warren: What do you mean, how do I look at that?
Swisher: You imagine the laws in place are adequate to protect innovation? You focus on the middle class, but this is your constituents who actually hired you.
Warren: Exactly right. And actually part of what I spend much of my time in Massachusetts, and with my Massachusetts folks talking about, is the tech industry, is biotech, particularly in Massachusetts, and a big pitch of something that I worked on. I kind of figured, “You know, there are a limited number of things you can really focus on and try to make a difference.” For me, a big part of this one is trying to get more money into NIH, because the way this industry works is a lot of tax money goes in. NIH does the long-term research. It gets picked up by a small, innovative creative who do the proof of concept, who say, “Wait, I can use that piece of research and turn it into this. I can make a modification there. I can do something else here.”
And they in turn get bought up by the big drug companies that see the product on through the FDA process, and that middle part is vibrant, exciting. The big drug companies are doing extraordinarily well, producing what are called “blockbuster drugs,” which is a term of art. It means more than a billion dollars in sales annually. We have more than 100 of those. These are really big.
The one that is drying up and in real trouble is the NIH. It is the case now that only about one in seven grants gets approved. It is the lowest rate in an incredibly long time. One of the people, just a few weeks ago, was saying to me that he is competing to try to hang on to a young researcher. And who is he competing with? Another country for which this researcher has no ties, no familial ties. This is someone who would have no reason to go to this country except that the other country is willing to fund that person’s research, to promise, “There is going to be funding for the exciting idea you have got, so long as you will come do it in our country and help us build the industry that will come from that if it all pans out.” How can we let that go in America? That is just crazy.
“Fast-track means that once it is passed by Congress, that Congress says when the next trade deal comes along, it will pass with 51 votes rather than the 60 usually needed in the Senate to get legislation through. And you senators will have zero opportunity to amend it, shape it in any way, slow it down. You will have no leverage.”
Mossberg: I want to segue to trade. A lot of the companies we write about, the tech companies actually sell more than half their stuff around the world, overseas. And they, like many other companies that do a lot of business overseas, would like to see tariffs and quotas reduced. So there has been a general feeling that these global or multinational trade packages are good, and yet you are actually battling it out with the president of your own party, who I think you have worked with many times on other issues over this specific trade thing. Can you explain why? What is the problem with trade?
Warren: I like trade. There is no problem with trade. The problem is with this particular agreement, and what is happening right now with what is called fast-track authority. Fast-track means that once it is passed by Congress, that Congress says when the next trade deal comes along, it will pass with 51 votes rather than the 60 usually needed in the Senate to get legislation through. And you senators will have zero opportunity to amend it, shape it in any way, slow it down. You will have no leverage. In other words, if it can get 51 votes, that is why it is called fast-track. It is done. Okay. So why would I have a problem with this? It has been done in the past.
Warren: We have done it in the past. Absolutely have done it in the past, but I have three problems with it. The first one is one of transparency. The TPP is basically done, largely done. It has got a few parts that are not quite finished yet. And yet the American people aren’t allowed to see it.
Mossberg: This is the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Warren: This is the Pacific trade deal that is under way right now. And yet the American people are not permitted to see it before we vote on fast-track.
Mossberg: But you are permitted to see it.
Warren: I am permitted to see it, but by law I can’t talk about it.
Mossberg: Really? Not even here? Because we have an exception.
Warren: Yes. Exactly. Right. Because nobody would tell. No. I go into a room when I look at it — are you ready for this? Not only do I have to leave all of my electronics out, if I write a note on a piece of paper, they take it away from me when I leave. So it is totally secret, except — and here is where I am really bugged on process. There are more than 500 people who are not in government who have actually seen parts of it, maybe not all of it but parts of it, and actually helped shape the deal. They saw all the negotiating …
Mossberg: And who are those people?
Warren: Who are those people, you might ask yourself? Yes. Exactly right. Well, the answer is this is 28 working groups on different topic areas. Eighty-five percent of them are either senior executives at the companies that will be directly affected by the trade deals, or they are the lobbyists for those industries that are going to be affected here. So that leaves 15 percent for any other voices in the process. And my view is we should not vote fast-track without seeing the deal. I want to see what the terms of the deal are, because not all trade deals have worked out too great for us. I want the American public to be able to see it. I want to be able to see it at a time when I can get up and debate it with people. And talk about it in an open forum, so mine is transparency. I will do the other two as quickly as I can. The second one — don’t go to sleep on this — is called investor-state dispute resolution.
Swisher: You have lost us. Go ahead.
Warren: I know, I know. But this one is actually amazing. So this one started back in the 1950s, and we started putting them in trade deals, and basically what it was for is when a country — the government changed — and they were worried that what they were going to see is the factory that some foreign investor had just put in, and the foreign investor wanted to be able to sue the country directly. And that is how it was used for about 50 years. There were fewer than a 100 of these cases in total, and then the corporate lawyers figured it out, and they said, “Wait a minute. There is another way to use this. You can use this to beat down regulations that you don’t like.” And so they started using it for other things. So Australia and Uruguay got sued over their tobacco regulations which they had passed to try to have fewer people smoke, but tobacco companies said, foreign ones said, “We don’t like that.”
Mossberg: So that is your second one.
Warren: That is my second one. I think this is a really dangerous thing for the United States to do. These are independent arbitration panels. They never go through the American court system. By the way, I should point out — you talk about politics being broken — this is an area where the Cato Institute says we should get rid of investor-state dispute resolution.
Warren: We want arm-in-arm on this.
Mossberg: The third thing.
Warren: And the third thing on this is the fast-track is six years, so we are not only agreeing to fast-track this deal on the Pacific for this president, with President Obama, we have signed on to fast-track any trade deal that any future president wants to cut with any country on a vote of 51 — no amendments, no seeing it. Right. You just pass this thing. You zip this thing through. And that really worries me, and it particularly worries me because the European negotiators, those negotiations have already started. They want to talk about financial regulation, and the big lobbying groups for the banking industry have already said that they want to see robust provisions. And I guarantee “robust” does not mean more accountability for big financial institutions.
Mossberg: But this has caused a rift between you and the president. I mean the president has actually named you multiple times in remarks as being wrong. “She is a good senator, but she is totally wrong on this, blah, blah, blah.” Does that a) bother you; and b) hinder your ability to do your job?
Warren: You know, this is not personal for me. This is the same work I have been doing all along. It is about how we strengthen and grow this country.
Mossberg: Does it bug you that you and the president are …
Warren: We disagree on this. We disagree, and I don’t take this personally, but I am going to fight for what I believe in. That is what the people of Massachusetts sent me to Washington to do.
Swisher: Let me ask you the final question.
Swisher: Do you consider yourself a technology person? Do you like technology?
Warren: I like it.
Swisher: What do you use? Just curious. Do you use an iPhone?
Warren: I have an iPhone, yes.
Swisher: Anything else?
Warren: iPad, laptop. I only use laptop. I don’t like docking it. I do everything on my knees. I write books on my knees.
Swisher: You use Internet services. Do you use Snapchat?
Warren: No. I haven’t yet.
Swisher: Okay. They are making it easier for you.
Mossberg: Does it bother you that your iPhone is made in China by low-wage workers?
“This is the wonkiest Code ever.” — Kara Swisher
Swisher: All right. Questions from the audience?
Question: Sen. Warren, I am Mat Honan with BuzzFeed News. A lot of the big startups, on-demand startups, now use 1099 contractors to staff their services, like Uber and Lyft. Do you think that these contractors should be classified as employees?
Warren: I think it is hard to do the generalization, but I think there are two things we have to acknowledge. The first one is work is changing in America. The old notion that you work for one employer you know forever and ever, that is just gone. People are going to paste together a lot of different work and a lot of different kinds of work over the arc of a career. And I’ll just make a pitch off to the side, if I can. This is partly why we need to work on social security, because this is going to be the foundational retirement part, because everybody keeps pitching into it as we go along. But that is a separate discussion we should have. So part one is work is changing, but part two is I think there is evidence that increasingly employers use independent contractors not in ways that were originally intended, but ways in which they permit them to treat employment laws differently that otherwise they would be responsible for. And I think that is a real problem, and I think the Department of Labor is looking into this, and I think they are right to do that.
Mossberg: Steven Levy?
Question: Thank you. So I have a house in Western Massachusetts.
It has got no broadband. It is an inconvenience for me, but it is really a huge problem for families and businesses in that area. It is also a sort of little slice of a much bigger problem in the United States, where we are paying too much for broadband, and we don’t get high speeds, all because of a concentration of power where there is very little competition. What can be done about that? And specifically, what are you doing for us folks in Western Massachusetts?
Warren: Okay. So it is a perfect question. Thank you very much.
Swisher: He wants his Internet fixed.
Warren: That’s right, but broadband is a big part of what we are trying to do for Western Massachusetts, and that is to make the investment — here is the classic infrastructure investment. Some of Western Massachusetts got opened up when we started in spending the money during the financial crisis, right? As we came out and tried to spend and get some stimulus into the economy, but Western Massachusetts is actually a perfect place to understand this. It is a beautiful area, for anyone who hasn’t been there. It is one of those that, with a few key pieces of infrastructure and with a little more investment on the educational side, Western Massachusetts could blossom, could grow, could be a place of innovation and job growth, but it is choked off because of transportation infrastructure being weak, and choked off because of the lack of access to the Internet. I should add a third one. We also have high utility costs that we need to deal with, and this is another part of infrastructure investment. The answer is, we’ve got to build a future. And we’ve got to build a future for Western Massachusetts. We’ve got to build a future for the whole country.
Mossberg: What are you going to do about his broadband? No, seriously, about the broadband?
Warren: I am serious. We have got to put the money into infrastructure.
Mossberg: So the government should provide the broadband?
Warren: The government should be building the infrastructure. That is part of what government does. It does roads. It does bridges. It does power. It helps build infrastructure so you can use it, everyone else can use it, businesses can use it. Businesses can build their businesses on it. It is the heart of how we build a future that is private. That you build these businesses privately, but you’ve got to have the heart.
Mossberg: Can I just clarify — are you putting broadband in that same category?
Warren: No. You will have broadband companies, but there is infrastructure that underlies it, and that is the part we invest in now.
Question: You spoke earlier about the best way to effect change is to get in touch with our elected officials, and it is literally impossible. The technology is so outdated. We use old form letters, write letters. Do you foresee, or do you yourself plan on doing anything to make it easier? Because right now, Twitter and Facebook is just open to people who are outside districts. It doesn’t really effect much change when it comes to getting in touch with elected officials. And second, do you think we will ever see a voting app or a way to make voting easier in our lifetime? Because it is preventing a lot of young people.
Warren: So let me just do the part about Facebook and Twitter. I think they are enormously valuable to elected officials, and the fact that it doesn’t sort through whether or not you are a constituent from Massachusetts or whether you come from somewhere else. I still think it is important that people hear, and that breaking through the bubble of Washington that is so controlled by the lobbyists and the lawyers day after day after day. And say I am going to write another letter, and I am going to get my friends to write. However, I am going to get in touch with my family in Texas and ask them in particular to write and call the two senators from the state of Texas is part of this, but I don’t want you to dismiss it. I know it is hard. And I know that Washington ought to do better on this.
“The only way that we get change is when enough people in this country say, ‘I am mad as hell, and I am fed up, and I am not going to do this anymore.'”
Question: I appreciate your passion about infrastructure rebuilding in America, but it really feels like we have gone from being proactive to reactive with the bridge that collapsed in Minnesota, I-35. One aspect of it that I think is really affecting us is, in the last seven to 10 years, we spent $3 trillion on war and another $4 trillion monetizing our debt through quantitative easing, and you just said off the cuff that we need three-and-a-half trillion dollars. Congress can’t get a budget that lasts longer than two years. You are constantly rolling over our debt on a two-year basis because interest rates are so low. In that environment, how am I or the 50 percent of people who can vote that don’t, supposed to actually believe any politician who says that we are going to rebuild this country and the energy infrastructure and the Internet infrastructure, education, all these things matter. I believe that, and with interest rates this low, it makes sense for us to issue paper on 30-year or 100-year notes to rebuild America. Why aren’t we doing that?
Swisher: This is the wonkiest Code ever. But go, answer that question.
Warren: It is exactly the right question, because we are not doing it because too many of the people in Washington do not represent the folks who elected them. They represent the rich and the powerful who don’t want their taxes raised, who don’t want to see any change. We are perfectly happy with things where they are. Indeed, they are doing great with things where they are. And they stay in the ear of enough of the folks in Washington that it has made it almost impossible to get any kind of change.
The only way that we get change is when enough people in this country say, “I am mad as hell, and I am fed up, and I am not going to do this anymore. You are not going to go back and represent me in Washington, D.C., if you are not willing to pass a meaningful infrastructure bill, if you are not willing to refinance student loan interest rates and stop dragging in billions of dollars in profits off the backs of kids who can’t otherwise afford to go to college. If you don’t say you are going to fund the NIH and NISF, because that is our future.”
We have to make these issues salient and not just wonky. When you hear us talk about this, and you say, “This is like the wonkiest conference ever.” Can you imagine saying that at a tech conference? When you say this is the wonkiest conference we ever had. No. These have to be the things that you wake up people all over in America, and say what matters. Whether or not you are going to have a job, whether or not you are going to have a retirement, whether or not your kids are going to have any chance to build a future for them, it has got to be about these core issues. And we’ve got to talk about them, talk about them enough until there is some real change in this country. That is all I know to do. That is all I know.
Question: I heard today that you might move Hillary slightly to the left of her left, so how are you going to make sure that your passion for a new platform is actually infused into the next election? And quick second part to that question is do you see millennials as the folks who are actually going to push the party to convey that message?
Warren: See, I don’t know. I appreciate the question you are asking, and you know the metaphor you are using here. For me, this is just talking about what matters, and I don’t know any other way to do this. I didn’t wake up one day and say, “Now I am going to be a political genius.” I have been working on the same set of issues for decades, and I have watched year after year after year as America’s middle class is just hollowed out. As opportunities for those right at the top continue to soar, but for everyone else’s kids keep contracting. And I see a piece of that, a big piece of that, is what is happening in Washington. And all I know to do is to continue to keep talking about it and to keep fighting about it.
Mossberg: What about her point about millennials?
Warren: I actually feel encouraged. I think the millennials start with a good heart. To the extent that you are allowed to generalize about any group — and I would be really chapped if they are generalizing about my group — but they start with a good heart. They start with a heart that understands at least, this is what I see. That understands that we do build things together, and that when you pitch in some and you pitch in some and you pitch in some, that we have opportunities to create more for everybody, and to really embrace diversity of thought and approach in a way that I think that our generational elders haven’t really had the opportunities to do. So look, you talk about what America’s competitive advantages are, that is supposed to be at the heart of them. We believe in opportunity, and we are a nation built out of different people who came at ideas in different ways, and that is our strength. I think that they are going to make something really great from that.
Mossberg: Thank you very much.
Warren: God, I hope so.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.