Everywhere I go, I talk about how we need to make big, structural change — to solve the deep, systemic problems we face as a country.
I’ve seen it work before. Take the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. We had a plan, we got organized, and we turned it into a reality.
The story starts one morning in the 1970s, when I forgot about a few pieces of bread I’d left in the toaster oven — and nearly set my kitchen on fire.
Back then, our toaster oven had an on-off switch and that was it. At some point, someone had the bright idea of adding a timer and automatic shut-off. This simple change made it a whole lot harder for distracted mothers, or anyone else, to leave it running until it set the kitchen on fire.
Thirty years later, while 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. A government agency monitored toasters for basic safety, just like government kept lead paint out of children’s toys and rat poison out of medicine.
But 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 bursting into flames all over the country.
I had a plan for how we could change the rules with a structural fix: A new government agency whose sole mission was to look out for consumers. They could serve as the cop on the beat and could make sure that financial companies followed some clear, commonsense rules. No tricks hidden in the fine print, no traps buried in complex legalese.
I wrote my article calling for a new “Financial Product Safety Commission,” and I started it by calling out the difference between exploding toasters and exploding mortgages.
After the financial crisis, the plan didn’t seem so pie-in-the-sky. So we got organized.
Labor unions like the AFL-CIO and SEIU joined our fight to protect working people. Civil rights organizations like the NAACP and National Council for La Raza jumped in (African American and Latino families had been targeted with some of the very worst subprime mortgages). And groups like the AARP and Consumers Union said this was their fight, too.
Of course, the giant financial institutions were dead set against an agency whose job was to get the tricks and traps out of the fine print of financial products. They spent millions lobbying against financial reform and the new consumer agency.
It was David-versus-Goliath all the way — but in 2010, President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Act into law. Exactly one year later, the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was open for business.
And in the nearly eight years since it’s been created, this little agency has forced big financial institutions to return $12 billion directly to people who were cheated.
We’ve done it before, and we can do it again. We’ll keep making plans, we’ll keep getting organized, and we’ll make big, structural change to get Washington working for working people — not just for the rich and powerful.
But no one makes it happen on their own. It takes a grassroots movement — you and me working together, and fighting side by side with people all over the country.