Book Review: All Your Worth by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi

Are we all ready for the 2020 Presidential election season? I have a plan for saving headaches and increasing efficiency this time around, and it’s a plan far better than abolishing the Electoral College. I will review every personal finance book written by any prospective candidate. Whoever has the best personal finance book according to me will, by acclamation, become their Party’s nominee. That seems only fair, right?

Let’s start with Massachusetts Senator and Democratic Party candidate for President Elizabeth Warren, who co-wrote with her daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan.

publishedin 2005, before she became a household name during and after the financial crisis of 2008.

Sorry in advance, but I can’t resist misinterpreting their title “All Your Worth” as a threat to the affluent: “Oh, what do I want, by running for President?” she might say lightly, innocently. “Oh, nothing much. Just…ALL YOUR WORTH.”

That’s a terrible joke, which is not only an inaccurate reflection of Warren’s views, but also my own views of Warren’s views. Still, allow a blogger his little jokes. Thank you.

But are you ready for the ironic, narrative twist? For all Warren’s progressive bona fides today, her 2005 book is built on bedrock conservative values.

At least three significant conservative themes emerge from her personal finance book, which might surprise both progressive fans as well as conservative critics of  Senator Warren.

To begin with, Warren has a conservative generational look-back to an earlier America. She betrays a nostalgia for when households could get by on just one income, and the American Dream was attainable by ‘regular’ folks. “You can’t count on good old-fashioned hard work the way your parents did,” she writes in her first chapter. “The rules of the game have changed,” she continues wistfully, pining for that lost America.  “Hard work and good intentions are no longer enough,” she continues, indicating that the great American days are in the past. 

I’m not saying Warren goes full MAGA on us, trying to make America great AGAIN, but she adopts a curiously non-progressive tone, given her reputation.  Progressives in 2019 do not generally look at the 1950s and early 1960s, for example, the same way conservatives do – not least because huge swathes of the non-White population had curtailed civil rights, and women supposedly aspired to be the best homemaker possible, rather than a strong income-earner.

Further solidifying her conservative positions, In Chapter 5 “To Build Your Future, Pay Off Your Past” Warren lays out the dangers of building up excessive debt.
As she writes, “paying off your debt may be the most important investment you ever make in your future.” In a chapter whose ideas could be taken straight from the Tea-Party inspired Freedom Caucus, Warren cautions the reader to avoid “Steal-from-Tomorrow-Debt” such as credit cards or worse, payday loans.

Could this chapter be a clue to Warren’s true fiscal conservative views on the national debt, annual budget deficits, and Medicare For All? 

On the one hand, yes, sure, she totally gets it. She understands the danger of stealing from your future and debt-financing everything. She is a former Harvard Law professor and an extremely smart woman. For this newspaper readership, I should probably first have mentioned that she’s a University of Houston graduate, and that she became a national leader in bankruptcy law while a professor of law at UT Austin.

But also, I mean no, I wouldn’t count on her clear-eyed view of debt guiding her policies on the national debt and Medicare for All. Because don’t forget: 

We now live in an upside-down “No is yes, war is peace” kind of world. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan turned out to have run a two-decades long con about his beliefs in fiscal conservatism. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if Elizabeth Warren doesn’t try terribly hard to cut the national debt as President, despite knowing better in her head and writing in a clear-eyed way about the dangers of steal-from-your-future debt in her personal finance book.

Finally, her book provides an interesting conservative take on personal responsibility. In her book, we are not victims of structural societal forces keeping us down. We are all, individually, capable of raising ourselves up out of debt and into household prosperity. 

Of course, even in her 2005 book Warren lays out the ways in which big finance companies can entrap the little guy, which turned out to be her main message accompanying her rise to national prominence in the wake of the 2008 crisis. But the entire point of her book is that individuals’ behaviors are enough to get us out of debt and to build wealth. We are not helpless prey to financial firms. We all can be the primary determinants of our financial fate. It’s our individual responsibility. This all sounds curiously, you know, conservative.

Would you be surprised to learn that Warren was a registered Republican between 1991 and 1996 – in other words, as recently as the first Clinton administration? 

She holds mostly identifiably progressive political views now, but she came from a legitimate bedrock of conservative values. She’s changed over the decades. And so, for that matter, have Republicans’ professed values. 

I want to be helpful during this election season. Here is my pledge to you: any candidate for president who writes a personal finance book will get their book reviewed by me. I trust we can all agree this is the best way to pick a Presidential candidate.

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I founded Bankers Anonymous because, as a recovering banker, I believe that the gap between the financial world as I know it and the public discourse about finance is more than just a problem for a family trying to balance their checkbook, or politicians trying to score points over next year’s budget – it is a weakness of our civil society. For reals. It’s also really fun for me.

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