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Tilson: Why I'm glad Warren is running despite my run-in with her

I generally try to keep my political views out of my investing-related emails and articles. It’s not what my readers signed up for, plus in this era of extreme political polarization, no matter what I say I’m likely to irritate a substantial number of my readers/subscribers — I already do that enough with my investing-related opinions!

That said, it’s not every day that I’m prominently mentioned on the editorial page of The New York Times — in this case, in an op-ed by my old friend (and one of my heroes) Nick Kristof published June 26, Why I Was Wrong About Elizabeth Warren. Here’s the part in which he mentions me:

I worried about a tendency to shoot from the hip when Warren misread an article and in 2016 wrote a Facebook rant denouncing a supposedly greedy Trump-supporting investor, Whitney Tilson. In fact: Tilson opposed Trump and agrees with Warren on most issues; indeed, Tilson had previously donated to Warren.

The unbalanced screed resembled a Trump tweet and made me wonder about Warren’s judgment. But Warren later apologized, and she has been more careful since. Tilson told me that he thinks the rant was not part of a pattern but perhaps reflected a sleep-deprived moment.

The story Kristof is referring to is a wild one, with elements that both Republicans and Democrats will love…

As background, Professor Warren (as she was known at the time) was my wife’s favorite professor at Harvard Law School. She had done a great deal of original research on why so many American families were filing for bankruptcy, revealing that, unlike what the financial industry would have you believe, most folks who filed weren’t deadbeats, but rather had been walloped by factors beyond their control like medical bills. Warren had such great knowledge and passion that she made a normally dry topic interesting for my wife and her classmates.

Thanks to this personal connection, we followed her career closely and, when she ran for Senate, were happy to make a couple of small donations. While I don’t agree with all of her ideas, I agree with her general assessment that we’ve allowed multiple systems to develop in this country that screw average folks in countless ways, from education, healthcare, criminal justice, trade, etc.

But the financial system may be the worst. I can’t think of a single element of it — credit cards, mortgages, auto loans, student loans, and so forth — in which the industry isn’t preying on its customers, especially the least sophisticated ones, to increase its profits. (For an excellent book on this, I recommend “Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. — How the Working Poor Became Big Business.”) Thus, I cheered Sen. Warren’s successful efforts to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which, because of its effectiveness (at least until recently) is reviled in the financial sector.

Thus, imagine my surprise when, on December 1, 2016, shortly after Trump’s election, she posted this misguided attack on me on her Facebook page, where she has millions of followers:

Screenshot/Courtesy Whitney Tilson
Screenshot/Courtesy Whitney Tilson

It was so wrong-headed that, initially, I laughed it off — all publicity is good publicity, right? But ultimately I decided that Sen. Warren should correct her mistake, so I contacted her Chief of Staff and my wife also wrote her this beautiful letter. To our surprise, however, she refused to correct or remove her post.

There are few things that piss me off more than powerful people, companies, or organizations picking on the little guy. I suppose I get this from my parents, who met and married in the Peace Corps in 1962. They’re wonderful people who’ve always taught me to not only stick up for myself, but also for others who might not be able to stick up for themselves.

It’s part of what motivates all of my philanthropic activities. It’s also a major reason why I write so often and publicly about investing, and why I decided earlier this year to launch an investment newsletter rather than starting another hedge fund (which, let’s be honest, involves helping the very rich get even richer): I want to serve as many people as possible and help individual investors avoid all the hype, promotions, scams, and overvalued dreck that Wall Street is constantly foisting on them.

Sen. Warren must have thought I was some nobody who she could bully, but she was wrong… Over the years, I’ve developed relationships with many journalists, which has proven valuable on a handful of occasions (like giving “60 Minutes” the Lumber Liquidators formaldehyde story).

In this case, I thought Andrew Ross Sorkin of The New York Times would be interested in the story… and I was right. He published this article on the front page of the Business section on December 12, 2016: “Elizabeth Warren Condemns the Wrong Man,” which triggered a firestorm of bad publicity for her.

The next day, the Boston Globe ran a front-page story, “In Warren, Some Are Seeing Shades of Trump’s Antics,” and other media also piled on. Finally, a day later, she apologized, both publicly (see: “From Senator Warren, a regret”) and privately. She called me that day and my wife and I had a half-hour meeting with her when she was in New York City a couple of months later.

I think she was genuinely sorry about what she’d written, both because it was incorrect, but even more importantly because it’s simply inappropriate for a powerful public figure to attack a private citizen. To my knowledge, she has never repeated this mistake (unlike President Trump, who regularly disgraces his office with this kind of behavior).

While I haven’t endorsed Sen. Warren’s presidential bid (Cory Booker is an old friend and I think the world of him, so I’m supporting his campaign), I’m glad she’s running and getting traction. While she’s been in an elite world for many years now, she comes from extremely humble origins. She grew up in Oklahoma in a family clinging to the bottom edge of the middle-class, so her concerns about average Americans come from deep in her heart I think. And unlike most candidates, she’s put forth a slew of detailed ideas, which is to be commended whether you agree with them or not.

Whitney Tilson founded and for nearly two decades managed hedge fund Kase Capital. He is now teaching the next generation of investors via his new business, Kase Learning.

Read more:

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Former hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson has his kids’ college fund in 5 stocks

Whitney Tilson wants to help tomorrow’s hedge fund managers avoid his mistakes

Tilson: I bought these two stocks after Warren Buffett explained why he didn’t buy them