Interview with an icon
Ralph Nader is a progressive icon in America. Nader was born on February 27, 1934. He received his bachelor’s degree from Princeton, where he once wore a bathrobe to class to protest conformity in dress, and a law degree from Harvard. He speaks six languages. Atlaw school, he found his initial cause: automobile safety. His research convinced him that the law placed too much emphasis on driver mistakes and not enough on the unsafe design of cars. In 1965, he published a bestseller, Unsafe at Any Speed, which charged that automakers stressed styling, comfort, speed, power, and price at the expense of safety.
Nader gained public celebrity status when the General Motors Corporation hired a detective to investigate his politics, religion, and (especially) sex life. General Motors’ chairman was forced to apologise for this invasion of privacy before a Senate subcommittee, and eventually paid Nader $425,000 in compensation. Nader used the money to establish more than two dozen public interest groups. The people who work for these groups are known as “Nader’s Raiders”. Ralph Nader is ahead of his time. He has denounced soft drinks for containing excessive amounts of sugar. He warned Americans about the health hazards of red dyes used as food colorings and of nitrates used as preservatives in hot dogs. He even denounced high heels: “It is part of the whole tyranny of fashion, where women will inflict pain on themselves … for what, to please men”.
Since the mid-1960s, Ralph Nader has been the nation’s leading consumer advocate. An extraordinarily frugal and committed crusader on behalf of the nation’s consumers, Nader lived for years in an $80-a-month rooming house and earned about $15,000 a year. He eats in cheap restaurants, has never owned a car, has almost no social life, avoids all junk food, and dresses plainly. In 1983, he was still wearing shoes he had bought while he was in the Army in 1959.
A leader of grassroots democracy and a perennial but unsuccessful candidate for the White House, He came third in the 2000 presidential elecion, representing the US Green Party – without him – as Democrats have never forgotten – Gore would have beaten Bush. Nader said they were essentially the same anyway. He came third in last year’s presidential election, which once again he fought to expose the ‘”tyranny’”of America’s two-party system. Here he talks to Ed Moloney about Obama, America and Ireland.
Moloney: Conservatives in this country have a bee in their bonnet at the moment about Barack Obama being a socialist. Are they right, is he going to change American capitalism or is he about saving it?
Nader: I just wrote a column on the seven indicators of avoidance by the Obama administration. You can check it out at www.nader.org. There is no attempt at any structural reform just the most gigantic programme of bailout, stimulus, rescue and guarantee in world history. The only difference from past bailouts, with the exception of the Chrysler bailout in 1978, is that the government is taking preferred stock and in some cases owning 80 per cent of the company, as with AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac.
Government was hesitant about demanding representation on the board of directors, and about using its voting power to require the companies to shift more authority to the investors, which are pension funds, mutual funds, trust funds and individuals so that this would never happen again. You see, if the owners of these corporations controlled what they own, namely the company, the board of directors and its officers, this would never have happened even though the investors were out for maximum returns. First of all, they never would have approved the compensation incentives to inflate profits, sideline debt and cook the books in order to increase the value of their stock options. For one, the shareholders would never have approved that. So it is extraordinarily limited, it’s the most gigantic Band-Aid.
Yesterday, Bernanke (Chairman of the Federal Reserve) was asked will these banks fail, and he said no, we won’t allow them to fail. That’s a pretty extraordinary statement for a supposedly cautious chairman of the federal reserve. He could have avoided it rather than say no. For example, they haven’t put forth their regulatory package yet but they’re going to have to regulate derivatives which are far greater in dollar volume than stocks and bonds. You don’t even have to tax stocks or bond trading, just tax derivatives which last year totalled around 500 trillion dollars. During the campaign, in state after state, I would say a one-tenth of one per cent derivative tax would produce $500 billion and make Wall Street pay for its bailout. Once that’s done they could lessen the income tax on workers. There’s so much coming out of Washington but if you look at them from a distance after looking at them up close, you’ll see that it’s a pattern of extraordinary caution. It’s a message that says “We’ll save you this time, don’t do it again, but we’re not going to do anything to make sure you don’t do it again”.
Moloney: This is a major crisis for free market capitalism, it has demanded the intervention of the state but those who think that under Obama, America may somehow come to resemble a Europeanstyle social democracy have got it wrong?
Nader: There are other indicators. They are beginning to fall apart on labour reform. A majority of workers in a company signing a card caling for recognition of a union is not allowed in this country: they have to hold a secret ballot and then it has to go through years of delay etc. Whereas in Europe, I understand, you can do it by a card check. This was to be the big thing for the labour unions and they supported Obama with tens of millions of dollars and Obama approved it again two weeks ago in a message to the AFL-CIO at their Convention in Florida. But he’s not serious, and already key Senators have dropped off and have said they’re not going to support this, and it’s becoming more like that in the House too. So there’s no shift of power from corporations to labour. Also, he has not mentioned consumer protection in his first six or seven weeks.
So there’s no shift of power to consumers and there’s certainly no shift ofpower to investors/shareholders. What we have here is a “classic expansion” or “state capitalism” or “corporate socialism”. Take your pick of the terms.
Moloney: And health reform….?
Nader: We’re getting nothing more than more money on top of the existing system dominated by health insurance companies. Opinion poll after opinion poll, including of doctors, show people want a single-payer system, full Medicare for all with free choice of hospital and doctor.
Moloney: Like the European system?
Nader: Yes, which you don’t get now because the HMOs (Health Maintenance Organisation, a form of private insurance) assign you the hospital and doctor. So that one is not going to get anywhere. Obama doesn’t even want to discuss it. One hundred and twenty-five people were invited to the White House ten days ago to discuss health reform but a couple of reporters noticed that there wasn’t even one single-payer advocate there. So the White House got embarrassed and invited John Conyers, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who’s a single-payer advocate and one other doctor. That was two out of 125 supporting a reform that is backed by a majority of the American people and a majority of doctors. So you can see, Obama is not exactly going to take on corporate power.
Wall Street rolled Washington. You know Washington had Wall Street over a barrel, so to speak, and Wall Street instead, having no bargaining chips whatsoever, managed, with their former executives in charge of the Treasury, to roll Washington into the barrel, stuff it into the barrel and roll the barrel towards their desired objective, which was the $700 billion bailout without any real conditions.
Moloney: Another area where judgement will be made about Obama is his stance on Bush’s torture agenda. How is he faring in that regard, do you think?
Nader: Well, there’s a dichotomy. He’s saying a lot of good things, like he’s going to bey the constitution, he’s going to obey the law, he’s going to close down Guantanamo, he’s not going to torture. However his Attorney-General and Solicitor- General, when they were testifying at their confirmations, said that extraordinary renditions would continue, they waffled and in effect sided with Bush on warrantless wiretapping, they got rid of the term “enemy combatant” but said they had the authority from Congress, not the inherent divine right of King George admittedly, to detain terrorist suspects indefinitely without charges.
Moloney: A lot of liberals and progressives in this country expected or hoped that Obama would bring Bush to book for all this…
Nader: He became president two years after Democrats took over Congress and said impeachment is off the table, therefore giving a green light to the criminals, Bush and Cheney. Now Cheney emerged yesterday and he blasted Obama and basically said that he’s endangering the country and of course if there’s another attack he’s going to say that’s because Obama loosened the toughness patterns that Bush had on terrorism. Would Cheney say that if he thought that the Justice Department is going to investigate the crimes of the Bush administration? Of course not. The cowardliness is astonishing. We tried in the last days of the Bush administration to get the Democrats to consider a censure resolution tabled, never mind a criminal prosecution or impeachment, just the most modest expression of disapproval and we went back and forth with Conyers and others, and it never happened. You know a censure resolution is completely within the urview of the Congress.
Moloney: On the Middle East, some people hope that he’s going to bring peace there, create a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. How does that look to you?
Nader: Well obviously the attempt is going to be more energetic than under Bush and Cheney because basically they did nothing…
Moloney: Will he talk to Hamas? Will he pressurise Israel?
Nader: Well, that’s the sign, right? They are continuing the refusal to talk to Hamas or Hezbollah. They say they’re going to talk to Iran, but of course Bush was talking to Iran through secret contacts – Karl Rove told me that last July. Let’s put it this way, it’s a good sign they have George Mitchell, it’s a good sign they have Holbrooke. It’s not a good sign they have Dennis Ross (a pro-Israel neo- Con dealing with Iran) and they have a Secretary of State who went out on to the streets of New York city and applauded the invasion of Lebanon when the Israelis were slaughtering Lebanese civilians and never spoke out against the slaughter in Gaza. Basically they are leaving it up to the Israelis with a few nudges but nothing that can move that Rock of Gibraltar. You need more than nudges. They are continuing aid even though Netanyahu in 1996, addressing a joint session of Congress got a standing ovation when he said he was going to call off further aid because Israel was now a modern, prosperous society. Most reporters forgot that one.
So, John Kerry went (to Gaza and Israel) and he spent his time condemning the rockets, not the thousand times greater firepower against civilians of Israeli helicopter gunships, F16’s and artillery. They dare not say anything critical of the Israeli regime. And they are not maintaining ties with the Israeli peace movement leaders. And they still say that Hamas is a terrorist organisation. Well, it’s certainly an amateur one, because its casualty toll towards Israel is one to a hundred. So they still mouth: Israel has a right to defend itself, Hamas is a terrorist organisation, it has not forsworn violence and is not adhering to agreements. But does Israel forswear violence, does Israel recognize the Palestinian state? One of the raps against Hamas is that it doesn’t recognise the right of Israel to exist. False. Three times now in the last year, Hamas leadership has indicated that they would accept a return to the 1967 borders and a two-state solution.
I don’t even see a glimmer of anything that the Obama administration is going to do differently to change the dynamicsin the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The only thing you can hope for is that they will slow down the colonisations, and they haven’t shown much effort there. These guys, they don’t care that they get from $3 to $5 billion from the taxpayer in the US at a moment of economic collapse, every year, and the Mayor of Jerusalem who is presiding over an illegal status denounces Hillary Clinton for querying the colonisations. These are signs they’re going to do whatever they want to. They’re going to continue colonising, taking the water, taking the land, destroying civilians, deciding who’s a suspect or not, becoming prosecutor and executioner all at once.
Moloney: Are we likely to avoid runaway global warming, do you think? Is Obama serious about his carbon cuts?
Nader: He proudly defends clean coal which means he’s not going to do anything about dirty coal, assuming there’s such a thing as clean coal. He’s bought into: “We have to get whatever energies that are available, nuclear, renewable, coal, oil, gas”. That’s the Exxon party line. He doesn’t say, “Hey, there are some forms of energy that are preferable to others for a whole series of reasons. If he had a solar energy speech that basically presented solar energy, renewable energy, energy efficiency as the displacing of prior energy priorities, then you’d know he was serious. But obviously he has an easy act to follow and all he has to do is recognise the seriousness of the problem and put some money into solar retrofitting of buildings and so on, but it’s not enough.
Moloney: What do you think of cap and trade?
Nader: Unworkable, politically vulnerable to corruption and much inferior to a carbon tax, which would be my preference. And Gore’s preference too?
Moloney: What future do you see for the American car and the highways?
Nader: Well, I’d like to see a reduction in number replaced by an expansion of modern public transport. That’s one. The second is much, much more stringent fuel-efficiency standards as a quid pro quo for bailing out Detroit. And third, better management of highway traffic flows. You penalise motorists at different times of the day, you have more effective lanes for people who have two or three passengers and there are other ways, nowadays, electronically they can really do wonders.
Moloney: Could Detroit, if it wanted to, produce a car that was entirely or significantly free of dependence on carbon fuels?
Nader: Well, I was asked that question forty years ago, thirty years ago, twenty years ago and the answer always is, of course. They had cars with 35 miles per gallon in the 1930s. Then they went to high compression engines and that reduced fuel efficiency enormously – three and four hundred horsepower and so on. They should certainly convert faster to plug-in hybrids. They’re a huge advance. But do you think GM has got the message with a $40,000 Volt. I mean who’s going to buy a $40,000 Volt? That’s the one thing they’re putting forward as turning around GM. It’s pathetic. You know they can even get subsidies for plug-in hybrids. I mean Washington will give them thousands of dollars per car. But they have got to get rid of the leadership, that’s the problem. They need to get new management in Detroit. You expect the people who brought us the problem in Detroit to get us out? Waggoner? So for all this bailout there aren’t enough quid pro quos.
Moloney: What opportunities does this recession present for a new vision for America, and what would your version of this be?
Nader: Obviously what has to happen is two things. One is subordination of corporate power to the sovereignty of the people under our constitution. That would get rid of corporate personhood and that would prevent corporations, as corporations, from lobbying and engaging in political activity. They are not human beings and they shouldn’t have the same constitutional rights. The other is that displacement with community economies. Now the problem with capitalism is that it became too abstract, – derivatives exemplify this So it started out with stores on streets and mines and farms and now more and more of the economy is swallowed, forty per cent of profits in 2006, by the financial part of the economy. And what is that about? More and more it’s gambling.
It’s selling what you don’t own, it’s making bets on bets on debts and debts in a kind of tier of abstract, complex, financial derivatives. That doesn’t get anybody a better standard of living, other than the very few making money off of money. The way you replace corporate capitalism is by producing real goods and services out of money, in other words you empiricise the economy rather than speculate the economy, you bring it down to where people live and work and play. That means you prefer credit unions, you pre-“the problem with capitalism is that it became too abstract, – derivatives exemplify this” for people growing food near where they eat it, you prefer local sources of energy namely wind, sun, efficiency. That localizes the economy. It’s all about community and local economies. What globalization does is that it stretches out the lines of supply around the globe and make billions of people dependent on sources of supply completely beyond their control and that’s exactly what the multinationals want. They develop a dependency between nations which increases the power of the multinational. As I say, every time there’s local agriculture you weaken the agribusiness companies, every time there’s more energy production, solar, efficiency, you weaken Exxon and Peabody Coal. Every time there is a community health clinic and preventative care administered person-to-person at the local level, you reduce the power of the giant health insurance and HMOs and every time you democratise credit, you weaken the CitiBanks and the Bank of Americas. So that’s the way forward. It is not so contrary to the rhythms of the American people, unlike socialism or communism which are very much against the rhythms of daily life – the “You can’t have your vegetable garden. We only have collective farms” dogma, even though people are starving. Sustainable economics is about I what I’ve described, though
I’ve avoided the eco-language. So you’ve basically said this is a crisis for capitalism, well it’s a crisis for corporate capitalism but as long as corporate capitalism controls our government, it will continue to persist. So that’s why you have no demonstrations by taxpayers, no demonstrations by anybody who’s getting ripped off by this collapse.
Moloney Do you have any opinion on US firms off shoring in Ireland?
Nader: For tax purposes or out sourcing?
Nader: That gets us into WTO and all that. I prefer community self-sufficiency. But there’s a difference in going to China and going to Ireland. It’s the difference between going to a dictatorship which determines costs rather than markets. In China labour costs are determined dictatorially, they’re not determined by the market. In a very collusive way. So my views on global trade vary depending on where the US companies go. If they go to places where they have labour standards, relatively high wages, you can make a case for it. But if you go where basically the jurisdictions represent grossly unfair competition because of oligarchs and dictatorships determining costs and where workers are prohibited from forming trade unions and have no access to the courts or anything like that, that’s where I would draw the line. I would put in social tariffs and things like that.
Moloney: Do you have any heroes in your life?
Nader: Yeah, sure. One of them is an Irishman. George Bernard Shaw. His plays, his writing, they were spectacular. He was very progressive, insightful, irreverent. Doctor’s Dilemma is a great book which should be read by anybody who wants to change the healthcare system in America. I enjoy also Oscar Wilde and James Joyce. Wasn’t he an Irishman? I am really very biased for Irish people. I grew up with first-generation and second-generation Irish people in Connecticut, played ball with them, argued with them, laughed with them. I think they’ve really got a distinct temperament that I have always been favourably disposed to, absent the alcohol.
Moloney: So what are you doing now politically. You had two runs at the White House, the “two-party tyranny” that you challenged is still there. Are you still working to change all that?
Nader: Yes, that’s one of the reasons for the runs. Unless you’re inside the arena, the electoral arena, you can’t credibly challenge the system. We’re winning more and more lawsuits against ballot access obstruction (attempts by States to control who can run for President) which is unheard of elsewhere in the Western world. Candidates have very few rights if you’re not Democrat or Republican candidates in America. So there’s a whole panoply of obstructions that we’re documenting and publishing and exposing. My campaign manager is bringing out a book in about three months on this. And litigating. I think it’s important, a major civil liberties issue. If you don’t have candidate rights to diversify the ballot and provide new ideas, agendas, fresh candidates. Our voter rights are severely stultified. In many Congressional districts they just have one incumbent, they gerrymander the district so that only a Democrat or Republican can dominate. Second, the progressive agenda that we espouse for the most part are supported by a majority of the American people. If you go down the list of what was on our table, and off the table for McCain and Obama, you see most of them are majoritarian issues which is a paradox.
Here’s this tiny candidacy representing majoritarian issues. That’s the commentary we wanted to take into fifty States, that these two parties are not representing the majority of the American people, they’re representing fifteen hundred corporations. You can look at our website, VoteNader.org, go to the issues and see on one page what was on our table and what was off the table for McCain and Obama. And the third is, there is no role for citizen groups in a presidential election year. They get marginalised even more than they usually do because the press is focusing on the horse race and gaffes and flag pins. So if you are going to push civic priorities, you have got to have some people inside the arena regardless of what the odds are. Finally we try to establish electoral standards, to raise money and campaign. We did not avoid twenty or thirty States the way the others do. It’s a disrespect for the voters. We set standards and bring in a lot of young people who will be heard from in the future. They will become the leaders of the future “it’s all about community and local economies”.