Ralph Nader, ten years in public service, is still the great enigma of American politics. He has built an empire of citizen action groups that has a major impact in areas ranging from tax reform to nuclear energy.
But Nader himself is a mysterious figure who only materializes every so often to testify before a congressional committee or chat on a TV talk show. No one is quite sure of his motives or who he really is or why he’s so damn dedicated. He still guards his private life with a passion that verges on paranoia: He lives somewhere in Washington and close associates say he sometimes dates women, but Nader doesn’t like to talk about that sort of stuff. Although his various groups have offices all over Washington, Nader doesn’t have a desk of his own; he doesn’t even have a briefcase. (“Ralph’s briefcase is his head,” an associate says.)
Prior to this interview, Nader had sat still for only a handful of in-depth sessions with the press. (“The only way Playboy got me was to trap me in a hotel room during a blizzard,” he says.) I managed to trap him twice in midwinter and once last spring at his Center for the Study of Responsive Law in downtown Washington. All three times Nader started off slowly, cautiously, formally, but grew more informal and excited as we progressed. At age 41, he still looked quite boyish; very tall and thin, his clothes profoundly unstylish, his dark hair short, with a few flecks of gray.
I had heard somewhere that Nader didn’t like to talk in generalities about politics but preferred to stick to the specifics of whatever issues were on his mind at the time. He surprised me almost immediately, though, by his willingness to speculate, theorize and even fantasize about his vision of utopia. Most of our time together, in fact, was spent in a discussion of Nader’s long-range goals.
You’ve been in Washington for ten years now. Has there been any progress? Have things changed?
I think people have become more aware now. You don’t have to convince them that oil companies are gluttonous gougers any more. Ten years ago you would have. You don’t have to convince people that the government isn’t protecting as it should, that the government is corrupt. So I think it’s time to go on to the next stage, to ask more fundamental questions.
What about your own philosophy — has that changed in any way?
My philosophy hasn’t changed. But I remember that when we were students we liked to talk about world problems, about cosmic issues — we were generalists. Then I realized that you have to be more concrete if you want to reach people — I went from the general to the specific. Which is why the automobile issue was so important. See, you start with unsafe automobiles: fake bumpers, pollution, lemons, high insurance … and then people begin to understand that someone actually produces these things, and it’s General Motors! And then, people become more interested in the structure of the corporation itself.
Does that mean you’re entering a new stage of your career?
It isn’t new in terms of what I do each day. But it is time to start looking for some basic structural changes in the society.
What kind of basic structural changes are you talking about?
Consumers don’t control any economic institutions —with the exception of a few cooperatives, like food co-ops — and yet there is no reason why consumers can’t control their own insurance companies, their own banks, their own food stores— for starters.
How far would you go? Would consumers control General Motors, or the companies you’d break GM up into?
Well, the best economic system, I think, is one where it’s broken down into as small parts as are economically possible, and those parts are run by the constituency for whom they were supposed to operate; and where, if anything happens that is harmful or corrupt, the victims have nobody to blame but themselves.
For example, there can be a large supermarket cooperative, that sells things exactly the way Safeway does. But, if it’s a true cooperative, and the people can run the management, can vote them out, then they have no one to blame but themselves if they’re not satisfied. It’s a little more difficult to develop with manufacturing operations, but the beauty of at least a retail cooperative system is that it develops enormous bargaining power and can influence the marketing and processing sectors.
But what about the manufacturing sector? Wouldn’t you reorganize that too?
Now, the manufacturing sector could be organized in one of two ways. You could divide the economy into two areas: retail and manufacturing. And the workers should run the manufacturing and the consumers should run retail. And that is a nice sort of countervailing power. Another way would be to have the retail organizations — the consumer cooperatives — own the manufacturers. But that raises the problem of hierarchy: more and more remoteness from the consumers down at the market level.
How is that different from the classic left definitions of socialism or Marxism — how do you see yourself in terms of those definitions?
The theory of socialism is that the government would own the means of production, and since the government represents the working people, the working people would basically run the society. The big flaw in that theory is one word — it’s called bureaucracy — and there never was sufficient recognition of the fact that if the government becomes a bureaucracy with its own momentum and ability to be secretive, heady, corrupt, introverted, then the society is basically trading one master for another.
Whichever way you opt for in reorganizing the society, you have to follow one principle of responsive power: Power has to be insecure to be responsive. It’s got to have something to lose. And the definition of perfect tyranny is an institution that really has nothing to lose. And that’s the problem with a government bureaucracy — it has nothing to lose.
What about the newer Marxist variations — a decentralized socialism with participatory democracy — isn’t that what you’re essentially talking about?
Well, instead of participatory democracy, it’s best to talk about initiatory democracy. Participatory democracy is too passive. Initiatory democracy involves a positive act by people. It involves people — lower-income people — owning property and helping to make the policies that are supposed to be for their benefit.
The most popular argument against decentralized manufacturing and retailing systems is that it would be inefficient. That you need the huge structures you now have — like General Motors, Safeway — to get the goods out to the people at the lowest cost.
That old argument of inefficiency has been very seriously discredited for several reasons. First of all, it’s more generally appreciated that efficiency includes social costs. A car, for example, can be produced efficiently, but if it’s dangerous and if it pollutes and if it causes people to have cancer or broken bones, then it is a very inefficient automobile.
Secondly, monopolistic corporate practices and industrial collusion produce the inefficiencies of waste and technical stagnation.
Thirdly, there’s the intangible of happiness. There is serious cost, for example, to powerlessness — feeling that you can’t have an impact, you can’t have your grievances taken care of. The definition of economic efficiency — which once was monopolized by the corporate world — is now being severely challenged not only by scholars but also by a growing perception on the part of millions of people. There’s a lot more people focusing on quality and not just on quantity.
Are you saying that it’s impossible for one of these big corporations to be efficient?
It’s quite clear that bigness is a severe detriment because of bigness. You tend to get more stagnation, less competition, more bureaucracy; and when you become big enough and you start to fall apart because of your own inefficiency, the government bails you out because you’re too big to fail. If you get big enough you don’t go bankrupt, you go to Washington… …and Washington welcomes you with open arms.
If the Bank of America were ready to collapse, the government would come in with billions to save them. But if we had 20 banks in place of the Bank of America, then any one of them could fail without the same kind of severe consequences. It’s been shown again and again that the small firm is the creative firm in this country — both in terms of new inventions and new services. Xerox didn’t come from a giant company. The telephone didn’t come from a giant company. In other words, the same kind of bureaucratic stodginess and stagnation that we take for granted in big government agencies also operates in big industries.
And so small units are better not only in human terms but also because they’re more efficient?
No question about it. I think in the next decade we’re going to rediscover smallness. We’re going to rediscover it in technology — already there are movements around the world calling for an appropriate smaller-scale technology which is more responsive to self-control and local control. And I think we’re going to see it in the movement toward recognizing that the best place to live, in the United States, is a small town. For a thousand reasons. You see it everywhere. You see it in motels: There’s a direct correlation between the size and filth of motels. The highest price motels — say, right near LaGuardia Airport — are the filthiest, the most impersonal, the most tawdry. But the same chain, down in Greenville, South Carolina, or Lubbock, Texas, is better: The rooms are better and the price is 50% cheaper.
Now when you’ve got communications and transportation — particularly communications — you can make up for some of the disadvantages of a small town. If you had a cable TV pipe in the Metropolitan Opera, that takes away a lot of the disadvantages of a small town, say, for those who like cultural events.
If people get back to the earth, they can grow their own gardens, they can listen to the birds, they can feel the wind across their cheek, they can watch the sun come up. And within a five- or six-block perimeter, they find they have their stores, their schools. They have their parks, they have their libraries — that, to me, is a critical environment, for small children growing up… …compared to a big city where all of these things are miles away.
And that’s why, if you make an analysis of leadership in this country, you’ll see that a vast proportion of leaders come from small towns.
My personal taste runs toward old-fashioned urban neighborhoods, real neighborhoods….
Well, that’s an attempt to create a small town within a big town. But still that’s not sufficient. You get stories like the little boy from Harlem who takes a two-week trip to the country in one of those summer programs and he sees several acres planted with vegetables. And he sort of recoils and says, “Are they gonna use that food in all that dirt?” He didn’t know what soil was. To him, it was dirt, filth, off the street. And that’s a very deep symptom of the rupture between the human being and nature, a calculation we can’t perhaps run through a computer yet, but I think we’re beginning to appreciate in terms of what’s lost.
You said that, about the computer, with a certain amount of disdain. Do you see computers as a symbol of sorts?
When we try to take things that can really only be qualitatively evaluated, and force them through a quantitative conduit, like a computer, we lose a great deal of our judgment.
In other words, you can’t plot human beings on a graph.
Yes. For example, it’s clear that if you want to figure out who should be admitted to a university, a qualitative assessment is important. And yet, the convenience of a machine-scored admissions test is such that now, instead of just playing a partial role, it’s playing the total role. Law school graduates are moving to the point where they’ll soon have bar exams with only machine answered questions — no more essays, no more judgment, no more imagination. So what I’m saying is that the administrative convenience of the computer gives it a range that it’s not qualified to responsibly measure. And with that range goes a form of concentration of power, greater impersonality, less attention to the individual and centralization generally.
A lot of people listening to this would think: Jesus, what a Luddite! Smashing the computers, smashing the big cities……
Well, that’s obviously a burlesque of what I meant to convey. Because what I meant was that a machine must serve human beings…… And there are times when we’re not ready for certain machines. There are times when we’re being abused by certain machines. And there are times when we have to get back to basic human precepts of happiness and ask ourselves whether we’re really happy with certain kinds of technology……
Two-part question. Do you think people are willing to get back to those kinds of things without being forced, and secondly, is the energy situation going to force them back whether they like it or not?
I think both. First of all, the more stress we’re under for gluttonous use of technology, like automobiles that go 14 miles per gallon, the more we’ll look for alternatives or for more efficient use of existing technology, like automobiles that go 30 miles per gallon. But secondly, there’s going to be a major revolt against technology. It really began, perhaps, with the revolt against the SST [supersonic transport plane that was stopped in Congress several years ago, after a huge lobbying effort by environmentalists]. No longer is technology going to be automatically equated with progress because its adverse effects are being better publicized…… and also because of the incubation period that’s now transpiring — 20 or 30 years for cancer to show up or the ozone level to be impaired. I mean, we now can trace the effect of birth control pills or cigarettes, and over the last 40 years the bells have begun to toll a little more insistently toward reevaluating certain technologies we’ve taken for granted.
The National Cancer Institute estimates that 80% of all cancers are environmentally caused. Already the estimate is 100,000 workers dying from work-related diseases each year, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of discovering the whole range of the problem.
Is it possible that we’ve already destroyed ourselves without knowing it?
Well, a very strong argument can be made that man is making himself physiologically obsolete. Basically, people come equipped with the ability to detect certain dangers — smells, sight, hearing, taste, thresholds of pain. Man is geared up to avoid fire. Fire burns. Man says “Ouch,” then runs away or puts it out. But now, human beings are producing fires that burn over a long period of time; they don’t burn immediately and we’re not set up for it. We have to develop systems — legal, medical, democratic — to detect these dangers before it’s too late for a lot of people.
What are some of the more ominous threats?
Asbestos is one. Professor [Irving] Selikoff [of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York], who’s a specialist in this, predicts an asbestos disease epidemic over the next 20 years.
Not just among asbestos workers?
No, their families too. And people who live in the city and breathe asbestos from buildings that are being built with asbestos in their air-conditioning systems…… Ship workers in World War II were exposed to asbestos and the gestation period for a very painful kind of stomach cancer is about 30 years and, sure enough, they’re coming down with it. It strikes with remarkable suddenness; in less than a year, a 200-pound man can be down to 85. And then expire.
Radioactive material like uranium is another danger. It seems like an epidemic a month is discovered: cotton dust, mercury, lead, benzene, noise impact, silicosis, coal dust, sulphurs, carbon monoxide, vinyl chloride……
I’ve heard that you lobbied very hard against the Rockefeller nomination, that you’re pretty upset with his being vice-president. If someone like that can’t be vice-president because of his concentration of wealth and power — which, I assume, is the reason you lobbied against him — can he be a citizen with that same concentration of wealth and power?
Well, that amount of power could not be accumulated in a consumer-controlled economy. It just could not be accumulated. Where would he accumulate it? That kind of power is accumulated by pyramiding ownership of massive amounts of capital, through the ability to monopolize markets and avoid taxation over the years.
What’s the effect of that kind of power in the vice-presidency?
The only difference it makes is if he becomes president.
And if he became president?
Then it would make a major difference. He would complete the process of merging big business and big government. So that the taxpayer essentially becomes the guarantor of business behavior whether it’s corrupt, inefficient or efficient. That’s symbolized by his establishing the New York State Power Authority, which some right-wingers thought was the onset of socialism but which was basically a bailout system, as we have now seen, for Con Edison or any other utility that wants to sell its lemon plants — nuclear or otherwise — to the power authority because it doesn’t want to run them. And that’s what Rockefeller would extend in Washington.
Overseas, he would simply accelerate the trends that we’ve seen in the last 30 years: more corporate interference backed by Washington, more multinational control throughout the world and an inherently corrupt rapprochement with socialistic governments. What Rockefeller understands, and understood early, is that you have to have a massive arms system, for economic and imperialistic reasons. But you can also make deals with the big socialist trading combines, who like to deal with the bigs. The big Soviet electric power companies don’t like to deal with small electric companies in the United States; they like to deal with GE or Westinghouse. And he understands that and he would build those kinds of bridges which basically don’t help people in either country.
Is there any country you can think of where there’s progress toward the kind of society you’d like to see? What about China?
China is a paradox as far as we’re concerned. A lot of people say that millions of Chinese are living today only because of their system; that they have much better health care than India because of their system; that they’re not starving like India or Bangladesh because of their system; that they have enormous literacy compared to Southeast Asia because of their system; that they have little corruption in the sense of material acquisition, compared to South Vietnam or the Philippines, because of their system.
On the other hand, most or us wouldn’t like to live in that society because it doesn’t allow for some kinds of eccentricities, or much self-defined, freedom of expression, or self-defined initiative…… But there are lessons to be learned. China probably understands bureaucracy better than any other country in the world. The Chinese believe that bureaucrats have to get out of their offices and live with the people they’re supposed to serve. If someone asked me the best way to make bureaucracy more responsive in the United States, it would be to make the bureaucrats live in the areas they’re dealing with: The Bureau of Mines people should spend three weeks in the coal mines so they’d feel the dampness, the darkness, the dust, the cold; the people at Health, Education and Welfare should spend time in the ghetto schools — days at a time, not just tours. Now that’s a principle the Chinese have applied……
But you see, compared to China, we can’t get anything done. China eradicates VD; we can’t even stop it from increasing. Is it because we don’t have the communications system, the technology, the laws? They have much more serious communication and transportation obstacles than we do — they don’t have a telephone system or a television system with a unit in every house. But we don’t have the coordinated determination of marshaling the massive numbers of people in a common cause.
But they’re still in their first generation of leadership, and historically it’s been shown that you can sustain fanaticism for maybe a generation but after that it begins to fall apart……
Yes. The question is: Has China developed sustaining groups to carry it out beyond the first generation? I don’t think they have. That’s the penalty for an authoritarian system — that it doesn’t develop self-thinking, self-initiative, self-governing. What’s working in China’s favor is that they’re going to be facing adversity for a long time.
Do you think this country is corrupt in a Roman-orgy sense?
Well, there are certain dimensions of it that are. For example, I think we’re gluttonous in terms of our consumption and that people are killing themselves by overeating… or eating the wrong food urged upon them by the food industry.
What about personal morals: the breakdown of marriage and the nuclear family… … the increasing acceptance of homosexuality. Do you think that the more affluent the society has become, the more people have been able to experiment with their personal lives?
Yes, that’s probably a function of communications too. That is, the facts spread faster when seen on television or read about in the newspapers and magazines.
And what does that mean for the kind of society that you’d like to see? Do you think it’s a bad thing when people can indulge themselves any way they want? Do you think there should be a strict moral code?
No, I think the two can live side by side.
Can you give me an instance where it’s ever happened?
Well, there’s never really been an instance of effective self-government on any broad scale, over time, in the history of the world. However, if you say Scandinavia comes closer, they certainly haven’t participated in puritanism in terms of their personal lives.
The basic issue is: How much time does it take to make power just? It might not take all that much time. I mean, if people develop a level of self-government, they won’t have to spend all that much time asserting it. Like right now, you don’t have to spend time asserting your right to free speech, because years ago the Bill of Rights was passed. There are cause célèbres and things like that but it isn’t a struggle every time. And once it’s been established, once power has been made just, it won’t have to be an all-consuming process…… but it would require steady attention.
What would the average day be like in that kind of utopia?
Well, I’ve always thought professional athletes owe a great debt to society. Because they’re living the life that many other people would live if they could. So if you ask what would life be in a paradise, a democracy, well, a lot of people would spend their time in a hobby, in music or playing tennis, or writing or hiking… I think there is now a level of wealth and technology in our society where people shouldn’t have to spend more than 20 hours a week in the economy, if distributive and ownership justice prevailed.
But if the economy were set up the way you want it to be — more “inefficient” in the traditional sense yet more aware of human values — wouldn’t people have to work longer? I mean, it would take a team of four workers much longer to assemble a car than it would take an assembly line. So how could you say they’d be working less?
Well, they’d be working less because they’d be more in control of their wants. Take the petrochemical industry: There was a fellow the other day who said the petrochemical industry could never be made safe, so it should be abolished. Much of what it does is produce trivia, by and large, plastic containers and so forth. People could decide that they didn’t need to get food in plastic containers every time they went to the market and so the petrochemical plant wouldn’t be operating anymore.
The immediate question is: What do you do with all the people who’d be put out of work? Unless we have an answer to that, then industry will be justified simply on the grounds of employment, even though it may jeopardize the future of society, contaminate the environment or get us into wars. I think people should spend a greater portion of their time in their consumer role to raise their standard of living by a wiser use of their consumer dollar. Notice the difference in roles here: Most economic theory is focused on the producing side of the economy. There’s been very little on the consumer side — even though, as Adam Smith said, the end of all production is consumption.
Basically, you have to have a very dramatic shift in the time we apply to the consumption side so we can develop the skills and knowledge that will make the production side more rational. You ask a worker how much time do you spend earning enough money to buy a new car? He’ll say something like 700 hours. Then you ask: How much time do you spend learning how to buy a new car? Nothing. No time at all.
Do you mean that some people would just become professional consumers, subsidized by the government?
No, I mean people would spend more time to become astute consumers. After all, what do people go to work for? Most go to work primarily to consume. Some people would be given jobs by the government, though, to develop expertise as consumers, so they can lend that expertise to others……
For example, they would walk a family through a supermarket and show them where the best buys are.
You mean, that in a used car lot there would be a salesman and your very own consumer advocate?
Sure. You’d just dial a number and call the professional consumer and say, “Look, I’m going down to buy a used car and I really don’t know how — would you walk me through?” Or, “I’m going to buy this house.” And then along would come this professional consumer who’d say, “Hey, you don’t have to have this title insurance… … and you’ve got a right to choose your own lawyer, you don’t have to use the bank’s lawyer; you don’t have to take the six percent realty fee, you can bargain with them……” And so on.
Would this service be free, government subsidized?
Because there’ve been times when I would have paid for something like that.
The government encourages promotion of the sale of products all the time. Much of what the Commerce Department does — at a budget of $1.1 billion each year — is help sell corporate products here and abroad. And what about all the agricultural subsidies? What I’m saying is, if you’re going to help producers, why not help the consumer too? It would cost much less.
How do you get to the point where there’s a public debate on these sorts of things? What has to happen to get people to start talking about changing the basic system?
Well, the most important change is one of attitude on the part of people who are looking for leaders……
Maybe the most appropriate kind of leadership is the kind that gives power out…
That’s well put. The function of genuine leadership is to produce more leaders, to produce opportunities for local initiative, to produce information which will help people help themselves.
The most important question that can be asked about any society at any time is, how much effort do citizens spend exercising their civic responsibility. Now, in a total dictatorship the answer is usually none, because even if people wanted to, they couldn’t. But in a theoretical democracy, when the answer is less than ten hours a year, on the average, then that tells us something about the way power operates in this society. There’s only so much power: If it’s not used by many people, it’ll be used by a few people.
One group of people that’s attempted to become active over the last decade is students. The conventional wisdom is that students are less active now but I’ve heard you disagree with that in the past. If you’re right, if students are still active and concerned, why are so many people saying they aren’t? Do you think there are certain interests that want to put across the image that there’s no student movement?
Yes. Not the least of which are many college administrators, boards of trustees and even some faculty. They know student movements tend to be contagious. Also, if people don’t see students rioting, demonstrating, sitting in, then there’s no student movement. They don’t see an intellectual or advocacy movement among students as worthy of being called a student movement. The struggle now, though, is clearly going to be: Who’s going to govern the universities? All over the country there are boards of trustees and regents riddled with conflicts of material interest, where they have interests in the banking industry or construction and are utilizing their position to enrich their industries or ward off criticism of their industries by making sure that unruly professors or controversial research just don’t go on at universities. And the students, I think, are beginning to see that they are being educated in a highly authoritarian environment, run by the corporate interests.
Do you find it ironic that the FBI, with its massive counter-intelligence programs, is one of the few other organizations to take the student movement as seriously as you over the past five years?
I think the FBI recognizes that movements to change society start with the young and they often start with the young who are privileged enough to have time to think.
Let’s take a specific group of people — any group — how do you get them to take control of their lives, to become involved in their community instead of sitting home and watching TV or whatever?
You have to do three things. You have to show them what the consequences are if they don’t — there is unemployment, depression, pollution, a terrible life for their children, rotten school systems, crime and so forth. Second, you’ve got to provide them with an opportunity to develop their strategies and technique, and that means grass roots civic groups. And thirdly, it’s got to be made interesting and fun. For example, professional sports attract massive amounts of time from the American people, compared to the amount of time they spend on improving their school systems.
That’s the preliminary problem. If someone were to ask me what’s the biggest problem in dealing with the District of Columbia government, I’d say it’s the fact that 99% of the people in the District of Columbia don’t want to be bothered. They don’t want to go away from their television sets when they have leisure time.
Aren’t you fighting human nature, though?
Yeah, that’s the true fight. Everybody is grappling with that. That’s the greatest problem in history — how do you get people to become serious about deciding things for themselves, instead of letting other people decide things for them?
But I think we have a chance of getting that kind of change because the situation in this country is getting worse. Even without a major depression now, you’re seeing churnings and tumult among the people — and we haven’t even been marginally deprived, in the aggregate, compared to what it could really be like. And it will get worse.
Do you mean that there’s a major depression coming?
It won’t be the depression of the Thirties, but what’s coming is the following: so distorted an economic system that the apparent solutions produce all the wrong effects. It’s basically a kind of economic suicide, where in order to get out of stagnation and unemployment, we’re producing the kinds of things that will create more problems in future years. Look at our surface transportation system: You can safely say that it’s heading toward suicide; it’s grinding to a halt in terms of congestion; it’s ruining land planning; it’s polluting the air enormously; it’s depleting energy and other resources; and, in return, what are we getting for it?
It also seems to be killing itself economically.
See, here’s another example of the trouble we’re in. Until a few years ago, an eight-million car year was pretty good for Detroit. In the last few years up till 1974, it expanded to about 12 million and the whole infrastructure supporting the car industry has expanded. Now when it goes back to an eight-million car year, the economy is tossed into a tailspin. And so there’s the choice: Should we try to salvage the auto industry or redirect the resources to other industries and service outlets? The immediate response is to salvage the industry, get it back up to 12, 14, 16 million cars a year… and what does that do? It exacerbates all the problems along the line, from taking too long to get to work, to suburban sprawl, to pollution, to casualties on the highways, insurance problems, anti-mass transit consequences and so forth. So, our economy is hurtling along self-destructive paths and it tries to deceive itself into thinking that it is bailing itself out of one economic crisis after another.
How are people reacting to that? Are they getting angry…… or are they turning more assiduously toward their TV sets?
Well, there’s an argument that people become more conservative during times of economic crisis, that they aren’t willing to experiment because they perceive their job as the most important thing in their life. The other view, though, is that if people had control of their communications system and the facts could get out, they would respond in a completely different way.
But when all they’re told is that the automobile industry is in difficult straits because of pollution and safety controls… and they’re not told anything about the gross corruption and mismanagement that led the auto industry to its current situation, then it’s not surprising that they won’t ask: What can we do to restructure or change the auto industry?
I ask myself: Suppose we had three hours of network time every week, where would the citizens movement be? It would be 100 times more effective.
The history of things like that is you’d probably wind up getting your three hours opposite the Super Bowl.
Even so, you’d still have a relatively massive audience.
What would you do with the time? Let’s take specifics: You are going to deal with two or three issues-agribusiness, the energy crisis…… You pick the third area.
We’ll say insurance.
Okay, how do you deal with those issues on a TV show? Let’s start with food.
Well you start by showing a hot dog. Then you show people eating hot dogs, a hot dog stand. Then you go all the way back to the beef cattle, okay? You show the whole beef processing thing in reality — the filth, the hormones, the antibiotics they have to pump the cattle with because they’re shivering. They don’t move on the range anymore; they’re in these big feed lots. And you show the amount of fat that goes into a hot dog and the water and the color dyes.
Then you show how taste can easily be manipulated. You show putrid meat, then you show the next stage — after it’s been colored. Then the next stage — nice pink. Then the next stage — all seasoned with chemicals. Then you move it into just a delicious hot dog with mustard.
And you show the effect of the carcinogens in the meat. You show advanced cases of cancer. Bladder cancer, for example.
You mean, you actually show them what a bladder looks like when it’s……
You’d show victims.
Sure. I mean, that’s what carcinogenic cells look like. And then you show why this is done: It’s basically done for the immediate commercial convenience of the processors. It’s these things you can do with television that you can’t do with the written word.
Would there be a punch line? Would you show people what they can do to change it?
The basic punch line is this. You ask: What can you do about this right now? And the answer is: nothing. At this moment in time, you don’t know how to do anything about it. So then you start. You know, the first thing you’ve got to do is decide you want to spend some time. You can’t be a great bridge player just by reading a book. You’ve gotta play bridge. You want to play citizen action? Fine! Here’s what you can do: If you want to spend just five hours a month, here’s what you can do. If you want to spend 30 hours a month, here’s what you can do. See, very basic stuff.
Start on the local level. Did you ever go down to the supermarket and say: “We’re five families and we’ve been patronizing you for ten years, and we spend an average of $14,000 a year, total, and we’d like to have a meeting with you some evening after your store is closed.” So you sit down and have a meeting with the manager and say, “We think you should have monthly meetings with your customers so they can air their grievances and ask you questions. You’re a food expert, you should know exactly what you’re selling. And we’ll present you with a petition with the names of 500 families who live in this area who want the meeting too.” Then you start asking questions: “Why do you sell this? Why don’t you sell that?” And it begins to focus some bargaining power on the part of the buyers.
Has that been done anywhere?
No. But you see how relatively easy it is. Here’s another thing you could do. You have shopping centers all over the country now, some of them patronized by 15-20,000 families. Huge, okay? So suppose you organize the families so that each threw in $5 a year…… and develop a fund of $100,000. And they set up an office in the shopping center — a grievance and complaint bureau, with an economist and a lawyer and a publicist. Any time you’d have a complaint about shoddy merchandise or price gouging or lack of courtesy, they’d be right on the premises, ready to help you.
That sounds like the professional consumer idea.
That’s right. It’s also part of the overall desire that more and more of society’s time and energy be spent backing the consumer side of the economy, not just the producers.
It sounds like your TV show would involve a lot of “advocacy journalism” and that’s pretty tough to do on TV because of the so-called fairness doctrine. Do you think that broadcasters should have the same kind of First Amendment rights as newspapers — complete freedom of speech?
Yes, the First Amendment should apply to TV — and to all its consumers. That is, there should be a constitutionally recognized right of access by the people because basically the mass media are a monopoly. They’re using our airwaves, and it’s nonsense to say that for the few bucks a year that they pay in license fees that they can determine what goes over those airwaves. So I would apply the First Amendment in both the passive and progressive sense: Don’t stifle the right to say what the person wants to say, but also don’t allow the broadcasters to block access on the part of the citizens who want to have access.
Back to our TV show. The energy crisis — I should say the “quote energy crisis” — how would you dramatize that?
You could start by saying, “The experts are saying we are in an energy crisis and an energy shortage. They say we’re running out of oil and gas.” Then you show that this is all nonsense. Energy is where you want to find it. For example, one-third of the annual tree growth in the United States would supply all our energy if we knew how to convert efficiently into methanol, wood alcohol. Corn husks, grass, leaves, diseased or dying trees, 150 million tons of manure, plants — all these can be converted into energy. And you show solar energy and wind, and you ask: If all this is energy, why aren’t we getting it? Because the energy corporations only like a certain kind of energy: the kind they can effectively control the supply and distribution of. Which is why solar energy doesn’t qualify: the sun can go directly to your home, bypassing your friends at the utility-and-power company. See? [Laughs]
I mean, they’re not really interested in corn husks or manure because those are accessible to anybody. You could have lots of small companies and decentralize them, but oil wells offshore? 1 mean, why do oil companies love offshore oil? Because they don’t have any competition from independent producers who aren’t big enough to buy the rigs. And the same is true with nuclear power. If a big utility like Con Edison had a $20 gizmo that could produce electricity for all of New York City — and say they got a ten percent return on a $20 investment — you think Con Ed would be interested? Of course it wouldn’t be interested. They like nuclear power because it gives them a tremendous capital base on which to get more money from the consumer.
How would you dramatize the difference between the president’s energy policy and the Democrats’ in Congress?
I’d show someone pulling into a gas station, and they ring up 54 cents a gallon, or 60 cents — that’s the Democrats’ program. Then you show someone pulling into the same gas station and they ring up 75 cents a gallon — that’s Ford’s program. And you go right down the line like that.
How would you explain why the president wants to do that?
Well, you can’t do that too graphically; you have to do it verbally. It’s basically that Ford is doing what the oil companies want — a higher price ceiling on oil coming into this country, so they can raise their domestic oil prices. Second, the higher the price to the consumer, even if part of it is a tax, the more the consumer gets accustomed to the high price. And when the tax comes off, the oil companies can move in just the way the auto companies moved in a few years ago when the $200 auto excise tax came off. And people won’t resist because they’ll just be paying the same price as always. Third, the value of resources in the ground goes up. That’s why the oil companies love what the OPEC cartel did — basically it tripled the value of their oil in Texas, in the United States.
So what do we show viewers as a positive alternative? What can they do?
Well, first you show them they can produce their own power. If we could ever get the hobbyists of America to start building windmills and solar energy collectors out of Heath kits — it would be enormous! There’s a man here in Washington who has a solar collector system on his roof and he claims that in 1972 his gas bill was under $5. So while it might not do the whole job, whatever it does is all to the good.
It is a more difficult field, though, to give people things they can do immediately — aside from building their own solar energy panels — than food was, isn’t it?
Yes, because food is a daily type thing. You can reject your local supermarket, exert immediate pressure on it. But what’s the alternative to the automobile other than walking? Of course, you could say: Here’s one solution to the energy crisis — and then you show people walking.
Okay, your choice for the TV show: insurance.
First you show a doorbell ringing, at night, and the people in the house open the door… it’s Metropolitan Life Insurance! And the salesman’s here to try to sell them some insurance. They sit down and listen to his spiel and then the householder starts asking him questions. How do your prices compare with your hundred competitors? Well, the first thing they’ll find is that he hasn’t got that information, which arouses suspicion. He can’t even get that information… or he won’t get it. And you have to let people know that there are tremendous price differences for the same kind of coverage from company to company.
All right. Then the householder says to the insurance salesman, “What is it that you want me to sign?” So he says, “Here is our policy,” and out comes this thing with microscopic print. So the householder says, “Would you mind if I read this over the next few days and then you come back?” And the salesman tries to dissuade him, but finally says okay. Two days later the doorbell rings again and the householder says, “Well, I’ve found your policy quite appropriate in some respects, but in other respects I’ve decided to amend it and I’ve changed some words and some figures here and there. And I’d like you to agree to my changes and then I’ll sign the contract.”
Now what does this bring across? The fact that it’s almost unheard of. I mean, people start laughing: Whoever thought of amending insurance? You take it or leave it. So it shows that insurance really is a one-sided thing. You get it across to people that they have no bargaining power. Prudential could ring the doorbell the next day and it would be the same thing. And you show people that they are paying millions of dollars in higher prices than they have to.
What do you get people to do?
You show them that if they were part of a consumer economy — and belonged to food coops, housing co-ops, health coops, insurance co-ops — they’d be able to maximize their dollars and also their health and safety.
Well, very practically, how do we get to the point where that kind of cooperative is possible in this country?
All right. This is what we’re going to try to encourage Congress to enact this session: a consumer-cooperative financing bank. It’s a bank that’s modeled after the farmer-cooperative banks that were set up in the Thirties.
See, the farmers were in very bad shape then. They couldn’t get credit from banks as individuals. So they joined together in cooperatives in order to improve their buying and marketing power, and they got Congress to enact a law establishing banks for the cooperatives — a bank which would lend them money, short and long term. And in return, the farm cooperatives bought into the bank, until the government owned less and less, and in 1968 the cooperatives had total ownership. Why not a similar structure to finance consumer co-ops?
What about the producing side of the economy? What kind of immediate steps can people take to get basic structural changes there?
Well, one of the first steps would be for Congress to enact a new system of federally chartering large corporations. One reason why that’s important is that it would provide the first thorough public debate on the structure of corporations in the history of this country. It will be a chance to rewrite our constitution for corporations. Corporations are a creation of the state, you should always remember, and the charter is what the state gives the corporation in return for certain obligations. And what federal chartering would do is redefine those obligations.
For example, under existing law, corporations don’t have to disclose very much information about their inner workings.
For example, there are currently very mild sanctions for officials who behave illegally or against the public interest.
For example, there is no bill of rights for employees. If an engineer speaks up against General Motors for making unsafe cars, shouldn’t that person be given due process if GM decides to fire him?
For example, there’s no attention paid now to the silent, violent impacts some corporations have on their communities, like pollution.
Above all, the charter must make the corporation vulnerable. It must structure banks, for example, in such a way that depositors have an opportunity to throw out the management for good cause.
The problem — the immediate problem — with both the consumer-cooperative bank and federal chartering of corporations is getting it through Congress. How are you going to get “those” kinds of things through “this” kind of Congress?
We’re dealing with a shift from nonperceived to perceived crises. For example, a few years ago you couldn’t have gotten two votes in Congress to set up a federal oil-and-gas corporation. But last December, 22 senators sponsored that bill and they could’ve gotten another ten to sign on. Why? Because they perceived the crisis in the energy situation. How do you get the ball rolling on other nonperceived crises? The only way — in addition to expecting people to respond more forcefully when crises and catastrophes occur — is to begin to build the momentum for citizen action.
In more general terms, though, do you think Congress is the best place to go if you want to bring about basic changes in the society?
Potentially, yes. One reason is that, of the three branches of government, Congress is really closest to the people. I mean, they really have job insecurity. The major problem now, though, is that we basically have minority rule because it takes a two-thirds vote to overrule a presidential veto. And I think the founding fathers made a mistake when they thought the power of Congress was going to be overwhelming and the presidency was going to be weak. With veto power, the presidency can be extremely strong. Right now it doesn’t look like the country can do very much with a totally opposed president.
And that’s what you think we have?
That’s what we have. That’s why Congress’s bargaining power is so low with Ford — because he really doesn’t want to do anything! Except maybe pass these giveaway-to-business bills. He doesn’t want a civil rights bill, he doesn’t want a jobs bill, he doesn’t want a real housing bill, he doesn’t want a tax reform bill… And the problem again is that there’s no leadership in the House and Senate. The curse of any governmental body is to be led by nice but weak leaders. The nice-ness insures their tenure and weakness insures their do-nothingness.
What about using the judiciary as a means for basic changes? You’ve brought a number of successful lawsuits that have forced the government to respond…
The judiciary is the citadel for the minority view. They don’t count votes in court. They count rights. And also, when it works well, it works because the courts are insulated from the usual manipulative power plays that operate in the executive and legislative branches of government. I mean, you don’t give a federal judge a campaign contribution. They’re appointed for life. You don’t wine and dine them; you can’t offer them jobs after they leave court … The reason it hasn’t worked as well as it might is because most judges are taken from the upper economic classes. Many are former corporate lawyers.
How would you change it?
Well, that’s one of the toughest questions of all. Because if you elect them, you end up with the situation in New York, where judges are beholden to campaign contributions… I would frankly prefer the election of judges, but for long periods of time to insulate them from the tyrannical majority. I’d also permit cumulative voting; in other words, I’d have a slate of ten judges and you could put all your ten votes on one judge, so that the minority could elect some judges. And I’d get money, campaign contributions, completely out of it.
Getting back to the Congress, you tried to exert some direct citizen pressure several years ago with your Congress Project. Your people wrote reports on each member of Congress. Were you satisfied with the results?
Well, I’m never satisfied with any results……
No, never. But it did do a lot of good things. It had substantial behavioral effect on members of Congress. They now knew that even though they controlled the communications systems of their constituencies — through newsletters, taped broadcasts and the fact that the press didn’t have the time or interest to chronicle their activities — they knew that what they did was going to be chronicled by our Congress Project and distributed back home.
But your profiles weren’t really very tough on a lot of members.
That’s because a decision was made at the outset not to make value judgments, that we shouldn’t say: “Now we conclude Congressman Jones should be defeated.”
Why’d you decide that?
First, we’d need more time and resources. It would be easy to make those sort of decisions about many congressmen, but for many others it wouldn’t. Also, it would be considered partisan, because inevitably one party would come out better than the other.
Well, why not become partisan? Isn’t voting your ultimate act as a professional citizen?
There are two reasons for that. First, if you’re going to become partisan, you’ve really got to do it effectively. If you’re going to try to defeat somebody, you’ve really got to try and defeat somebody, otherwise it’s a celebrity thing: I’m for so and so, you should vote for so and so. It doesn’t mean anything; it cheapens the currency.
The second reason is that our groups operate under tax-exempt restrictions which prevent engaging in any partisan political activity.
If you could do it, would you be associated with it?
Well, I don’t know about my being associated with it. But I think there should be a group in the country that systematically searches out candidates who are going to take strong people stands and gives them advice, and helps them get elected.
So why not do it?
Because that’s not the most important thing right now.
But isn’t the president of the United States the ultimate public citizen, the ultimate consumer advocate?
No. The president is the agent of the people and if they are not organized in their consumer, taxpayer or citizen roles, change of any significance is unlikely to come from the top. To break the concentrations of power, which is what such a candidate would have to strive to do, the need for a very articulate and organized citizenry is even greater. But the whole citizen-action area doesn’t attract anywhere near as much support or funds as the political area.
But what about using the political area as a way of publicizing citizen action, as a way of attracting support and funds?
That’s one way. A more lasting way, though, is to have citizen activity direct the political process.
Let me give you an example: I had a meeting with Governor [Michael] Dukakis [of Massachusetts] and we were talking about the utilities — like most places there’s a great uproar among utilities customers in Massachusetts. We discussed a number of reform proposals: good appointments to the state public utilities commission, a consumer counsel to represent the people’s interests and finally a checkoff system on each utility bill where each consumer could make a $1 or $2 contribution to a statewide consumer-action group.
One of his aides favored the consumer-counsel idea but Dukakis said, “You don’t understand. This consumer counsel is only good as long as I’m governor. But once you establish a residential utility consumer-action group (RUCAG), well, that’s permanent.” The next governor could be very pro-big business but it would be impossible for him or her to uproot the RUCAG. It would be an independent political and economic force in the state. Not only would the group have a full-time staff, but it would have a communications link to 300-400,000 voters. And so it would be politically impossible to stop it.
And if someone like Dukakis can establish that kind of group while he’s governor, doesn’t that make running for office worthwhile?
Yes, but he couldn’t establish it by state law in a hundred years unless he had the utilities consumers organized. They need to be organized to push the law establishing the checkoff system on utilities bills through the state legislature. It’s the chicken and egg — and I think it’s more important to get the people organized first.
You know, you look at Tennessee. In one decade they’ve got [Estes] Kefauver and [Albert] Gore as senators; the next decade they’ve got [William] Brock and [Howard] Baker. What an incredible transformation! The same constituency electing completely different kinds of senators. What that means is that there’s no consistent expression of public will, that it’s very transient and manipulable by politicians. If Kefauver and Gore had done their homework, if they’d started building up basic citizen forces instead of just winning elections, a guy like Brock wouldn’t have had a chance in 50 years of defeating Gore.
Do you really think that a country that elected Richard Nixon is now going to elect people who are actually going to change things? With communications systems run as they are? It’s not in the cards. Which is why we’re trying to get something more permanent underway.
There still is a hell of a lot of power in the presidency, though. Especially if it’s used negatively, as you say Ford is using it. Now, we’ve been through why you wouldn’t want to get involved in it… but someone’s going to have to get involved. What kind of person would you like to see as president? How would you like to see a presidential campaign run?
Those are long answers. One attribute a president must have is the ability to get down to the most basic levels. If, for example, you have to make a decision on occupational health and safety, you go out to the factories and see what they’re really like. If you want to have bureaucratic reform, spend a few days in the next month just walking through the agencies asking questions, so that you’re not just told what the superiors in those agencies want you to hear.
It’s important to open up the White House. It’s very elitist. The White House is best symbolized by the masses of tourists waiting outside for hours to get a peek inside for a second and by the glittering aristocracy that gets invited to White House dinners. The president spends a lot of time in useless ceremony. Instead of patting a few children on the head and taking a few pictures, the president should spend, say, 30 minutes with a citizens group, hearing them out, hearing their grievances. When was the last time the president entertained citizen activists from all over the country?
The president also has to do more independent thinking. The day shouldn’t be filled up with… activities. There’s got to be time for a person to sit alone with no phones ringing, and think.
Apparently, he has that time. If you read what Butterfield said about Nixon, he had time to figure out the details of what was going to be served for dinner and what the White House police should wear.
Yes, the president has free time. It’s how you use it. Nixon was scheming.
In other words, you’re saying you have to have a president who knows how to think.
Yes, and a president who’s an example. Like today, Ford is spending like crazy in the White House and he’s asking everybody else for austerity. I think what Jerry Brown is doing in California is very good. You cut out the mansion, cut out the jets… but it isn’t enough just to do that.
A presidential campaign, for example, should be a massively seized opportunity for citizen action. If you believe in consumer cooperatives as a national policy, then go around the country and help form consumer cooperatives. Don’t go around the country saying, “My fellow Americans, I promise to do the following.” You’ve got massive access to the media; you’re going to be spending $50-$100 million. You’re going to be involving up to 200,000 volunteers and active citizens. Start setting them up. Student groups, neighborhood groups, grass roots organizations — so even if you lose, you’ve accomplished something.
You say you’re not interested in doing that, at least in a presidential campaign. How do you deal with all these Nader for President groups that keep popping up and the stories about you as a presidential possibility?
I don’t deal with them at all. I don’t see that many groups forming. I certainly don’t hear from them.
I just realized something. I don’t think either one of us has mentioned the word Watergate once in this entire discussion.
I almost did.
When we were talking about people no longer having to be persuaded that government is corrupt.
Is there anything to be said about Watergate? Is there anything left?
Yes, and it’s this: The lessons of Watergate are being forgotten with a rapidity only exceeded by Halley’s comet.
For example, the Ervin-Weicker package of reforms, including the establishment of a permanent special prosecutor, is about 30th on the Senate’s list of priorities. And Senator Weicker feels that if they don’t get it this session, they’re never going to get it. Here we are, not that long after Nixon resigned, and we’ve already lost that thrust. In short, Watergate can happen again. There’s no structural change, no new sanctions, no assertions of congressional authority, no new investigative arm of Congress — nothing!
What about Nixon: Was he an aberration or just a product of the system?
He was simply the final expression of the pus and he built on what prior presidents had laid the groundwork for. The abuse of power, breaking and entering, excessive and illegal power of the FBI and CIA, secrecy, dirty tricks in campaigns — all this preceded Nixon. He just built these patterns into a White House-run system of greater and more frequent criminality.
If the accumulation of presidential power hasn’t abated at all, how far can it go? What about the possibility of a fascist takeover?
Well, we now have a remarkably orchestrated merger of corporate and government power. The major executives of corporate America are pushing for more government subsidy and involvement and tax privileges; the shuttle between government and industry personnel is much greater than at any other time: high-level oil executives going into government for a few years and then back into industry. And these are the interlocking forces which — history tells us — are the basis for any fascist eruption.
Do you think about that at all?
I am concerned that we’re moving toward more and more concentration of power, and whether or not that’s called fascism is irrelevant — the reality is what we’ve got to be concerned about.
But perhaps the problem is that it isn’t called fascism, even though it’s moving in that direction. People think, “Oh, it couldn’t be fascism here,” because they think of it in terms of Nazi style or Brazilian style, but they all have a different style. And this would be fascism American style. That’s what worries me.