After writing Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile (Grossman) in 1965, Nader's name became an immediate cause for hand-wringing in Washington and in the boardrooms of corporate America.
PHOTO: VINCE MANNINO/CORBIS
This Ralph Nader interview on consumer rights provides some eye-opening facts about the pharmaceutical industry, the auto industry and presidential candidates.
Ralph Nader has been hammering away at the traditional way of dealing with America's political problems since 1963, when at the age of 29 he abandoned his law practice and hitchhiked to Washington, D.C. After writing Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile (Grossman) in 1965, his name became an immediate cause for hand-wringing in Washington and in the boardrooms of corporate America. Founder of many consumer's rights organizations and often presidential candidate for the Green Party, Nader was good enough to spend an afternoon with us.
Ralph Nader Interview On Consumer Rights
I was reading what I assumed to be a very unofficial "Ralph Nader for President" Web site today when I came across a passage suggesting that you ought to be pictured in the encyclopedia next to the entry "consumer advocate." I'm wondering if that is a legacy that you'd be comfortable with?
Sure. Because that's the ultimate measure of an economy's performance. Those who consider all the ways that we can measure an economy, from conception to manufacturing, indices to sales to profits, often leave out the well-being of the consumer. So what's it all for? As Adam Smith once said, "The end of all production is consumption." If consumers are economically well-off, if their health and safety are protected, that is the best final measure of an economic system. It not only reflects the quantitative size of an economy, it reflects its distributive justice.
So consumer advocacy is a means of invigorating the capitalist process?
Well, let's examine the way we predominantly measure a company's performance. Let's say you asked the pharmaceutical industry, "Was last year a good year?" They'd say, "Yeah." Then ask them, "Why?" They'd say, "Well, sales and profits are up." That's measuring the pharmaceutical industry from the pharmaceutical sellers point of view. Now let's measure it from the health consumers point of view. The questions would be: "Are the prices of medicines lower than last year and are fewer people ill?" Or "Are fewer diseases or more diseases prevented?" Those questions reflect an entirely different point of view . . . ours. And our perspective should be the ultimate measure of what a pharmaceutical industry is about. The same with the auto companies. If you ask them their assessment of last year, they would jump around and exclaim that sales and profits are up. From a consumer evaluation of that part of our economy, a large portion of us might ask, "Can I get from point A to B faster? Cheaper? With less pollution?"
Frankly, Detroit has us puzzled. On the one hand, the manufacturers are simply responding to our appetite for ever-larger cars and SUVs. In most companies, responsibility ends where consumer needs begin. Yet for decades they've had the burden of a moral mandate to be responsible in their design. What do you think of the rebirth of the 15-mile-per-gallon family truckster?
The SUVs represent the worst of Detroit. It's back to the '50s "superhorse" power mania. Only in this case it's size and wasteful fuel systems. The odd part is that they are, by and large, not safe. More and more studies are saying that the tendency to tip over in an accident is vastly underreported, not to mention the threat they pose to smaller car drivers. Five thousand pounds of SUV hitting a Chevy Neon... at window height where the traditional car frame is weakest? You can imagine the consequences. And of course in terms of fuel efficiency, SUVs are a horror. But Detroit sells them because we want them, and because they make more profit on them per vehicle.
Of the nearly 100 Green Party candidates who are scheduled to run in the next election cycle, your name is absent. Are your Presidential aspirations on the shelf for 2000?
I'm going to make a decision soon on that one.
What leaps to mind immediately when I ask you about either the environmental records specifically or the records in general of the Presidential candidates? George Bush Jr.?
Terrible. Just look at Texas. He has done very little to address either air quality or water quality problems statewide. Communities all along the Rio Grande are seriously exposed to contaminants. He's done nothing on pesticides.
Okay, Bill Bradley?
An unknown quantity in my opinion. Interestingly, it strikes that even the Civil Rights record that he pretends to trumpet is virtually nonexistent. His congressional record is just too slim. He's better than Gwethmugh.
In what sense?
He's more authentic, less willing, at least rhetorically, to succumb to corporate power and pressure. i think he knows who he is a bit more than the rest of the major current candidates. It's been said that Gore knows who he is, but doesn't know where he's going. Well if you don't know where you're going, you don't know who you are. I suppose the process of recovering from a presidential administration that's had its share of scandals means reinterpreting yourself. Perhaps too much.
I suppose we've just covered Al Gore then.
Gore's political career has been all downhill since he left the Senate. He has sabotaged his own book [Earth in the Balance (Plume, 1993)]. He's surrendered to the nuclear industry . . . to the auto industry . . . to the pesticide industry and the biotechnology industry. He seems to have no independent critical capacity And when you read his book it's even more stunning to see how he's mutated himself into a corporate toady.
Corporate toady? That'll probably be left off his campaign literature.
How's this one? Although he called the motor vehicle one of the major threats to the global environment in his book in 1992, he and Clinton have not proposed, never mind pushed, a single increase in fuel economy for automobiles.
And do you attribute that simply to pressure from Detroit?
Well, the deal he cut with Detroit in August '93 called the "Clean Engine Program Partnership" is a great example. Sounds great, right? Well, the deal means that the taxpayer puts in a billion dollars over five or six years and Detroit puts in malarkey in order to develop a super-efficient engine. Six years later and Detroit hasn't produced anything except a couple of technical articles. And in return for cutting that deal Detroit got the wink from the Clinton-Gore administration that there would be no pressure to increase fuel efficiency standards.
The last presidential candidate I wanted to ask you about is McCain.
McCain is not predictable, which means on some issues he's quite good and on other issues he's bad.. He's bad on torts. He's had on regulation for health and safety. He's not good on environment. He has a good voting record on tobacco reform and he's good on modest campaign finance reform. He does listen. I mean he's the type of guy who you can go down into his office, sit with him, and he does listen to you.
Bad temper notwithstanding . . .
Well, Clinton has a terrible temper.
If you were given the magic 100 days in which to presidentially advance environmental causes, would you begin in any particular direction?
Sure. I'd facilitate the American people's willingness to join in.
By putting inserts in government mailings. And posters in post offices all around the country and in government installations. I d make some major pronouncements. You know, Clinton and Gore have not made a major speech on renewable energy even though Gore has filled his book with paeans to it. Imagine? Never made a statement on solar!
Any other initiatives?
Well, as far as renewable energy is concerned, I'd convert more government procurement to buy photovoltaic's in order to increase the demand and decrease the unit cost of production and expand civilian markets. The Navy is already installing 20,000 photovoltaic's in remote locations for economic reasons, not just environmental reasons. And if the Pentagon did that generally . . . you'd see an even further acceleration of the photovoltaic marketplace
Anything else come to mind.
Endless things. I'd move toward national advances in home, auto and industrial fuel efficiency, better motor vehicles and lighting systems, better building with recycled materials, better heating and air-conditioning. We already have all kinds of models way in advance of the conventional status quo. It's time to use these models, which work, are economic and accelerate the pace. A quick example is the limitless possibilities of industrial hemp This plant has been used for over 2,000 years and has 50.000 proven uses.
. . . and is unrelated to marijuana.
Of course, of course. Pretty soon we won't even have to mention that qualifier because the public will have an understanding of it. Canada is already growing tens of thousands of acres. So are France and China. We re importing over $300 million worth of clothes and other products made from industrial hemp but we can't grow it here.
And it doesn't deplete the soil.
It doesn't deplete the soil. It doesn't require a lot of pesticides or water. And above all it launches the drive where carbohydrates begin to replace hydrocarbons as sources of fuel. It can be used for lubricants . . . it can be used for paper. But we haven't heard much about it because there is no real leadership in Washington. They're all cowards, corporate cowards, corporate indentured cowards. I mean, there's a great America to be developed out there. It's a great future, but protect the planet first. Ultimately, it's not even immediately efficient for a steel mill to dump its waste into a river and make everyone else pay for it. That's internal efficiency, but it's global and ecological inefficiency We have just got to stop this charade that these corporations are efficient. They're grossly inefficient.
Who is going to remake industrial America? I've often heard you state that young people are more and more dangerously apolitical. Do you think that is still true?
Well, yes, with some exceptions. The vernacular is, "I'm not interested in politics." Well, my answer to young people is: If you continue to not be interested in politics, the system will simply turn on you. That's the lesson of history.
Are you saying that it will take the equivalent of a national political disaster to shake young people loose?
Or an ecological disaster. Another, more enormous disaster of the Exxon Valdez variety. That certainly awakened a lot of young people. But the problem is we're losing ground every day.
We don't report disasters if they're daily occurrences . . . only if they're episodic. For example, 65,000 people a year in this country die prematurely from air pollution. That's not considered a disaster because it happens quietly every day. Every day we're losing more topsoil down the Mississippi. That's not considered a disaster even though were losing huge tonnage that is not replaceable.
And yet you sound hopeful.
Of course. because if you see what's been done in the past with just a few active people and then consider what can be done in the future with more people, you'd be a fool not to be optimistic. But the problem with people who are very concerned about the state of the world and other injustices is that they become experts in the rationalization of their fertility. Say you're having a sandwich with three or four environmentally minded types. The initial diagnosis is always brilliant. Someone will tell you about this bill and this contamination and this carcinogen. Dioxin, pesticides, hydrocarbons, right?
If memory serves . . .
And by the time you are half-done eating lunch you're analyzing who the polluters are and who the weak members of the government are and which agencies are habitually non-enforcing and this and that. By the time you're all finished, the only thing that you've convinced yourself of is that you're up against overwhelming odds. That may be smart thinking, but it's lazy. Just do one thing, locally, something within your grasp. Work from there.
Do you see the Internet as an unlimited bastion for free expression or another medium that ultimately will be regulated and then dominated by a super few?
It'll be both. But what it will be, most importantly, is a space for citizen communication mobilization. I mean obviously it's becoming commercialized very rapidly and adopting the negatives of deceptive advertising and so forth But unlike the other media, which shut out people-radio, TV the newspapers - this one will not be able to do that. It is an informational resource with huge possibilities. And, unlike TV, it can make a democracy work better.
Thanks very much.
For more information on Mr. Nader, his consumer advocacy groups and the Green Party, write to: The Public Citizen, Washington, DC, or log onto www.citizen.org.