by Ralph Nader

8 June 1999

The burst of merger mania in the auto industry, banking, broadcasting, newspapers, airlines, and even hospitals inspired Ray Suarez, the host of National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation, to let Ralph Nader sound off. And he did.

Suarez agreed with Nader, the founder of Public Citizen and advocate of organized citizen and consumer action, that growing corporate influence over government regulatory authority is partly the result of the retreat of a disengaged citizenry. But Nader said it so well that, with NPR's permission, we're offering excerpts from this hour-long broadcast session. For space reasons we've omitted the Suarez comments and the program's caller questions.

And note that Nader mentions some little-known organizations and publications that offer help to people in reviving their civic activity. Those boldface below are listed at the end, with addresses.

In the last 20 years there's been an enormous resurgence of corporate power in our country. And increasingly, these corporations, their lobbies, their corporate law firms and their campaign money have taken over the government. I mean, we're fighting every day just to try getting a safety feature here a little attention to stopping consumer fraud there.

Whether it's Congress or the executive branch, the corporations are swarming over Washington, grabbing off huge tax breaks. Corporate welfare is far greater than poverty welfare and is basically pillaging the taxpayers' assets. Corporations pay hardly anything for their exploitation of resources on public lands. And 80 percent of the money in politics, at the federal level, is business money.

And as for law enforement, look at the Justice Department. They hardly have a budget to go against corporate crime, fraud and abuse. Every two weeks, the Corporate Crime Reporter reports on all kinds of shenanigans, along with, I might say, the Wall Street Journal and Barron's Financial Weekly, and sometimes 60 Minutes and National Public Radio.

It isn't that all these things are not being reported; it's that very little is being done about them. And if people look at their roles in a democracy, their votes are often nullified by money in politics. If they're a worker, they have very few labor rights anymore. If they're a taxpayer, they have to fund corporate welfare programs, from athletic stadiums at home to agribusiness and the military contracting interests across the nation. All kinds of other industries get subsidies, giveaways and bailouts, like the savings-and-loan bailout.

THE BANKS--What is the real purpose of these mergers? They certainly are going to enrich the top executives enormously. But these giant conglomerates are more impersonal. You talk more to machines than to human beings. They've been known to charge you more than smaller banks or credit unions. And they attain enormous power to require you, as taxpayers, to bail them out when they get into trouble.

Small businesses are less likely to get loans from big banks. The Federal Reserve has shown that. What's going to happen to poor areas in our cities when you have these big conglomerates that no longer want the business of lower income people? A lot of people who go to bank have small accounts. They're terribly treated because the banks don't really want them. That's why the check-cashing stores are booming.

There are big banks in America today where if you bring a U.S. Treasury check made out to you and you don't have an account at the bank, they'll charge you $5.00 to cash the check, or 2 percent of the check, whichever is greater. Well, that Treasury check's never going to bounce. These big banks are very arrogant.

Corruption has weakened the unions, but corporations seem to be strengthened by it. There's a corporate crime wave in our country, documented by the General Accounting Office and the Wall Street Journal almost every day. And we don't crack down. No politician runs on a platform that he or she is going to be tough on corporate crime, fraud and abuse. And that corporate violence is preventable, from medical malpractice, to pollution, to unsafe products. It is greater than street crime and petty larceny -- far bigger in terms of the money taken from people.

CITIZENSHIP--Citizen cynicism is a corrosive asset of democracy. Yet democracy is the only instrument we know of that can comprehensively build a happier, more prosperous society. That's why a lot of people like democracy -- in theory. But when they become cynical they no longer practice it. They don't join local groups. They don't participate in electoral campaigns.

If citizens don't turn on government, government is going to turn on them, because goverment has become a pawn of big business. What we have in Washington is a mega-corporate takeover of our government, and a turning of our government against us, diverting our tax dollars -- wasting our tax dollars -- not enforcing the law against corporate hazards and corporate pollution.

The countervailing institutions, whether they are trade unions, cooperatives or independents at universities, are no longer performing their counterailing roles. The church lost alot of its stature when it went into bingo, and then it couldn't speak against all the gambling that's sweeping the country. We have an economy in which the three fastest-growing industries are prison construction, temporary employment and gambling casinos.

And while everyone on Wall Street and in the White House is praising this great economy of ours, the Department of Labor is telling us that 80 percent of workers have been slipping behind over the last 25 years, adjusted for inflation, and almost 25 percent of children now grow up in poverty. We've got alot of hopelessness and bad housing stock. Consumer debt is at a record high. Consumer bankruptcy is at a record high.

We've got huge trade deficits -- we've got huge deficits that we owe other countries. But then they tell us, "Hey, this is a great economy."

Well, look at the schools, the sewage treatment systems and the drinking water; the bridges, the railroads, mass transit -- they're not being repaired. And that's because we've let the corporations control the yardsticks for measuring progress instead of having our own yardsticks. Can a society say an economy is great when one out of four children is growing up in dire poverty?

Certainly the 25 percent of the American people who are living in poverty are not saying, "Its working for me." Certainly, the people who are laid off from industrial jobs that are going to Mexico or China are not saying, "It works for me." Yet we've got a top 10 or 15 percent of our population, which John Kenneth Galbraith called the "contented class," who pretty much shape opinion in this country. Not to mention the top 1 percent, who have wealth equal to the bottom 90 percent.

WHAT TO DO -- How does the citizen get involved? In hundreds of ways. First of all, there are alot of groups back home -- the Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst, Illinois, is one--that loves to have volunteers to build democracy. This then radiates all the way back to Washington. We have a community advocacy group in Winsted, Connecticut, the Office of the Community Lawyer for citizens who want to get invovled, but who don't know how to get involved or feel that the jargon is too technical.

It all starts with your own self-confidence as a citizen. If you think you count, if you believe that you can fight city hall and you can fight Exxon and General Motors, that means you're going to give more time to your citizen activities.

Let's take Congress. If a mere 500 people in each Congressional district -- that's one-tenth of one percent of the average district population -- are organized into a citizen watchdog group, bringing members of Congress back for accountability sessions in high school auditoriums and distributing their voting records, we'd have a tremendous impact on Congress.

If we know the history of the United States of America, the great forward progress began with a handful of people. You want to talk about "up against the odds"? Six women in a farmhouse in 1846 in upstate New York started the women's right-to-vote movement. A few sit-down workers in the auto plants in Michigan started trade union organizing in heavy industry in the 1930s. A few people started the movement against slavery -- abolition.

When you look back and you see what our forebears did, you feel sort of foolish when you say to yourself: "Well, you can't improve America today."

Another thing is our website: I think you'll get a lot of materials there on how to improve your citizen skills. And we put out a book, which I hope is in your library, called Good Works: A Guide to Social Change Careers. It gives you profiles of a thousand citizen groups all over the country, with addresses and phone numbers.

And rest assured, there are people in this country who are winning. Lois Gibbs and her 6000 groups against toxic dumps in the Center for Health, Environment and Justiceare winning again and again. The trouble is that the media describe reformist failures and street crime far more than the citizen victories that would lift your morale.

BOYCOTT SLAVE LABOR -- Nike went to Korea and set up factories, then they left the factories empty and went to Indonesia. Now they're moving to Vietnam. In Indonesia they were paying $1.70 a day. In Vietnam, they're paying a few cents an hour. But look at the price of Nike shoes in the USA. You don't see a drop in prices.

Whenever they say, "Well, it really gives the consumer a break," it may, or it may not. But they should have to prove it. They go to these foreign countries and they cut deals with less reputable local firms that hire child labor -- brutalize child labor -- and they produce rugs and other equipment that show up in stores in the U.S.

Most times you can't tell if its produced by brutalized child labor. In the carpet area, they're beginning to label it. The Council on Economic Priorities in New York City puts out a little booklet that tries to evaluate the social responsibility of different countries.

There was a poll recently in which people said they would refuse to buy products made by child labor abroad, even if it cost them more to buy the alternative. So I think what we need is more point-of-sale information, more accurate information to the consumer, more consumer groups in effect trying to redirect purchasing away from the bad guys toward the good guys.

ENLISTING THE VIOLATORS -- Can we condition the charter that the state governments give corporations so that they behave better? One way is to demand that every corporation that gets subsidized by the taxpayer -- and large corporations are almost all in that category -- have to put in their billing envelopes, whether it's a bank statement or insurance bill, brokerage or cable-TV bill, an address inviting people to join their consumer action groups.

That occurred in Illinois in the electric, gas and water utility area. And when these consumer-group envelops began appearing in the bills that companies sent to residential rate-payers, 200,000 people joined. This group, called the Citizen Utility Board, has its own lawyers and accountants and organizers, and they've saved billions of dollars in unjustified rate hikes, including negotiating with Commonwealth Edison in 1993 for a $1.3 billion refund to rate payers for overcharging them for the excess generating capacity of their nuclear power plants.

Remember, some members of Congress help get the auto safety bill through. Cars are much safer now. Many, many lives have been saved. And there are alot of stories like that around. But if people don't see them on the evening news -- if they don't read about them in the newspapers -- they can really get demoralized.

But there are national groups that can help you, like the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides or the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which deal with food safety.

GIMME, GIMME -- There is an institutional insanity coursing through the allocation of the federal budget under the rapacious pressure of corporate interests that want more and more subsidies, more and more giveaways, more and more of the taxpayers' assets.

If this is the kind of system we're going to have, where a few men at the top of these big corporations get us into speculative frenzies overseas with dictators and local business oligarchies, and Uncle Sam has to bail them out, then let's stop calling these corporations capitalist. They are corporate socialists. They basically have an open-ended insurance policy in Washington, in the name of Uncle Sam. And if we admit that this is the system we have, then let's take away some of the power from these few executives who are getting us into this kind of mess, and who then run to Washington for a bailout.

Let's give workers more power. Let's give shareholders more power. Let's give consumers more power. And above all, let's give taxpayers more power. That's what I mean. Big Corporations are on a collision course with this kind of improved democracy. And right now, unfortunately, corporations are winning.

The resources groups cited by Ralph Nader

Center for Health, Environment and Justice
P.O. Box 6806
Falls Church, VA 22040
Lois Gibbs, Director

Center for Science in the Public Interest
1875 Connecticut Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20009
(202) 332-9110

Citizen Advocacy Center
238 North York Road
Elmhurst, IL 60126
Theresa Amato, Director

Citizens Utility Board
208 S. LaSalle Street, #1760
Chicago, IL 60604

Corporate Crime Reporter
1209 Natonal Press Building
Washington, DC 20045
(202) 737-1680
Editor Russell Mokhiber says subscriptions cost $795 a year, but go on a "sliding scale" to some and are free to those who provide examples of corporate crime.

Council on Economic Priorities
30 Irving Place, 9th floor
New York, NY 10003

Good Works: A Guide to Social Change Careers
P.O. Box 19405
Washington, DC 20036
$24 includes shipping.

National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pestivides
701 E Street S.E.
Washington, DC 20003
(202) 543-5450
"Pesticides and You" no charge.

Office of the Commuity Lawyer
P.O. Box 1044
Winsted, CT 06098
Charles LaVoie, Director

Ralph Nader's web site:
It includes a long list of other Internet addresses and books.

Another Point of View

"So the question is, do corporate executives, provided they stay within the law, have responsibilities in their business activities other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible? And my answer is, no they do not."

-- Milton Friedman, Nobel Prize-winning conservative economist

Reprinted, with thanks, to theWashington Spectator, Volume 24, No. 11, June 1, 1998. Please contact The Washington Spectator website for background information on this excellent and informative publication as well as information on how to subscribe. They're always interested in having new readers brought into the fold.

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