UPSIZING DOWNSIZED AMERICANS
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
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
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
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
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
Another thing is our website: http://www.essential.org 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
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
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
The resources groups cited by Ralph Nader
Center for Health, Environment and Justice Another Point of View
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
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
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
"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.
"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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