The Monthly Interview: Ralph Nader

In his new book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, the consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader argues that on many issues, from undeclared wars to unprosecuted Wall Street crimes, liberal and conservative citizens increasingly agree with each other, and that, by working together, they can take back Washington. After Washington Monthly contributing editor Timothy Noah wrote a respectful, if skeptical, review of Nader’s book for the Washington Post, we asked him to sit down with Nader for a wide-ranging interview.

Here’s an edited version of that conversation.

Tim Noah: This is a very polarized moment in American politics. Can we expect politicians to bargain in good faith?
Ralph Nader: Polarization is a controlling process. It is instinctual in ruling groups in any culture. You try to divide and rule. When you get down to where people live, work, and raise their families, if a strong appeal is made that’s empirically based—like people getting killed in auto crashes before seat belts—the ideological labels that people put on themselves tend to shrink away.

TN: Do you buy into the notion that Republicans obstruct more than Democrats?
RN: I don’t have the answer to the breed of Republicanism that is on Capitol Hill. I don’t know where these guys come from, other than totally gerrymandered districts.

TN: Democrats are very insulated as well, and you aren’t seeing the same tendency toward extremism there.
RN: Not yet. The Republicans are proactive and the Democrats are reactive. And that reverberates [with] the voters. And that’s why there are far more “least-worst” voters on the progressive-liberal side.

TN: What do you mean by “least-worst”?
RN: “Least-worst” means even if they hate the corporate Democrats, they will vote for them because the Republicans are worse. [But] the Democrats are more corporate than I’ve ever seen on Capitol Hill, by and large.

TN: I would guess that a great deal of the Tea Party agenda scares corporate America to death, and pushes it into the arms of Democrats. For example, it doesn’t want to see the Export-Import Bank shut down.
RN: Yeah, that started before the Tea Party. I mean Clinton, the Clintons were perfect examples of corporate Democrats. He wrote the blueprint.

TN: Let’s talk about “too big to fail.” There’s a very interesting ideological convergence there, because conservatives don’t want to have to bail out the banks again. Do you see any hope of limiting the size of banks?
RN: Yeah. I think both sides see that once the economy is on the cliff due to Wall Street, they can’t say no [to a bailout]. And that’s why I think you’re up to almost 90 percent in support of breaking up the big banks.

TN: So how do you get over that hump in Congress? It seems part of what’s happened is that the Democrats have chased Wall Street into the arms of Republicans. And the Republican leadership is taking a doctrinaire pro-Wall Street position that’s at odds with conservative thinking.
RN: That’s right. Congress is the last to get the message of this book. And, you know, Obama raised more money from Wall Street than any presidential candidate, including McCain. I think what we are seeing here is, increasingly, both parties are blocking massive public opinion that hasn’t gone operational yet, except here and there. For example, it’s about to go operational, if the Trans-Pacific [Partnership] agreement is sent to the House, they have a left-right majority to block fast track. It went operational on the [2012] Whistleblower Protection [Enhancement] Act, against the corporate lobbies that hated it. It’s going to be victorious on [raising the] minimum wage.

TN: You think so?
RN: You already have six companies that say they will go for it or they won’t oppose it. McDonald’s, Walmart, and Target are already on board. The Gap. You don’t need many more for the tipping point.

TN: Why do you think these corporations are coming around?
RN: We met with Walmart twice. And we said, “Do you know what $30 billion will do to our economy? Where do you think a lot of these low-wage workers who just got a restoration will spend their money? They’re going to spend it at Walmart.” Walmart’s big problem is stagnant sales. And they put out a comment a few weeks ago saying it’s because people don’t have enough money!
The other thing is turnover. They have huge turnover, which is costly, even though they have part-time work. [As a result,] they don’t have [high productivity,] as Costco [does]. Costco starts at $11.50 plus benefits. It is finally getting through to them. But the subtext of this is that it’s easier than we think to change this country on issue after issue after issue.

TN: We know about the fast-food workers who are getting underpaid, but there’s also the plight of the franchise owners. The contract terms that they have to sign on to are unbelievable. The failure rate of franchisees is actually higher than the failure rate for other small businesses.
RN: Well, back in the ’50s, the auto dealers were in that situation. And they mobilized, and they got the Dealers Day in Court Act. So they have a stronger statutory basis. But it’s restricted to auto dealer contracts. The others have never been able to organize.

TN: And there’s this interesting cultural divide, too. The franchisees are usually Republicans. They in effect are trying to form unions of their own, and the big fast-food companies are trying to prevent them from doing that, sometimes making it contractually forbidden. That’s a good example of what you are writing about in your book. What stands between franchisees and minimum-wage workers—two groups that ought to be natural allies—is nothing more than ideology.
RN: What’s more conservative than freedom of contract? It’s one of the pillars of a free society. Both sides [should] get to negotiate a contract. It’s not just a take-it-or-leave-it deal from one side.

TN: You talk a lot about corporatism in your book, and it’s never clear to me whether you’re talking about an actual ideology.
RN: [Large corporations] have one thing in common. To use their benign phrasing, they want predictability. To get predictability, they have to have control. To get control, they have to try to control markets through joint ventures, cartels, monopolization, all the techniques that are known and permitted by our Justice Department.
What are the countervailing forces? Number one is government. If they can control government as the principal challenger to corporate power, both directly and how it can empower trade unions, consumer groups, access to Department of Justice actions, they’re at third base in so many ways.

TN: So what you’re describing is not really an ideology. It’s merely the exercise of power.
RN: It’s a strategy that doesn’t want to go to ideological levels visibly, because then it’s more vulnerable. The one thing corporations have learned is: Do not present a visible coherent strategy of domination, because then you’ll provoke all sorts of counterforces, you make it easy for people to go after you. What you do is you keep talking free market, you keep talking free enterprise, you keep talking overregulation.
Corporatism inside the boardroom is the feeling that the people best able to run the political economy are the rich and powerful. They got rich and powerful because they are smart, they are goal oriented, because their success is society’s success.

TN: Final question: What’s the best-run government program you know about, either current or historic?
RN: You’re dealing with somebody who has higher expectations than normal. By the way, you know why government gets a bad rap? Because the right wing beats up on it all the time, and the left is never satisfied with the agencies, because they’re so routinely succumbing to corporate pressure. So there’s nobody praising government.
I can say the auto safety standards—the early ones—were very successful. I could say that we haven’t had a thalidomide scandal since the thalidomide disaster occurred in western Europe [around 1960]. You know, something’s working, given the proliferation of drugs. I can say lead mostly has been eliminated from the environment—it’s less present in your blood now, and in children’s blood. Other agencies in the top tier would be the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, the Coast Guard, the U.S. Forest Service (apart from the pressures from the timber industry), the under-budgeted National Park Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—to name a few.
We’ve got these cars recalled. We have less deadly toxic pollutants in many rivers. You can actually fish in certain lakes. But let’s face it: the companies never let go of these regulatory agencies, and they never let go of the contracting agencies like Medicare and the Pentagon. And they never let go of the granting agencies like the Interior Department. So I have to go segment by segment. Now, it may surprise you that one of the success stories, which is being seriously slandered, is the U.S. Postal Service, throughout history.

TN: Success story prior to its being privatized?
RN: Prior and after. If it wasn’t burdened with huge annual prepayments for retirement and health insurance—monstrous prepayments—in the last two, three years it would have broken even, even with the recession and the Internet. You’re talking about getting buffeted by UPS and FedEx, buffeted by the Internet and emailing, and buffeted by the recession.
I know its warts, but consider this: it’s the only giant corporation I know of in America that is a creditor of the U.S. government. A net creditor. The U.S. government owes the Postal Service about $60 billion. Now, the Postal Service has borrowed, because it’s defaulted on the payment—they’re about $15 billion in the red. But if you set it off against what the government owes the Postal Service, it is a net creditor. Now show me any other company. Show me General Electric. They’re all getting corporate welfare! Intel’s on welfare, Cisco’s on welfare, it’s the R&D credit. They have to pay them to do R&D! Boeing is on welfare, General Electric … but corporatists are always slamming the Postal Service again and again. The morale must be pretty bad. Talk to your postal person. It’s really low morale.

TN: Do you have a position on Saturday delivery?
RN: Continue it, because [otherwise] people won’t post anything on Thursday.
If they just were a little more revenue oriented—first of all, they’re not managed properly. It’s what my sergeant said in the Army: “You know, you guys, with all your bitching, let me tell you something about the Army. It’s a system devised by geniuses so that it can be run by idiots like you.” [Laughter.]
Corporate officials and privatizers dominate the USPS board of directors—talk about conflicts of interest! And that’s been under Democrats and Republicans. Number two, the head of the Postal Service, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe and his predecessor, it’s like they can’t think of saying, How do you increase revenue? And one way is better management at the local level so small businesses don’t have to wait in line so much; but the others are, for example, they can’t deliver beer and wine because Congress tells them they can’t deliver beer and wine. The USPS doesn’t have much of a lobby on Capitol Hill. If it wasn’t for the unions, they would have virtually no lobby. So in spite of that, you put a letter in the mail, and it goes to Seattle or Alexandria for the same price, and it gets there! I think it’s being subjected to extensive preventable erosions—it’s amazing, the system that was put in place, starting with Benjamin Franklin.

Timothy Noah

Timothy Noah is the labor policy editor at Politico, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, and the author of The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.