I first posted this essay in 2008. My purpose was to argue that what Ralph Nader lacks is expertise on nuclear technology. That expertise should be required of anyone designated to speak on this subject.
The story goes that Ralph Nader's unemployed, high school graduate
brother was able to save enough pennies on his own in the early 1970's,
that he could afford to purchase a $100,000 home in an exclusive Washington
neighborhood. Of course, Ralph was repeatedly seen sneaking into the
house at night, but hay, he was only there to visit his brother, right?
Later the deed to the house found its way into the hands of my former
boss, Nader's sister Claire. Everyone knew that Ralph had rented a
single room with a bathroom down the hall. For many years, everyone knew that Ralph
lived a lifestyle which made Mother Teresa's lifestyle look luxurious in contrast.
Nader family comes from a part of the world where Christians consider
Simeon Stylites to have been a great saint. Stylites spent 37 years
very publicly perched on top of a pillar, as a manifestation of his
saintliness. Stylites lived at a time when the Manichean world view was
fashionable. Manichean's divided the world into good and evil, and
sought to avoid the latter. Although Stylites was not a Manichean,
perching on his pillar might have appeared a good way to avoid evil. Of
course, if you spend 37 years on a pillar, you have to be crazy.
It probably never occurred to Stylites that the truly horrible way he
treated himself was evil and that drawing attention to what he was doing
was a sin. Tempting others to follow his example was also a sin.
Ralph Nader did not perch on a pillar, but he did claim residence in
that single room for many years.
Yet, despite his public
image, Nader is no saint. He is a businessman who shrewdly uses his
public image as part of his business plan. It all started
with Nader's expose of the American Motor Industry, "Unsafe at any
Speed." Nader was a lawyer, and "Unsafe at any Speed" was a trial
lawyer's brief against the auto manufactures. There were serious flaws
in Nader's case. Nader argued, in effect, that auto manufacturers were
responsible for the safety defects of American cars, and this certainly
seems plausible. There is a problem however, with Nader's arguments.
First Ford Motors had during the 1950's attempted to sell cars on the
basis of superior safety. They had offered optional safety features to
the public such as seat belts. But Ford quickly discovered that the public was more
interested in bigger engines and flashier tail fins than in safety.
The Ford effort to sell cars on the basis of safety fell flat. Thus
the auto manufactures shared responsibility for poor auto safety with
the American public which was not interested in safety features or a
Secondly, Nader picked out the Chevrolet
Corvair as his center piece of unsafe cars. In fact, the Corvair was
not conspicuously unsafe. Indeed, Nader himself does not appear to have
believed that the Corvair was so unsafe that he would not ride in one.
Nader was once riding in a Corvair when the driver was ticketed for
speeding. Nader worried that the ticket along with Nader's presence in
the car would become public knowledge.
introduced the Corvair as an economy car in 1960. It was powered by a rear air cooled engine. There were many attractive features to the
Corvair design but the choice of a rear swing axle was questionable.
The swing axle had been used in popular and widely admired German cars
like the VW Beetle, the sporty Porsche and the luxurious Mercedes.
Mercedes had found problems with the swing axle and had first modified
it and eventually scrapped it. In the hands of most drivers the swing
axle posed little danger. But when driven hard, a rear tire on a swing
axle car could suddenly loose it's grip, with a sudden loss of control.
During the early 1960's most American cars had handling problems.
Motorist were more interested in highway acceleration than rapid
maneuverability. In fact, sophisticated drivers actually liked the
nimbleness of the Corvair, and were aware that it should not be pushed
too hard. General Motors, already had modified the design of the Corvair
rear suspension in 1965, giving the Corvair the safest and most
sophisticated rear suspension built on any American car. Thus, by the
time of "Unsafe at any Speed" Nader's argument was no longer on target.
This did not matter to Nader, who basked in the glow of the resulting
Although Nader's tactics were questionable,
his results were unquestionable. In 1966 Congress past new auto safety
legislation. Thus, Nader had accomplished what neither auto
manufactures nor consumers had been able to accomplish, making cars
safer. In the process, he had become a recognized and admired public
figure. Few of his admirers noted that Nader had simplified complex
issues and had focused far to much blame on the auto companies for
problems that were inherent in the market. Nader supporters also failed
to notice that the improvements in auto safety were incremental rather
It was part of Nader's genius,
that he next moved to franchise reform. Past reformers had picked out
one reform issue, and attacked it, working for change. Nader next
picked out the meat packing industry for attack. Meat packing is an
easy target. Consumers do not want to know what happened to their Sunday
beef roast on it's way from being in the body of a live cow to it's
arrival on the dinner table. But from time to time reformers such as
Upton Sinclair pull back the curtain and everyone agrees that the
picture is awful. Laws and rules are past. Meat packers agree to do
better, and then as soon as the reformers back is turned, the meat
packing industry returns to it's wicked but profitable ways.
Nader briefly targeted the meat
packing industry, but to dwell too much on the problems of the meat
packers would have inevitably invited comparison to the still living
Upton Sinclair, the author of the famous 1907 reformist novel, "The
Jungle." Sinclair had created so much horror and shock, that the
prostrate meat packing industry begged Congress to be regulated as a
means of getting America to stop eating vegetables.
Motors tried to smear Nader, and Nader responded by suing GM and
winning. He used the money to start the first Public Interest Research
Group in Washington. The now famous Nader received speaking invitations
from all over the country, and he made guest appearance on numerous TV
At this point, numerous people flocked to
Washington to help Nader and his crusade. Next, Nader the reformer
and Nader the business man began to diverge. Although Nader portrayed
himself as an enemy of the excess of capitalism, as soon as Nader
controlled organizations began to acquire employees, Nader began to
exploit them. The pay was pitiful, the hours long. Nader's
organizations were raking in money, but where was it going? Certainly
not for wages. Nader reportedly only received a pittance, $5,000, then
$10,000 and even later $15,000 a year was all that Nader received for
his unrelenting toil for the American people. Poverty explained why he only rented a
single room and did not own a car. Nader appeared to have no life. He
reportedly worked 20 hours a day, 7 days a week. He did not go on dates
or to parties. One has to wonder if he ever bothered to eat. In that
regard Nader did Simeon Stylites one better, because Stylites' life was
so public, he was always observed eating.
of course the matter of the house. Nader had speaking fees. Perhaps
he had used some of his speaking fees to purchase a house for his poor,
under achieving, and under educated brother. When asked to perform
services for others, like public speaking engagements, Nader expects limousines, expense account tabs, and nothing but the best hotels. Now I am not saying that Nader is not entitled to this, but it flies in the face of his carefully cultivated public image.
was the matter of money and stocks. 99% of non profit organizations
are strapped for cash. Most pay workers decent but not excessive wages.
Nader had absolute and secret control of the finances of each of his
growing organizations. What was he doing with the money? In 1970 some
unusual financial transactions by one of Nader's organizations, the
Public Safety Research Institute, got some equally unusual attention.
Nader's Public Safety Research Institute was audited by the IRS and
fined. The IRS discovered that the PSRI was wheeling and dealing on the
stock market. With $150,000 in assets PSRI had engaged in 67 trades
involving $750,000. Many of these trades were highly risky. Some lost
money. The IRS determined that Nader had been churning PSRI money.
That is, making such frequent trades that brokerage fees were diminishing
the organization's resources. Nader was playing the market with money
donated for the improvement of consumer safety. Nader was not above using the influence of his consumer interest activities to influence the value of stocks on which he speculated.
are a number of inconsistencies between the business practices which
Nader advocates for other businesses, and his own business practices.
For example, Nader advocates transparency for other businesses and government agencies. but Nader operated his own NPO's without the slightest transparency. Nader advocates business accountability enforced by government regulations, but ignored his own accountability standards in the business practices of non-profit organizations he controlled. Nader denounced the governance of numerous international trade organizations. "The fundamental issue we face is the autocratic systems of governance that undermine democracy," Nader stated.
Yet the governance of Nader's organizations was completely autocratic,
with absolutely no democratic mechanism of control. Nader advocates "the rights of people for decent standards of living," but pays his workers a pittance.
Nader denounced "giant global corporations who dominate and seek to dominate everything in their path" including "the
workplace." Yet Nader sought to dominate the workplace of his own
organizations. There are, what by now have become, legendary stories
about Nader's autocratic relationships with his workers. For example, in
1984 Nader fired Multinational Monitor editor Tim Shorrock
claiming that Shorrock had run a story about an alleged Bechtel's
bribery of South Korean officials. Shorrock's crime was a failure to
seek a prior Nader approval for the story. Shorrock's firing
precipitated a very ugly fight. Nader's aides filed a $1.2 million
civil suit against Shorrock and a couple of his supporters. Nader's
aides accused Shorrock of stealing files and filled charges with Washington, D.C., police.
tried to organize a union of Nader workers. Maggs told the Left
Business Observer, "Nader's campaign against me was incredibly vicious.
His top aides spread all kinds of rumors about me in Washington and
managed to get me pretty well blacklisted from the public interest crowd
(which actually was a good thing). They even tried to convince people I
was a communist (!!!) out to subvert Nader's organizations. " That is
right, Nader was an underhanded, totally unethical union buster. John
Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies, attempted to
mediate Nader's union problems and stated "He seemed unable to see how
this conflicted with his ideals." Cavanagh described Nader's anti-union
activities as shocking.
Nader supported affirmative action, but Charles Pekow
alleges that when he worked for Nader in the early 1980's the Nader
staff was all white, predominately young, male and from affluent social
a prolonged pre-employment period, Pekow was asked illegal questions
about his religion, his family background, and his medical history.
Many employees describe Nader's vindictiveness. According to Pekow, "Once,
after a magazine editor printed a few lines he did not like, Nader
punished him by demanding he travel from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore
to change the copy, knowing the editor had been up all night meeting his
Nader's tyrannical ways, his
miserly pay, and his demand that employees work unreasonable hours lead
to rapid staff turnover. Nader raged against leaving staff.
According to Pekow, when asked to provide recommendations for former
employees, Nader would describe the former staffer in negative terms.
of Nader's former employees, despite their mistreatment at Nader's
hands are still full of admiration for his accomplishments.
John Maggs accurately describes Ralph Nader as a businessman:
Nader isn't anti-business -- he is himself a businessman, a successful
entrepreneur who over the decades built an empire of nonprofit
corporations that sell things, earn money, pay their bills, and grow.
Like many founders, Nader has a great talent for marketing, and he's
helped create some well-regarded brands -- Public Citizen and Congress
Watch, for example. Likewise,
Nader isn't an enemy of capitalism, but of what he sees as one of
capitalism's regrettable byproducts -- the mega-corporation. His
campaign for president, like his 40-year career in public life, is based
on a belief that big and ever-bigger corporations are destroying what
should be a natural balance in our capitalistic society -- the balance
between consumer and producer, between citizen and government, and
between labor and management.
Nader may look like a democrat, smell like a populist, and sound like a
socialist - but deep down he's a frightened, petit bourgeois moralizer
without a political compass, more concerned with his image than the
movement he claims to lead: in short, an opportunist, a liberal hack.
And a scab."
Nader is something else. Let's
pretend we have Nader on the couch and are trying to make a psychiatric
diagnosis. We observe that Nader has a very grand sense of his own
importance, a sense which he has very successfully transmitted to his
society. Nader believes in his own infallibility, and the unquestionable
justice of his causes. Nader very often places himself in the
position of being the little guy taking on much bigger opponents.
He views himself on the side of good against evil. He has this
Manichean consciousness. This strict division of the world, into good
and evil;, right and wrong. Nader believes that he is special and that
he does not have to follow the rules he expects others to follow.
Nader actively and constantly courts admiration from others. He
manipulates his own public image in order to gain greater admiration.
He denied his own ordinariness, by pretending to live in a single room,
and denied that he owned a home. Nader demonstrated a strong sense of
entitlement by exercising total control over what were claimed to be
public service organizations. He also exhibited a sense of entitlement
by engaging in speculative investments of the funds of none profit
organizations. Nader has a long standing pattern of taking advantage of
his employees. He exploits them financially and violates their
boundary between work time and personal time. Nader demonstrates a lack
of empathy for his employees. And in the face of criticism, Nader is
inevitably arrogant. Would a psychiatrist see a diagnosable problem here?
noted that Ralph Nader launched his career by an attack on the safety of
the Corvair. In his discussion, Nader failed to note that highly
prestigious autos like the Mercedes and Porsche used the same suspension
design found in the Corvair. He failed to note that there was no
empirical evidence that there was a greater accident risk with Corvairs
than with other American cars. Finally Nader failed to note that
General Motors had already altered the Corvair suspension design. Thus
Nader cherry picked facts, to build his case. Nader functioned as an
advocate, rather than an objective reporter of facts. Nader's use
of facts was not fair, balanced, or unbiased. Nader's manipulation
of facts was also a manipulation of his own public image, since the
subtext was that he, Ralph Nader, was a little David fighting an evil
Goliath. This is consistent with Nader's personality.
ultimate goal seems to be public adulation. In seeking that goal, he engages in
no small amount of deception. Nader frequently employes dishonest
means and outright dishonesty as part of his strategy. Nader
ignores the distinction between advocacy and objectivity. Further, Nader is willing to violate the truth in the interest of a Nader cause.
Even worse, critics charge that Nader has been willing to sell his voice
in legal issues and for political causes. David Sanford, who worked
during the early 70's as Nader's personal editor, reports in his expose: "Me & Ralph" that Nader had assigned Lowell Dodge to a study of
Volkswagen safety, "Small on Safety: The Designed-in Dangers of the
Volkswagen." Nader was dissatisfied with Dodge's conclusion and
demanded that Dodge begin his conclusion with the words, "The Volkswagen
is the most hazardous car in use in significant numbers in the U.S.
today." Dodge responded, "the conclusion is not reflected in the
data," and detached himself from further work on the project, which was
completed as Nader directed. Later Dodge was to say: "I have always
carried around considerable guilt about what I regard as the extreme
intellectual dishonesty of that conclusion."
Nader's former associates who criticize him, also express great
admiration for him. They are willing to see Nader in gray, not just
black and white. We should balance the many good causes he has
espoused and the many victories he has won, with the evil to which he has
contributed. Nader does, after all, have some responsibility for
bringing George W. Bush to the White House. Nader should not be lauded
for his attacks on nuclear power. My interest here is to raise
questions about Nader's credibility as a critic of nuclear power. My
contention is that Nader's standard for personal integrity would have
been far lower than that which people like my father and Alvin Weinberg
set for themselves. It is the advocates of nuclear power, and not it,s
critics, who should be lauded for their honesty, integrity and devotion
to human well being.
Some neat videos
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- THE NUCLEAR ENERGY OPTION by Bernard L. Cohen
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- Blogging About the Unthinkable
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