Saturday, November 23, 2013

Ralph Nader is No Saint

 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.

The 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 safer design.

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.

Chevrolet had 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 publicity.

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 than revolutionary.

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.

General 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 programs.

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.

There was 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.

There 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.

There 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.

John Maggs 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 backgrounds. During 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 deadline."

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.

Many 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:

Ralph 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.

Maggs observed:

"Ralph 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?

I have 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.

Nader's 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."

Most of 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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When driven hard a swing axle rear suspension does not "suddenly lose grip". The usual scenario is that a naieve driver gets frightened heading into a corner at a faster speed than he is confident he can manage. He lifts of the throttle and applies the brakes. Then comes the consequence. The rear of the car rises up, the rear suspension extends, both rear wheels go into positive camber and tyre grip is rapidly reduced. Now it is more than likely the rear of the car swings out and the car oversteers. This happens quickly and the naieve driver (being ignorant as well as clumsy and slow to react) is surprised & does not "catch" the swing. The car oversteers. The driver does not know what to do and hence has lost control. In some cases the car may ground loop and exit the road backwards! Anyway, the cause is that the inappropriate action of the driver provokes a powerful response from the car. The car does not just act up without warning and "suddently lose grip". It responds to an inappropriately clumsy primary control input from the driver. The second possibility is that largish bumps mid-corner can allow enough camber change at the rear of the car to occur for rear tyre grip to be affected while transiting a corner. The naieve driver reacts by abruptly lifting off the throttle and then.... None of this is really a problem if the driver knows about it, expects it and knows how to drive. Note that European drivers did not have anything like as much of a problem with swing axles and terminal oversteer that many North Americans did. Indeed, lift-off oversteer effect is a characteristic that was routinely exploited to get around corners in tidy fashion. It can be a lot of fun to set the car to pirouette at the apex of a bend. Once the car is pointed as required then the pirouette can be halted by nailing the throttle and accelerating out of the corner. This behaviour was also a characteristic of some French front wheel drive hot-hatches (which did not have swing-axle suspension) up until the '90s but in more recent times it has been replaced by understeer (dull and slow) since that is considered safe enough for poor drivers (who can cope with terminal understeer and who tend to litigate when their own incompetance gets them into trouble). Mercedes version of the swing axle was different to the Tatra one (VW/Porsche was a knock-off of Ledwinka's Tatra design) in that the Mercedes used a low pivot point and also introduced drive shaft torque effects to alter behaviour. Mercedes arranged for a low roll centre with reduced jacking forces. The lift-off oversteer behaviour was muted some but still available for exploitation. Nader was merely a legal/political opportunist. Instead of taking aim at the idiots who couldn't drive worth a damn or the foolish authorities that licensed such incompetents and let them loose on the road, he went the manufacturers. Much more socially palatable to do that, as all right thinking people know. A shame is that this nuclear disaster business in Japan is having the appearance of proving him correct on nuclear matters. Oh dear!



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