Ralph Nader hosts “Billionaires Against Bull”

A lot of people calm down as they get older, they get tired and the things they cared passionately about in their youth just seem too unattainable. Ralph Nader, 77, has not reached that point yet.

Mr. Nader, a native of Winsted and an attorney who made his name in the 1960s—when he attacked the auto industry for safety violations—has since pursued a career as a diligent consumer, environmental and political activist. He is still trying to save the world, and now he has a new plan for how to do it.

He believes that only the super rich—he notes that in America 5 percent of the population controls some 60 percent of the nation’s wealth—have the resources to address the many problems confronting the world today, and he is challenging billionaires to make a difference. Mr. Nader first broached this concept in his 2009 book, “Only the Super Rich Can Save Us!,” which postulated a utopian world in which the wealthiest people decide to work together for the collective good.

It was the latest of 34 books for the iconoclastic author and laid the groundwork for a move to engage wealthy movers and shakers in the preservation of American viability and global environmental health.

Mr. Nader met two billionaire pals—Peter Lewis, the chairman of the board and former CEO of Progressive Insurance, and media mogul Ted Turner—on a dais at the New York Public Library (NYPL) Wednesday night for a spirited conversation entitled “Billionaires Against Bull, From Charity to Social Justice.”

Mr. Nader began by defining the difference between charity and social justice. He said soup kitchens, while “commendable,” are charity, but that social justice asks why there is poverty in the world’s richest nation in the first place. “A society with more justice needs less charity,” he said.

The two men sitting with him Wednesday are living examples of the kind of philanthropy Mr. Nader would like use to change the direction of the world, but over the course of 90 minutes Wednesday he still nettled and pushed them to do even more. While both men are his friends, Mr. Nader’s call for a coalition of the super-wealthy did not get far on that NYPL stage, however.

“I have spoken to Warren Buffett and he says he will put in a good word [for my proposal for a coalition for the super-wealthy], but it won’t happen unless we bring people together,” the visionary Mr. Nader said. “Billionaires don’t return phone calls—how do we connect with their particular passions?”

Mr. Lewis, whose philanthropy is substantial, is often forceful in requiring that sound planning be the basis for his giving. He told Mr. Nader succinctly, “You have to have a realistic proposition. Create a plan.” He further suggested that Mr. Nader confine his plan to two topics out of a potpourri of issues he has on his list.

He said it is necessary to find people with management skills to promote the desired changes. “When we started in 2004 to form a political organization, we found the brightest people, but what I realized after a year or two was that these bright people, well-intentioned people, didn’t know how to get things done. I formed a management center to help them—but they don’t want to hear about it. Face it, people in business know how to manage; some people in the military know how—but people in politics don’t.”

Even with a plan and good managers, Mr. Lewis is not hopeful that a coalition of the super-wealthy could quickly effect the kind of change Mr. Nader wants. He said he has spent 35 years trying to find ways to intelligently apply philanthropy and, in some instances, such as trying to legalize the use of marijuana, has had only limited success.

He donated $300 million to the Marijuana Policy Project because it did have a solid plan of action, but even there the results have not been stellar. “We have been trying to concoct a public information campaign [in support of a Colorado bill that would allow marijuana use for medical purposes]. We are trying to take the poll numbers up 7 to 8 percent in support of the bill. We are doing it in as smart and luxurious a way as it can be done—but don’t bet on us,” he advised.

He also cautioned that billionaires are not team players. “They usually got where they are working by themselves,” he said. “They have teams that work for them—they are not part of teams.”

Mr. Turner, who presented a low-key, ironic demeanor throughout the evening, had little direction to give to Mr. Nader in his campaign to create a coalition of billionaires. “You do what you can do,” he said. “Keep writing letters and contacting people to get your ideas out there. I write letters and send them to hundreds of people.”

Typically, he said, the response level is less than 10 percent of those he has contacted. “But, if I am walking along the street and I see some trash, I pick it up and put it in a trash can. If more people are picking up trash than putting it down, we will end of living in a clean world. So you just do what you can.”

Mr. Turner also seemed to exemplify the parochial interests of billionaire philanthropists and the individual efforts they like to make. Mr. Nader pushed him for his views on a number of social problems, most of which he deflected because his activities are directed primarily toward nuclear disarmament and climate change. “I have been a worrier all my life,” he told the audience. “You-all can stop worrying, because I am the great global worrier. Then, I decided if I was going to worry, why not worry about the biggest problems.”

He decided that global climate change has great potential to disrupt this world within 20 or 30 years while, at the same time, the human population is growing exponentially. “I was born in 1938,” he said, “and there were then 2 billion people on Earth. There are now 7 billion—2.5 times more. At the same time, the number of elephants has dropped 70 percent … and the environment has deteriorated by about the same amount. We have to change the way we are doing things.”

He is also intensely aware of the danger posed by nuclear weapons, reporting that “there are 2,000 of them on hair-trigger alert in the U.S. and Russia, pointed at each other. If there is an earthquake under them or some wires get crossed … .”

Mr. Nader was not deterred by the tepid response of his friends as he laid crisis after crisis on the table for consideration. He talked about the job market in the United States and asked, “Isn’t there a limit to global industrialization?” He added that the “level of discouragement” in America is exploding.

The economic inequities piled up in his comments—even as American workers cannot compete with foreign workers who labor long hours for 60 cents an hour, the corresponding gap between what corporate executives make and what their employees can earn widens. “The head of Wal-Mart makes $11,000 an hour,” he said, “while his employees make less than $11 an hour—$7, $8, $9 an hour.”

He said he once suggested that if it makes sense to outsource American laborers’ jobs to save corporations money then perhaps that idea should be taken “all the way to the top” of the corporate hierarchy. “I am sure there are some smart Asian CEOs who would be willing to do their work for less, too,” he quipped.

The talk circled and changed direction rapidly, but at its core was politics. Mr. Nader, four times a presidential candidate, revisited the Bush/Cheney administration and suggested that the long, grueling wars America has engaged in since 2001 could have been avoided if some billionaire had put up $200 million to counter statements made by the president and vice president.

“George Soros wrote against our going to war,” Mr. Nader said, “but if he had put up $200 million we could have unleashed all these people—400 [retired] generals, media people—and it would have torn apart Bush and Cheney’s lies. It would have overcome the [mainstream] media’s complicity. … We could have avoided a disaster.”

But, again, Mr. Lewis said the idea could not work in the short time frame before the nation went to war because there was no structure. “You can’t put $200 million to work in nine months,” he said, “because there is no plan.” He suggested a plan of action similar to that used by Conservatives, who have been building their infrastructure for a quarter century.

“I was against the war, too” added Mr. Turner, “but it is very hard for an individual to write an op-ed piece that says our leaders are wrong—it’s too big a job for an individual. And to put together the infrastructure [for a larger effort] takes at least a year.”

Mr. Nader noted that half of the nation’s budget is dedicated to the military and said that commenting on it is one of the “taboos” self-imposed on American political life. He said it had not been mentioned at all in the last campaign.

“We are spending 17 times the amount on the military as the next two biggest countries do,” agreed Mr. Turner. “We are all over the world and are fighting two wars. Who do we think we are—the British Empire? I can’t think of one Congressman who has spoken out about it. It is like what Eisenhower warned us of—the military/industrial complex has taken over.”

Mr. Nader, who has never been shy about speaking out, opined, “There are a lot of rich retired people, who don’t have to worry about their jobs anymore, who could speak out,” but Mr. Turner suggested long corporate training would prevent this. “They know to keep their mouths shut,” he said. “They’ve had their butts kicked when they opened their mouths.”

Mr. Nader suggested a revolution in the tax system, turning it upside down so that undesirable things are taxed before desirable items. Rather than taxing land, cars, homes, income, and the like, he suggested that there be a carbon tax, for instance, and a tax on speculation. “What do you say, Ted?” he asked Mr. Turner, who laughed and started waving a white handkerchief in the air.

Mr. Turner did agree that a carbon tax might help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and propel the nation toward more sustainable forms of energy such as wind and solar power. He theorized that if President Obama had put energy ahead of health care as a priority, the country might now have an energy policy. “But health care was so contentious and it gave oil and gas a chance [to promote their position]. Solar and wind don’t have the money to promote themselves, and coal and oil have 100 years of advertising experience. We have so many coal ads on CNN, I wake up some nights thinking, ‘Maybe coal is clean. …’”

Mr. Nader noted with some exasperation that Messrs. Turner and Lewis were his “most optimistic” friends. “Why are you being so jaded?” he asked. “The history of America is that when the people get organized, things happen. There have got to be enough resources to activate that latent leadership.”

Mr. Lewis deadpanned, “I just spent $20 million to get people out to vote. Why? If I had spent another $200 million, I might have gotten another seven or eight votes.”

Mr. Nader stuck firm to his conviction that much can be improved, however. He noted that all of the changes that he has helped to effect over the past 40-plus years have cost far less than $200 million.

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