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So Says

Ralph Nader

February 16, 1986|STEVE HESS

Ralph Nader, who will turn 52 next week, remains as committed to consumer issues as he was

in 1965, when his book "Unsafe at Any Speed," with its stinging criticism of General Motors and the Corvair, propelled him to national prominence. In recent years, he has shifted focus from advocating to organizing, from protecting consumer interests to consolidating consumer power

Q: It seems that in the past five or 10 years you've kept a lower profile. Is that a fair assessment? A: Sure. When you've got a lot of groups that you've started, you want these groups to get some of the coverage, and the Lone Ranger image recedes. That's one reason. The second is that I've been busy building and organizing instead of holding news conferences on exposes. I'm spending more and more time building CUBs (citizen utility boards) and PIRGs (public interest research groups).

Q: How does organizing CUBs and PIRGs differ from what you've done in the past?

A: There are various restraints on corporate abuse; one is regulatory, of course. Another is through the courts. A third would be labor unions, which have gotten very weak. And the one that I think is the most fundamental, which would make regulation work and make everything else better, is to network and organize private consumer power. Organizing this buyer power over companies can be accomplished by working through the policy structures or working in private negotiating sessions with Citicorp, Sears, Bank of America or General Motors, on changing services, products, rewriting installment loan contracts, getting better deals on group insurance and so on. That's the seed corn. You can't get anything done in Washington unless there's some sort of passive support among the citizenry for the values that you're trying to espouse. You can imagine what would occur if that support moved into an organizational dynamic. It could reshape the political economy.

Q: How?

A: Health-care systems would focus heavily on prevention and not on redundant prescriptions. There'd be more media access, technology would be more tolerant, pollution would be lower, energy would be used more efficiently, we'd move into a renewable-energy mode in this society, and the standard of living would be higher. All these things come from a buyer-sovereign society. We have a seller-sovereign society.

Q: So now you've got the structure for these consumer-clout groups. What's holding you back?

A: Right now the biggest need is for organizational specialists--organizers to go out into the field. You know, there are a lot more ideas than there are organizationally skilled people. The founder of H & R Block was an organizational genius. McDonald's, all these guys--it's really their organizational ability to get one model and replicate it all over the country. That's the biggest single missing ingredient; it takes organizational skill.

Q: Do you think the consumer process you advocate could replace the political process? A: I think it can shape the political process. What's lacking is a breakthrough into the political process by what are called consumer issues. Once in a while, utility issues get through. But (President) Reagan, for example, escaped any accountability for the manner in which his administration broke up AT&T.

Q: Please explain.

A: It's on people's minds--higher telephone rates, the threat of local measured service. There's a lot of gouging going on, profiteering by local telephone companies and AT&T, and none of it rebounds to Reagan, and he's the guy who signed off on AT&T's version of the breakup. AT&T put forth the plan that was accepted, and it's having a multibillion-dollar ricochet effect throughout the country. He didn't pay a vote penalty on that. The Democrats didn't make it an issue. People are worried about bread-and-butter issues--the consumer side, not just unemployment.

Q: We are in the midst of massive deregulation of a variety of industries. Is this good or bad for the consumer?

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