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Ralph Nader discusses corporate violence and power

BROADCAST: Jun. 23, 1968 | DURATION: 00:28:17


Discussing corporate violence and power with lawyer Ralph Nader.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel Both of us are guests of the owner and driver of an automobile, Ralph Nader and I sitting in the back of a car on his way to the airport after speaking last week for the Illinois Federation of Consumers. Mr. Nader, I think by this time is well known to millions of Americans, ever since he wrote "Unsafe At Any Speed". I suppose he might be considered gadfly, and perhaps more than that, protector of the interests of you might say those hitherto unprotected, primarily consumers, and this time might include all those battling to save our environment. In a moment, the conversation in automobile, non-speeding but heading for the airport with Ralph Nader. The remainder of the program will be some readings. One by Josephine P. Johnson, Pulitzer Prize winner, of a piece she wrote recently for "The New York Times" on the subject of environment.

Ralph Nader No, I don't like to talk, period. Here I have to, in a position where I'm talking and talking and talking 'til I'm hoarse.

Studs Terkel That's Ralph Nader talking.

Ralph Nader 'Til I'm hoarse.

Studs Terkel 'Til he's hoarse, and he has been for the last several years. The audience, of course, is well aware of his work. We're sitting, t's very ironic, we're sitting in an automobile right now, and he just finished lecturing to the Chicago Federation of Consumers. I suppose, on the theme of the word that is most used in the American headlines these days is violence, law and order, and Ralph Nader has been hitting this, the theme of corporate violence. This is little talked about, isn't it?

Ralph Nader Yes, it is, because our perception of violence in this society is restricted to the more primitive forms which we label as crime in the streets, and yet to corporations who produce dangerous products that pollute the air, pollute the water, and to allow pesticides and other contaminations to get into our food, are perpetuating forms of violence which, in terms of the numbers of people affected and the seriousness of the injuries, far exceed the so-called crime in the street. Just take unsafe automobiles as just one example.

Studs Terkel As you're talking now, as we're, you're -- both of us being driven to the airport where you're going to speak now to another group in Minneapolis on the subject. For the past couple of years now, you've been before congressional committees talking about the drug industry, about food, and about automobiles, of course, about polluted air streams. The public itself has a feeling you sense of impotence. What can we do about it? and you've been touching on this theme, that there's something that can be done. The various groups seem to be disconnected, and you're speaking, you've been hinting the fact there may be a new kind of coalition.

Ralph Nader Yes, I think what we're seeing, primarily because these problems are so pervasive and have consequences throughout our society, is a combination early and weak, to be sure, now, of consumer groups, conservation groups and poverty groups. Of course, if the, this coalition is strengthened and focused on these consumer problems and grounded in the factual disclosure of these massive abuses in the marketplace and in our environment, we'll have a real political force.

Studs Terkel We think, for example, Ralph Nader, of the, say the conservation groups for a moment. During your speech tonight, the last part of which I heard, you were saying how much more vague it is because everyone is affected, not just poor, and something could be pinpointed, at least a group could be pressuring. But everyone is affected. Our whole society, the world, by the polluted air itself. So it seems hard to tackle, doesn't it?

Ralph Nader Yes, you know, it doesn't, pollution doesn't discriminate on the basis of race, color and creed. As such because it affects everybody, it doesn't affect specific groups in a specific way. Also, it's a silent type of violence. You know, people go about their work in a polluted urban environment, they're having their health impaired over time. People come down with emphysema, cancer, respiratory diseases, et cetera. But simply because it's a silent form of violence over time, we don't react with the indignation and concern, as we do with crime in the streets. And that's very unfortunate, because unless we do, we're gonna so pollute this environment that the world, we just won't be livable.

Studs Terkel As you're talking about this, as we're driving now, this automobile, all the automobiles we see along the boulevard here, causes of pollution are many. We speak of the industrial military complex and many causes are quite obvious. And now, the automobile and pollution, since you've been campaigning for some form of reformation, have you been heard by the corporate boys? Have they been?

Ralph Nader Just, uh, just very slightly. The whole anti-air pollution movement is exceptionally weak. We spend more on bad breath, to fight bad breath in this country than we do to fight polluted air. Certainly the grassroots indignation has yet to build, because our leaders are not focusing on the true culprits here, which are the corporations and their pell-mell rush for profits and to keep things going as they are, instead of changing them with new infusions of technology that will give us fresher air to breathe. The laws have not caught up to them. The penalties have not caught up to 'em. The public funds for enforcement and research is not up to the task. Here we have pollution affecting almost 200 million Americans, we're spending less, less on it each year than in the construction and manning of one atomic submarine.

Studs Terkel You're talking about pollution then. In "Unsafe At Any Speed", some time ago when you wrote that, you're talking about safety itself, now about pollution and the automobile, what role does that play? I think you, you named some figures that presented it was quite astonishing.

Ralph Nader The automobile is now responsible for roughly 50% of the air pollution in the country. In some areas like Los Angeles, it's as high as 90% because the Los Angeles County people have cleaned up many of the other sources of pollution. Incinerators, for example.

Studs Terkel Let's say I'm corporate advocate, I'll be advocate. Then I'm saying to you, Ralph Nader, you're the gadfly, I say to you, "What can we do about it?" Here, here's the auto. Here are the exhausts we have.

Ralph Nader Well, I'll tell you what they can do. Instead of GM spending $250 million in the last two years to change its signs, so that every sign and the dealer and in its corporate products has that sign "GM Mark of Excellence," it could spend $250 million to give its engine a mark of excellence, that is one that doesn't pollute the air. Instead, that company, even under all the pressure and all the outcry, isn't spending 20 or 30 million dollars a year on air pollution. And yet, it alone, General Motors, a private corporation, is responsible for 35% of the nation's air pollution by way of tonnage. And I think this is an outrage. I think it's anarchy. I think it's a abuse of law and order, and I think basically it shows just how impotent the citizens of this country are in curbing a major form of violence not only to themselves but also to their descendants.

Studs Terkel This what you mean by corporate violence.

Ralph Nader Exactly.

Studs Terkel What happens to people every day without their

Ralph Nader There's no question that GM had the engineering talent, and the resources. They just didn't want to do it because it didn't sell more cars.

Studs Terkel Well, you've been hitting different [tape whirs]. Seated here with Ralph Nader heading toward the airport. In this automobile, of which there are millions. Quite obviously. And the latest research indicates this. We seem aware of it, and yet we seem impotent about doing something about it. If perhaps, before we come to this question of the coalition you were talking about, the other worlds, the other fields where depredations are being performed by corporations on people, drugs of course, drugs. I know you've been hitting pretty hard on that theme.

Ralph Nader Well, we have two problems here. Useless drugs and harmful drugs. Over-prescription of drugs. Uh, the problem that has received at least publicity is the compilation of some 300 drugs, some of them household names, by the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, and the Food and Drug Administration, which have been determined to be ineffective for the use to -- for which they are advertised. In other words, money down the drain. Not to mention perhaps harmful effects of taking drugs that don't have any purpose whatsoever. I think this is an example of looting the public. Millions and millions of dollars every year for the benefit of the drug industry.

Studs Terkel You're saying there are about at least 300 drugs that are useless, we'll come to the harmful ones in a moment, About 300 useless.

Ralph Nader Yes.

Studs Terkel Now, does the Federal Trade Commission know about this?

Ralph Nader Yes, the Federal Trade Commission knows about this. They leave it up to the Food and Drug Administration, which tried to delegate the responsibility to the National Academy of Sciences, which isn't an enforcing agency, it's just a study group of scientists, many of which are exceptionally conservative and reluctant to speak out against industrial abuse. And one thing, uh, delays another.

Studs Terkel And then there are the harmful drugs. Aside from the useless drugs are the harmful drugs.

Ralph Nader Yes. Of course, the most spectacular tragedy is the Thalidomide tragedy in 1960 -- early 1960s, when about 10,000 babies in Western Europe were born with horrible deformities, stumps for legs and arms, and this drug was a mild sedative. It was taken by pregnant women and it led to these birth defects. Fortunately, it was stopped before it began -- became widely distributed in this country. But 10,000 horribly deformed babies is a massive, a massive expression of violence. Man-made violence by a company that didn't test its product and then suppressed tests when it found out that they were adverse to its economic interests.

Studs Terkel So you, Ralph Nader, are really asking for law and order, aren't you?

Ralph Nader Yes. Let me give you one statistic. All the riots throughout the country in the last three years have totaled 260 dead, and $500 million in property damage. Now, just take the auto crashes. Two hundred and sixty dead is less than two days' toll on the highway; $500 million worth of property damage is less than one month's property damage as a result of cars crashing.

Studs Terkel That's pretty violent.

Ralph Nader I should say.

Studs Terkel You were also saying something that shocked I know a number of the listeners. You were saying that people riding automobiles, the percentage of injury or death is 50%.

Ralph Nader Yes, at the present rate of, uh, accidents, crashes and casualties, one out of every two Americans will either be killed or hospitalized because of a motor vehicle crash.

Studs Terkel So because of this unprecedented violence of what you're speaking now, that I think you would describe as corporate violence.

Ralph Nader Corporate-bred violence, not only because of often conscious applications of designs to vehicles that are hazardous, such as sharp edges and doors that don't lock properly and seats that rip up and throw people through windshields in a collision, but also inaction. The stagnancy of their technology, which could have been applied in a more creative way to produce cars that would protect people against death and injury even if collisions occurred, up to at least 60-mile-an-hour impacts and make higher speed impacts survivable. But the emphasis is on style, gimmickry, expensive promotion and technological stagnation, not on safety, reducing pollution, the kind of creative innovation that would serve human needs.

Studs Terkel Well, since the time you first brought this to public awareness, since that time, a couple of years ago, it was, wasn't it, "Unsafe At Any Speed"?

Ralph Nader Yes, in 1965.

Studs Terkel What has -- the auto industry done about this?

Ralph Nader There have been some changes, particularly in protecting people during collisions. We have a collapsible steering column now, with a less, less of a tendency to impale drivers in front collisions. We have cleaned up some of the dashboard protrusions and padded some of the internal areas of the car. We have improved to some degree the structure of the vehicle. At least it's claimed, like in some cars, side structure protection, particularly some of the larger cars. We have a long way to go. To give you an illustration, uh, with less than a $1,000,000 investment, a couple companies in this country over last years have developed an airbag restraint system. What that does is that when a collision occurs instantaneously, an airbag is inflated coming out of the dash panel or out of the back of the front seat for back seat passengers, and envelopes them and then also instantaneously disinflates. So basically people in a collision go into a pillow, for example, and this can save thousands and thousands of lives. We could have had it years ago. We've done much more technical and sophisticated things in this space and automated machinery and defense system, but we, the problem is, we've never demanded industry to distribute to the mass of the people the benefits of modern science and technology. Modern science technology has been maldistributed away from the needs of the people who are in education, in hospitals and surface transportation. Many areas life hasn't changed much for most people. In fact, in some areas it's regressed. We have even worse surface transportation, fewer passenger trains, worse mass transit, more congestion on the highways. I think it's time that we begin democratically distributing the great benefits of science and technology for the, for the use and welfare of 200 million citizens.

Studs Terkel Now it's a question of voices then, and you were implying too during your talk that here's where the professional has to play a role that he hasn't played.

Ralph Nader That's right. The leadership must come initially from those who know, and for those who are most capable of generating national concern, and that means lawyers, and doctors, and engineers, and economists, and other specialized skills. Unfortunately, most of these professional people are entwined with invisible chains, with allegiances to corporate power or bureaucratic government power or union power. Their voices are stilled. They are not [true?] professionals so much as they are simply technicians, order-takers, not life-givers. And it's the hope that the younger generation, a portion of them, with their idealism and their activism, will add new dimensions to the legal and medical and engineering professions, and get this process of democratic control over corporate power and technology underway.

Studs Terkel It's a question then of coalescing these various voices.

Ralph Nader Exactly.

Studs Terkel The young, the professionals, and you spoke of the other groups, the consumer group as well as the conservation group and, of course, the poor.

Ralph Nader That's right. We have what is called in scientific circles a massive technological assault on the biosphere. Air pollution, water pollution, soil contamination, the entire planet in terms of livable space, which is called the biosphere, is about two miles up from the ground and one mile down. And that's where three billion people live and breathe and work and play. And that's a very thin slice of life around the earth. And if we continue with this imbalanced technology that's running amok, polluting the soil, water and air, the prime prerequisites of human survival, health, then perhaps we better increase the funds for our space program and discover other planets quickly.

Studs Terkel Because then we'll all die, you're really saying.

Ralph Nader We'll have to emigrate.

Studs Terkel Emigrate to another planet. A couple of more things then you rest up for your thing, you mentioned so many aspects of the assault we have a, we're not aware of, the question of food. Processed foods.

Ralph Nader One of the greatest frauds in the consumer marketplace. $1,000,000,000 looting. Example: ten years ago, the fat content in processed meats was about 18%. It's gone up to about 33%. Frankfurters, sausages, all these popular forms of processed meat. Why? Because the food processors know and are put into effect a simple cost principle: fat is cheaper than meat. And so the average frankfurter, nice colored up, so it looks fresh, and seasoned, is composed of 33% fat, 10 or 15% cereal or other binder, 10 or 15% water, and the rest substandard meat. But as long as it's colored and seasoned and preserved, the consumer doesn't know the difference. Not only is that defrauding him of his consumer dollar when he thinks he's buying an all-meat frankfurter, but it's giving him a high animal fat content diet without his knowing it. There's no labeling of fat content. The industry successfully fought this requirement. And so we have a major health hazard involved here. This is looting. This is criminal behavior, because these companies are measuring these ingredients in the frankfurter and sausage and others to the last decimal point and percentage in terms of quantity and cost, so they know what they're doing. They know the consequences of it, and they should be culpable for these consequences. Also, there's the contamination, the unbelievable filth. Consumers Union tested pork, pork sausage last year, and 25% of their non-federally inspected pork sausage, which were incidentally samples from Illinois, contained rodent remains. Rodent remains. And this massive defrauding of the consumer, this industrial and commercial violence, never is brought to the concern of representatives.

Studs Terkel As you're talking, I'm thinking of the remarkable irony, it was 1912 that Upton Sinclair wrote "The Jungle", around there, the time of Theodore Roosevelt, and the public was shocked at the time. That dealt with conditions as well as what you're talking about now, so there's a good half century.

Ralph Nader A half-century because people think the government's protecting [them? it?]. The government will never protect them unless the citizens operate to make sure the government protects. You cannot have an operating democracy of 200 million people with only a handful of citizens. As long as they're going to re-elect people like Senator Dirksen, who has the interests of special interests and industry groups and commercial groups over the interests of the public and citizens, then the democracy will never function to protect the people. No matter what the names of the laws are, or what the, or what the agencies may be in terms of their missions.

Studs Terkel If we could perhaps just let Ralph Nader rest now, just wind up with the comment you were saying about people's voices and the feeling is one you are a muckraker in the marvelous sense of the word, the old Lincoln Steffens sense, but in a day when it's much more necessary. But the feeling is still one of "What can I do?" The, the average -- because of this, the overall general aspect of pollution, or food contamination, of all the aspects you're talking about, automobile safety. And you're speaking of a coalition of

Ralph Nader Well, clearly, the first thing that any consumer can do is try to get smart in the marketplace, not be defrauded or tricked the way he is so easily. I mean, there are some things the consumer can't do much about. He can't discern the level of pesticide or the harmful effects of chemicals or hidden latent defects in certain machines and cars that he buys. But some things he certainly can if he's just sensible and he refuses to be fooled. He can just discern in marketplace and simply not buy these products, or demand that they be taken off the market. Or put pressure on supermarket managers, demand answers to his questions. Send complaints to his congressmen and senators. One complaint doesn't do much. Ten do more. A hundred. Five hundred. He goes to the election booth and he votes. Now, his one vote doesn't carry much weight. But the reason why he goes down and votes is because he thinks a lot of other people will vote the same way and vote in his man. The same things that should be so in his behavior as a consumer. I know this is in Washington where four or five complaints about a particular car, such as a Mercury Cougar, which had hidden headlights that were defective, people were driving at night and the headlights would cover up because the retractable headlights would slip back. Four or five complaints to Washington led to the recall of 82,000 Cougars in the spring of 1967. It doesn't take a crescendo of complaints, just detailed complaints, and that's the first element of consumer responsibility. There are a lot of other things that can be done. Supporting local consumer groups such as the Illinois Federation of Consumers, supporting professional groups, urging other leaders of the, of the society to take stands on consumer issues, whether their representatives' in Springfield or whether they're in the City Council, or whether they're in Washington. These are some of the things that can be done. It all depends on what sense of urgency a particular consumer has and what his, what his position is. If he happens to be skilled to one area, he can contribute more in that particular area.

Studs Terkel Well, Ralph Nader then, talking about law and order. In his true sense of the word, the words used today and violence, corporate violence, thank you very much. He edits -- by the way, he's one of the co-editors of an excellent newsletter called "Hard Times". He and Andrew Kopkind and James Ridgeway, it's published in Washington, and it's very revealing indeed, and he spoke of the Illinois Federation of Consumers, I'll get the address of that and offer it to the audience. Again we speak of possible voices to be heard and used, thank you very much. As we near the airport, Ralph Nader is pretty excited about something, he's talking this is a, I think this is a rather hopeful note here, you're talking about students who are working with you, and you recruited -- would you mind detailing this

Ralph Nader Yes. This summer I've brought together about 100 medical, legal and engineering graduate students. They're broken down to task forces, intensively analyzing and studying various federal agencies: air and water pollution, agencies of the United States Department of Agriculture, Interstate Commerce Commission, Food and Drug Administration in terms of its food responsibilities, and the area of occupational health and safety. I think that they will learn this summer what it means to be operating professional citizens. They will learn a great deal about their own potential impact. They will really learn about the dynamics of government, about how government is -- can be controlled by the regulatory process itself, the difficulties in meeting the public interest. I think in short they will see and get a glimmer of the new dimension of their professions, law, medicine, engineering, that they can help carve out in terms of permanent career roles when they graduate in a few short years from their various universities.

Studs Terkel They're working in these offices, they're visiting these various

Ralph Nader They're working on these agencies, interviewing, studying documents, and they will publish reports based on all of these agencies before the end of the year, and the agencies are verbally cooperating, but I don't think they are really welcoming their scrutiny, because these students have no axe to grind, they have no trade-offs that they're going to offer. They're not vested interests. They're free people with bright minds and hard workers, and because of that, the agencies I don't think are welcoming their presence, although verbally they're giving their cooperation.

Studs Terkel That's also opening up new professions too in a sense, partly because you describe as public service professions.

Ralph Nader That's right,

Studs Terkel Thank you. [pause in recording] The address of the Illinois Federation of Consumers is 53 West Jackson, and I'm sure that the members of the Federation will be delighted to send you all sorts of information. That's Illinois Federation of Consumers, 53 West Jackson, devoted to the idea of well, in the sense bettering our life, our lives, all of us, collectively now, quite certainly we're in it together in this one, on this one planet together. I think a rueful footnote might be in order, too, to the conversation with Ralph Nader in the automobile that night after he lectured to the Illinois Federation on the way to the airport, to indicate how insensitive so many of us are becoming. I speak now of myself. I smoke cigars quite often, and I was puffing away at the stub of a cigar. Usually, I ask guests in the studio whether it's all right if I smoke. In this instance, I neglected to do, so I had forgotten to do so, or was too insensitive to do so, and the conversation in the car was going along and toward the end, I was asking Ralph Nader about the nature, "Are they investigating cigars?" to the extent that cigarettes were investigated. And he says, on that subject of cigars, he said, or tobacco smoking generally, he is always offended by the smokers in airplanes who pollute the air, and the permission of others are not being asked, the non-smokers. Uh, that their lives are being trespassed upon. And here was I puffing away, so I doused it immediately. And then I asked him, why didn't he tell me this in the first place, before the conversation began, instead of just quietly and too politely allowing me to puff away and pollute the air of that automobile in which we were traveling? He's, well, in telling it to me after toward the end of our conversation, the admonition might be better remembered. Indeed, I do remember it quite vividly, nor shall I forget it. And I think this is also a sign of how -- what is happening to us, even those of us who talk about the subject. A great many of us. I include I say specifically myself in this instance, just as I complain about the Muzak that is in the elevators or the Muzak that is in a plane when it lands, or before it takes off. No one has asked for this Muzak, but there it is. There is Mantovani. There is Guy Lombardo. There is Wayne King. There is Lawrence Welk. Or you name it, as the old phrase used to say, "You say it, I'll maim it." But no one asks. Somebody decides. This reminds me of a conversation, an incident some years ago, when Richard Dyer-Bennet was singing in town, after the concert a number of us gathered in a restaurant. We were the only people there. It was empty, and we're talking, but it was difficult to talk because something was coming over a loud speaker. It was Muzak, and so one of us asked the hostess if she could turn it off. And she was astonished, startled and somewhat offended, too, by the request. No one had ever asked her to do that. It turned out she couldn't turn it off. The, the, the switch was elsewhere. And so we come to a question of the, that which we call the sacred precincts of human life being invaded in so many ways. This, in a sense, is what Ralph Nader is talking about, and indeed, the Illinois Federation of Consumers, too. And we'll pause now. I thought for the second half of this program two items that appeared in "The New York Times", one the comments of a Princeton University professor, Richard A. Falk, who was directing research on a project devoted to world order in the 1990s, and the other a piece written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Josephine W. Johnson, on the subject of uprooting this country.