Ralph Nader, longtime consumer advocate, corporate critic and former presidential candidate. His first book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, published in 1965, took on General Motors and its Chevrolet Corvair model. His latest book is Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!
Senate Republican Jim Bunning is continuing to filibuster a key spending bill to extend unemployment benefits for hundreds of thousands of American workers. The blocked bill also affects several governmental agencies, rural television customers and doctors receiving Medicare payments. At the same time, Senate Banking Committee Chair Christopher Dodd has abandoned an idea proposed by President Obama and favored by consumer groups to create an independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency to protect consumers against abuses in mortgages, credit cards and other forms of lending. Meanwhile, General Motors announced today it is recalling 1.3 million compact cars in North America because of a power steering problem that has been linked to fourteen crashes. GM blamed the fault on a supplier partially owned by Toyota. We speak to longtime consumer advocate Ralph Nader. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Senate Republican Jim Bunning is continuing to filibuster a key spending bill to extend unemployment benefits for hundreds of thousands of American workers. The blocked bill also affects several governmental agencies, rural television customers and doctors receiving Medicare payments.
At the same time, Senate Banking Committee Chair Christopher Dodd has abandoned an idea proposed by President Obama and favored by consumer groups to create an independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency to protect consumers against abuses in mortgages, credit cards and other forms of lending. Dodd is seeking support from fellow Democrats for a Republican proposal now to create a new agency that would be housed within the Federal Reserve.
The proposal to house the new agency within the Fed follows an earlier idea of placing it within the Treasury Department. The Fed has had consumer protection laws on its books for years, but failed to enforce them in the period leading up to the financial crisis.
According to the Washington Post, the new proposal from Dodd would grant the agency independent funding and a presidentially appointed director, but it would not give the agency authority to enforce those rules.
For more on this and other issues, we’re joined by longtime consumer advocate, corporate critic and former presidential candidate, Ralph Nader. He’s joining us on the line from his home in Connecticut.
Ralph Nader, we welcome you to Democracy Now! I wanted you to address these two issues. On the one hand, you’ve got the Republican filibuster that could throw hundreds of thousands of people off of their unemployment benefits, as well as COBRA. And you have Chris Dodd backing off of this independent consumer protection agency.
RALPH NADER: Well, it’s just the latest manifestation of the graveyard in Congress known as the US Senate. There are over 100 bills, many of them fairly good, that the House of Representatives have passed, including financial regulation, that are buried in the Senate. And the Senate rules allow one senator, like Senator Jim Bunning, who’s not running for reelection, so he doesn’t have to worry about adverse feedback from Kentucky, to block disbursements for unemployed people, unemployment compensation, and also opens the door to the banking lobby, which, as Senator Durbin of Illinois said a few weeks ago, run the place. That’s what his words. He said, “The banks run the place.”
AMY GOODMAN: Now, the issue of this proposal that has changed, morphed, in your fellow Connecticut Senator Dodd, what he has been proposing along the way and what’s happened now?
RALPH NADER: Well, he’s not running for reelection, so we can’t put much pressure on him in Connecticut. He has historically been very tied to the banks and taken a lot of money from Wall Street, proudly so, in his words, for years. Now he’s free. He’s free to do the right thing. But he’s outnumbered by his own committee, including Democrats on his committee, like Senator Johnson from South Dakota. So he’s trapped in that way.
But, you see, these senators, Amy, they don’t go to the people. They don’t have news conferences, travel around the country, and tie into the massive public sentiment against these giant bailed-out banks and how they are defrauding people in all kinds of financial instruments. And that’s really the puzzling aspect of some of the, quote, “good” senators in the Senate. They still play the inside game and whine and groan to us as how they can’t get anything done.
The proposals that are now being floated by Senator Dodd represent a massive surrender, even compared to the House bill, which has already passed and set up an independent consumer regulatory agency. This so-called consumer protection unit that’s being proposed inside the Federal Reserve is like putting a snowball in hell. I mean, it just — it’s so absurd, it’s beyond satire. It’s so shadowed and surrounded by chains and appeals and internal vetoes, before even the banks have to go after any proposals to deal with payday loans and mortgage deed deceptions and credit card abuses.
So we need a whole new paradigm here, and that would be that the districts throughout the country, the 435 districts representing the House of Representatives, have got to be organized. There’s huge money that organizes corporations to turn Washington, DC into corporate-occupied territory. There’s almost no money to organize tens of millions of angry or deceived or defrauded or desperate people in this country.
So I’m going to make a specific proposal. There are a number of enlightened, advanced-age billionaires in this country who’ve got to take a portion of their fortune — like Jerome Kohlberg is an advocate for clean elections, he retired some years ago from the giant mergers and acquisition firm Kohlberg Kravis — and put about $250 million into organizing every congressional district, 2,000 people in a district, two full-time organizers per district, zero in on the Senate and the House, and get these legislations through, including a good energy bill, a good single-payer bill, and, of course, financial regulation, after the greatest corporate crime and speculation move, wave, in our history. So we have to talk about these solutions.
Everybody has been documenting the corruption of the Senate, the paralysis of the Senate, the indentured status of the Congress to corporate power. We now have to move to the next stage and try to persuade a Ted Turner or a Warren Buffett or a Jerome Kohlberg or a William Gates or somebody to organize the people back home to take control of their Congress. We’ve got the solutions. We’ve got the public sentiment. As Abraham Lincoln once said, you can do anything with public sentiment. We don’t have the organized people and the voters focusing on their senators and representatives.
AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader, there are a number of consumer advocates, along with New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who have told Senator Dodd, Don’t give up the fight yet to make this an independent agency. Why do you think he is? And to be clear, he’s giving up not because Republicans are opposed — is this right? — but because fellow Democrats are, as well.
RALPH NADER: Well, that’s right. He’s got to go around the country and really barnstorm with others. He’s very articulate. He can make the case for a strong consumer protection bill headed by Elizabeth Warren, who conceived the idea, the Harvard law professor who’s one of the freshest and most impressive voices in Washington on this subject.
But they don’t do that. They just, you know, get up in the morning, have their coffee, go to the Congress, wallow in the Senate Club and say, “Oh, I don’t even have members of my Democratic committee in the Banking Committee on my side.” Well, has he ever called in all the consumer groups and the labor groups and the neighborhood groups to Washington? They would come.
In other words, you’ve got to beat the drums for progressive, decent policies to hold the rule of law over these rampant and aggressive and avaricious banking institutions, who haven’t learned a thing. They’ve been bailed out. They’ve drained and looted trillions in dollars of pension money and other savers’ money. The collapse in 2008, they go to Washington, they get bailed out by the taxpayers. Millions of workers lose their jobs. And you think they’d be remorseful? They’re as arrogant as ever to control Washington and turn it against its own people. The only way that can be turned around is to organize the districts back home.
AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader, I want to ask you about the latest scandal around cars, from Toyota to Honda to General Motors. But we have to break. We’ll be back with consumer activist, former presidential candidate, Ralph Nader. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Ralph Nader, the former presidential candidate, longtime consumer advocate.
Ralph, I want to switch gears and ask you about the latest in the auto industry. General Motors announced today it’s recalling more than, what, 1.3 million compact cars in North America because of a power steering problem that’s been linked to fourteen crashes. The firm said four models are affected: the Chevrolet Cobalt, Pontiac G5, Pontiac Pursuit and Pontiac 4. GM blamed the fault on a supplier partially owned by Toyota.
The GM recall comes as Toyota is continuing to call back millions of cars around the world following accelerator and braking problems. Meanwhile, the New York Times is reporting today that an analysis of government documents shows many Toyota Camrys built before 2007, which were not subject to recalls, have been linked to a comparable number of speed-control problems as recalled Camrys.
Ralph Nader, you first took on the car industry in the mid-‘60s. Your first book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, was published in ’65. It took on GM and its Chevrolet Corvair. Talk about this latest news.
RALPH NADER: Well, computers on wheels are what the cars in the dealer showrooms are today. They’re very complex. We can see that with the electronic throttles, the many microprocessors, software programs, glitches, maybe mechanical defects. And the Department of Transportation’s NHTSA, National Highway Safety — Traffic Safety Administration, has at the same time, in the last decade and a half, been stripped of key staff, its budget has been severely cut, and it cannot keep up with its regulatory responsibilities. Therefore, the motoring public does not have the confidence and cannot rely in the Department of Transportation having mandatory safety standards for electronic throttles and for brake overrides and for other potential breakdowns in the highly computerized engineering product known as the modern motor vehicle. So that’s the problem.
And to give you an idea of how absurd it is, there isn’t one single engineer, scientist, in NHTSA who is specialized in these electronic mechanical systems in cars today, number one. Number two, the motor vehicle safety budget in NHTSA, not the grants to the state — the motor vehicle safety budget deals with doing the research, issuing the safety standards, enforcing the safety standards, and requiring recalls — is $140 million. Obama wants to cut it by $8 million for next year. Now, $140 million to deal with the safety of a problem that’s taking over 40,000 American lives and hundreds of thousands of injuries on roads throughout the country can be compared, Amy, with the $675 million that the taxpayers are going to pay this year to guard the embassy in Iraq, pursuant to a criminal war of aggression. $670 million. So, the priorities are upside down. We’re dealing with a phenomenon known as institutional insanity in the federal government.
And again, I have to go back to organizing the districts back home. Money is required for justice in safety, just as money is required for corporate lobbying. And it’s a complete mismatch. And until enlightened super-rich people decide that they are going to hire the thousands of organizers back home to come and take control of their government in Washington, all we’re going to be doing is exposing these abuses, denouncing these abuses, and running on a treadmill.
AMY GOODMAN: Ralph, I want to turn now to a book that you have written in the introduction to. Washington, DC is the most powerful capital city in the world, but it’s also a city that’s deeply divided between a wealthy and extremely influential minority and an impoverished and largely disenfranchised African American majority. The seat of global power is also home to a population that remains largely invisible to the politicians, the journalists, the lawyers, lobbyists and contractors around Capitol Hill. This other Washington, DC maintains the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of child poverty, the highest mortality rate from HIV/AIDS, and the lowest life expectancy in the country.
Ralph Nader, you wrote the introduction to this new book of black-and-white photographs documenting some of the haunting contrasts that mark our nation’s capital. The photographer Kike Arnal is from Venezuela, and the book is called In the Shadow of Power. Ralph, you really have felt that this book captures the place you live in, Washington, DC, that is our nation’s capital. Why is it so important to you?
RALPH NADER: Well, it represents the class structure in this country, to a very severe point. Washington, DC is home to about almost 600,000 people. About 54 percent of the people in Washington are African Americans. Northwest Washington is quite prosperous. It’s where the government buildings are, where the well-to-do live. And the rest of Washington — southeast, northeast, southwest — largely quite poor.
And that’s almost an understatement in some of the areas. They look like they’re bombed out. They’re desolate. Homelessness, hunger, the highest AIDS prevalence in the United States, high infant mortality. The schools are now in the process of being repaired, but they were in terrible shape for many years. The neighborhood libraries are still in bad shape. Public facilities are degraded.
And at the same time that the people of Washington, DC do not have the vote to elect members of Congress. They’re the only Western capital in the entire world that has been disenfranchised. And President Obama, when he was a candidate, and the Democratic Party, said, “Well, when we take control of Washington, we’ll fix that right away and give the District of Columbia one — at least one voting representative in the House.” That has not even been taken off the table.
So this new book by Kike Arnal, In the Shadow of Power — and the website to obtain it is intheshadowofpower.com — this new book is really a haunting black-and-white collection of photographs that Kike put together after walking the streets of Washington, DC, day after day, all over the city. He jokes that if he doesn’t remain a photographer, he could be licensed as a cabdriver. And we’re releasing it this week, so that not just people in Washington, but people around the country and around the world, can see that the capital of the Western world has been allowed to continue a deterioration process that is a scar on the conscience of our country.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we are also joined by Kike Arnal himself, the Venezuelan photographer, documentary filmmaker. His book, In the Shadow of Power.
Kike, talk about your journey in Washington, DC. You got the idea for this when you were hired to photograph the deteriorating libraries of Washington, DC?
KIKE ARNAL: Yeah. In 2000, I was hired to photograph the public library system of Washington. And driving to the different branches of the public library — there were twenty-seven branches at the moment — I had to cross to the other side of the Anacostia River, and I discovered a totally different city that I wasn’t expecting to see. The Washington I knew was in the Washington of the beautiful monuments, the Mall, the Capitol Hill, the White House. And then I discovered this other Washington, and it reminded me a lot of the slums and of the poor neighborhoods in South America where I come from, in Venezuela or Brazil, Colombia.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your photographs. What is the one for you that captures most what you see when you walk around Washington, DC?
KIKE ARNAL: Well, there are a few images that I think epitomize the content of the book. Maybe the cover is a very particular one, this guy seated at the exit of the subway station at McPherson Street only a couple of blocks from the White House. And it really is really surprising to see this kind of situation happening so close to the seat of power.
Also, I spent time photographing at a hospice for people dying of HIV, and it was — some of the most striking images I produced were taken there. It was interesting to discover that if it wasn’t for these social workers for this not-for-profit organization, these people would die right on the streets.
So the whole process of photographing Washington, it took me about 250 days spread over a period of three years. It was a process of discovery of another, a different city. And it was a very dramatic experience.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the man looking through the window? Describe that, especially for our listeners now who listen on the radio.
KIKE ARNAL: Yeah, I guess some of you — for those who can’t see the photograph that are listening on the radio, please go to our website. It’s intheshadowofpower.com. And there you can see the photograph, and you will know about the events we are organizing to promote the book and to promote the work.
But that particular image, I was waiting for someone, to meet with someone at a coffee shop in downtown Washington. And all of the sudden I see this homeless guy coming to the window, looking inside of the coffee shop. And everybody were just immersed on their lecture, not even pretending to see, to notice this person. That image is also — actually, I think it’s one of the most powerful photographs of the book, and it also epitomizes the content of the work, of the book.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Kike Arnal, the Venezuelan photographer and documentary filmmaker who published this book, In the Shadow of Power. Compare it to what you see in Venezuela.
KIKE ARNAL: Well, Venezuela, we have immense social inequalities in our country. And unfortunately, this is [inaudible]. It’s a very difficult situation to overcome. I don’t think any of the governments that we had in the last thirty, forty years have been able to solve these issues. But I wasn’t expecting to find this level of poverty in the capital. I really — I was really surprised to see poverty and racial segregation of levels that I — you could only see in third world countries.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Kike Arnal, I want to thank you very much for being with us, a photographer, documentary filmmaker. You can go to his website, intheshadowofpower.com. Also on our broadcast today, democracynow.org, you can see some of those photos. And Ralph Nader, thank you very much for being with us. Final words, from In the Shadow of Power to what we’re seeing right now on Capitol Hill?
RALPH NADER: Yes. I think what we have to do is — what no one can stop us from doing is picking up those phones and/or otherwise contacting your senators and saying, “Look, there’s going to be heck to pay in the election if you don’t pass a strong financial consumer legislation.” Nobody can stop people from doing that. And I’ll tell you, when the senators get a few hundred calls in one day, they really freak out, from what they’ve been doing.
For people who are worried about sudden acceleration in their cars, there’s a toll-free number for NHTSA. It’s (888) 327-4236, (888) 327-4236. It’s only consumer complaints about the Toyota problem that galvanized both the media and the Department of Transportation into waking up and protecting the people on the highways. So keep those complaints coming, (888) 327-4236.
AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader, we’re going to leave it there. Thank you very much for being with us, longtime consumer advocate, many time presidential candidate.
RALPH NADER: Thank you.
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