In an in-depth interview with longtime consumer advocate Ralph Nader, we look at Republican-led efforts to gut Medicare and Social Security amid debt limit talks, backed by some Democrats, and other proposed cuts to the social safety net, as well as corporate greed and watchdog journalism. Nader also discusses his newly launched newspaper, the Capitol Hill Citizen. “It’s all about Congress, and Congress has to be captured by the people instead of being controlled by 1,500 corporations who swarm the corridors,” says Nader.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
President Biden traveled to Florida Thursday, where he blasted a proposal by Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida to require Medicare and Social Security be reauthorized every five years, which would put the future of the programs in doubt. Biden spoke in Tampa.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I know that a lot of Republicans, their dream is to cut Social Security and Medicare. Well, let me say this: If that’s your dream, I’m your nightmare.
AMY GOODMAN: Biden also focused on the future of Medicare and Social Security during his State of the Union Tuesday night.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans — some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset. I’m not saying it’s the majority. Let me give you — anybody who doubts it, contact my office. I’ll give you a copy — I’ll give you a copy of the proposal.
REP. MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE: Liar!
AMY GOODMAN: As Congressmember Marjorie Taylor Greene and other Republicans shouted “Liar!” President Biden continued to speak.
Well, to talk more about this and many other issues, we’re joined by the legendary consumer advocate, four-time former presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who has just launched a new newspaper called the Capitol Hill Citizen.
Ralph, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. If you can start off by talking about Medicare and Social Security? It’s the Republicans who are going after it in a deep way now, led by Senator Scott, and you can tell us his connections to for-profit health industry in this country. But it wasn’t always just Republicans.
RALPH NADER: Well, the Republicans opposed Social Security and Medicare from the get-go, and they’ve always been preying on it, trying to corporatize it, trying to get its funds invested in the stock market and Wall Street. And so it’s nothing new. Senator Scott, who in his prior work headed a giant hospital corporation that was criminally fined, and by the federal government, has no shame about that. He has proposed that it be — Social Security and Medicare be sunsetted every five years, among other health and safety laws, in a report he put out as the chairman of the Senate Republican reelection committee last year. So, there’s no ambiguity about that.
But the Democrats are very defensive. For example, the real problem with Medicare, it’s being corporatized, with the assistance of the AFL and AARP. It’s called Medicare Advantage. We call it “Medicare Disadvantage.” So, over half now of the elderly beneficiaries under Medicare are under corporations’ health plan, like UnitedHealthcare, Aetna, Cigna and others. That’s the problem. They’re burrowing under Medicare and corporatizing it, while the Democrats are accusing Republicans of going after Medicare.
And the same with Social Security. Congressman John Larson proposed last year an increase in benefits. There hasn’t been an increase in benefits in 40 years. And he chided the Democrats in the Senate, saying, “Make the Republicans filibuster. Make them get on the Senate floor, under the television, and show the American people what they’re up to.” But the Democrats didn’t do it. So, it’s always unfinished business by the Democrats. It’s easy to go after the Republicans on this, but can they go after the big healthcare industry, the drug industry? I think the speech —
AMY GOODMAN: Ralph, that’s very interesting, and I just want to say to you, as you’re speaking to us, we’re showing an image of page nine of Capitol Hill Citizen, “Medicare for All is the answer, but Bernie Sanders backs away,” you write, or the staff writes. And it says, ”AFL-CIO AARP push Medicare Disadvantage.” Explain.
RALPH NADER: Yes. This is the program, supported, I might add, by both Republicans and Democrats in recent years in Congress, to — under the alleged claim of greater efficiency, to let contracts be given by Medicare to the large health insurance companies — as I mentioned, UnitedHealthcare, Aetna. And they take control. And so, they put ads all over. I mean, you can’t believe last year. Saturation ads to elderly people in every medium possible, basically saying, “Come into Medicare Advantage. You can get gym privileges,” etc. But they don’t say that they get trapped in a network of doctors and hospitals; they lose their free choice of hospital and doctor. And claims have to be approved by a bureaucracy established by these insurance companies. It’s called prior authorization — drives doctors crazy. It takes away their ability to minister to their patients. And they have a higher denial of benefits. That’s why we call it Medicare Disadvantage.
And you can’t get a hearing in Congress. You know, Bernie denounced it. Others in the House denounced it. But they don’t go any further. They’re into the denunciation game. You’ve got to really take it on, because while we’re not seeing the Democrats push single payer, which they should be, even though they are for it, they’re watching the destruction of Medicare as we know it.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Biden’s State of the Union, where he talks about taxes.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I’m a capitalist, but pay your fair share. I think a lot of you at home — a lot of you at home agree with me and many people that you know: The tax system is not fair. It is not fair. Look, the idea that in 2020, 55 of the largest corporations in America, the Fortune 500, made $40 billion in profits and paid zero in federal taxes? Zero? Folks, it’s simply not fair.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about these proposals, from taxing corporations and billionaires to, oh, those who make like $400,000 or more?
RALPH NADER: How many times do we have to hear that from Democratic presidents? It’s, you know, ditto, ditto, ditto, and they don’t do anything. What he should have said is that the Democrats are going to repeal the Trump tax cuts of 2017, which are costing the Treasury over a trillion dollars, because most of them are tax cuts for the super wealthy and the global corporations. No, he never even mentioned it. He never goes — he never goes to the next step.
It was a palsy-walsy speech. He talked about bipartisanship. What he should have said, directly to the American people: “You see all these good things I mentioned, that the Democratic Party are for and that the polls show majoritarian support for, like paid child care, paid family sick leave, consumer protection, etc.? You see why — why aren’t we getting this through Congress? Well, take a look at the Republicans. They’re the 'no' party. They say 'no' to all of these things.” He would have drawn the line. Instead, he plays palsy-walsy with these Republicans, who know what they want and are very determined to get it, which is no to social safety net, no peace movements, no to controlling Wall Street, and no to renewable energy, no to the right to vote without being repressed. He doesn’t go into that. It was a very disappointing speech. It was a laundry list without new ways on how to get it through Congress. He never appeals to the American people to come back on Congress.
That’s why we started the Capitol Hill Citizen, Amy, because the reporting on Congress is totally official source journalism by the mainstream press. And the Capitol Hill Citizen digs in and shows how Congress is addicted to war, how they’ve given up constitutional powers, such as the war-declaring power, to the presidents, who can start wars on their own and do whatever they want abroad to advance the empire. We showed how they really didn’t move to protect the IRS so that — to have a decent budget to go after these gigantic escapes, tax escapes, and avoidance.
So, people can get a copy, or more, of the Capitol Hill Citizen by going to CapitolHillCitizen.com, and donate $5 or more. You get your issue. You can get more issues for your friends and relatives and workers. And you’ll get it first-class, 40 pages, the most recent edition of the Capitol Hill Citizen.
AMY GOODMAN: Ralph?
RALPH NADER: It doesn’t have — it doesn’t not have ads by Big Pharma. It doesn’t have ads by the offensive weapons industry. It has book ads that are progressive.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Ralph —
RALPH NADER: They’re free, too.
AMY GOODMAN: — I’m looking at the front page of the Capitol Hill Citizen. I want to just start with the tagline, “Democracy Dies in Broad Daylight,” an obvious mocking of The Washington Post, that says, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Talk about “Democracy Dies in Broad Daylight.”
RALPH NADER: Yes. Of all these things Congress is not doing is quite important. I mean, if you make a list of all the justice causes you’ve had on your program, Amy, over half either have to go through Congress or are going to be blocked by Congress. We have to spend much more time on the 535 members of Congress, because the way our Constitution is set up, most national progress under law, whether it’s healthcare or tax reform or cutting the military budget or waging peace or public works or the social safety net, the answer is, it’s got to go through Congress. And yet there are so many protests and demands that go up in the ether around the country without a laser beam back on Congress.
And that’s why we have this Capitol Hill Citizen, is to show it’s all about Congress. And Congress has to be captured by the people instead of being controlled by 1,500 corporations who swarm the corridors. I mean, there are more full-time lobbyists by the drug industry on Congress than all the full-time lobbyists for all the national citizen groups, by far, in Washington, D.C.
AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader, I want to —
RALPH NADER: So we want to concentrate.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about the front-page article in your January edition, “Why no criminal investigation of Caterpillar after worker’s death?” The headline, “The thermal annihilation of Steven Dierkes.” It’s written by Russell Mokhiber. There’s a photograph of Steven on the cover.
And it begins by saying, “On June 2, 2022, 39-year-old Steven Dierkes, father of three young girls, checked in for work at the Caterpillar foundry in Mapleton, Illinois. It was his ninth day on the job.
“Dierkes was taking a sample of the 2,600 degree molten iron when he tripped and fell into the vat.
“There was no guardrail.
“There was no protection to keep him from falling in.
“Capitol Hill Citizen obtained a copy of the Peoria County’s coroner’s report.
“Cause of death?
Can you talk more about this and about worker deaths in this country?
RALPH NADER: Well, worker deaths are up, according to OSHA. Last year, they’re slated at about almost 6,000 traumatic deaths, but there are well over 50,000 work-related deaths due to diseases on the premises, such as respiratory diseases, particulate matter exposure, to all kinds of silent forms of violence in these industrial workplaces.
And Steven Dierkes was not protected by guardrails. Imagine, he was taking a sample with a pole, and a cup at the end of the pole, of molten iron at 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit, a vat. And somehow he stumbled. Nothing kept him from falling in, and he was thermally annihilated.
OSHA gave the maximum fine of $145,000 to the giant Caterpillar company, whose foundry is in Mapleton, Illinois. There is no felonious provision in the OSHA. We lost that fight in 1970. It’s only a misdemeanor. So, you can have a willful situation that results in death, willful homicide, corporate homicide, and it’s only a misdemeanor.
And instead of taking this tragedy of Steven Dierkes as a George Floyd moment — the corporate homicide is far more prevalent in numbers than police homicides, bad as they are — the AF of L stayed silent. The United Auto Workers, which has the workers organized in that plant, has not done anything. Congress, the members of Congress from the district, and the Senate, they haven’t said anything.
And it’s very typical of occupational death by trauma and disease. These are the silent deaths, the silent funerals, the silent burials. Over 400,000 coal miners have died for their company in the last hundred years to coal mine — coal miners’ pneumoconiosis, not to mention shaft collapses at the mines. So, the Capitol Hill Citizen highlighted this, and it’s nothing but silence from Congress. So we have to really —
AMY GOODMAN: You also, in the article —
RALPH NADER: — up the pressure.
AMY GOODMAN: In the article, it says that Dierkes was the second person to die at the Mapleton Caterpillar foundry in just six months. No criminal investigation. As you said, the civil fine, $145,000. What can Congress do to turn this around, to deal with the rise of worker deaths on the job and the lack of accountability of corporations?
RALPH NADER: Well, there is a bill that the Democrats have proposed, led by Congressman Joe Courtney from Connecticut. But it’s the same old story. They put the bill in. They put the press release. They put their finger to the congressional wind. And then they do nothing. It’s called press release legislative proposals. The Democrats are very good about that.
What they should do is generate rallies outside Congress. They should go to the floor of the Senate with powerful speeches. They should go back home and talk about it. But they don’t do that. But there is a bill. Protect American Workers bill, it’s called, and people might be interested in reading about it in the Capitol Hill Citizen.
There are all kinds of things that — “Democracy Dying in Broad Daylight,” as you said, is the motto of it. There are a lot of taboos. The corporate control of the Congressional Black Caucus is staggering. Just staggering. And that’s why we have very few investigations of the inner city and what’s going on in terms of the exploitation of African Americans.
We have the confessions of a Starbucks wage slave — she called herself a Starbucks wage slave — from West Virginia. It’s an interview. I’ve never read anything like this. She said, “I’m not talking about the workplace. I’m talking about the deadly stuff we have to put in our concoctions and feed to people, who don’t know that there are some concoctions that have 16 teaspoons of sugar in one glass.” And it’s a very sensitive recognition.
AMY GOODMAN: This is the last page of Capitol Hill Citizen, “The Last Word: Confessions of a West Virginia Starbucks wage slave: Like 60 percent of Americans, I live paycheck to paycheck.” But then the pullout quote is: “A venti — or large — Peppermint Mocha has ten tablespoons of syrup in it. Just under half of the cup is filled with syrup. Then there are espresso shots and steamed milk. Then sweetened whipping cream. It’s the equivalent of 16 teaspoons of sugar in each cup.”
RALPH NADER: And the Congress has done very little on junk food regulation, that’s created so much harm, especially to youngsters — youth diabetes, overweight, high blood pressure. These food companies have been documented, and they know what they’re doing over the last decades: bypassing parental authority and guidance, undermining the parents, direct marketing to these kids. It’s a half-a-trillion-dollar industry a year, Amy. And they don’t do anything.
So, we want this — CapitolHillCitizen.com. Go get some copies. Spread the word. We’ve had a tremendous response to it so far around the country. People —
AMY GOODMAN: So, Ralph, can you talk about the role of local media and why you decided to launch this newspaper, and also the sort of, kind of Luddite nature of it? I mean, are all the articles on a website?
RALPH NADER: We’re doing a print-only newspaper, because there’s too much clutter, too much interference, distraction. We’ve tried putting out our reports and other materials on the internet. It’s like a massive void, no matter how many people have access to it. It’s too much — too much clutter, too much noise. So, people write back and say, “I can’t believe I’m holding a real newspaper in my hands — no clutter, no interference, no distraction. Thank you.”
So, we think that — there’s a study coming out in about three months, a very scientific study, showing that people, including students, retain more when they read something in print than when they see it on the screen, among other interferences, which my sister, Claire Nader, has pointed out in her new book, You Are Your Own Best Teacher!: Sparking the Curiosity, Imagination [in] Tweens. This is a real crisis here of the internet wardens, the internet Gulag, abducting our children five to six hours a day into the worst kind of experiences, increasing teenage depression and many other things. And we have to wake up to it.
And we have to wake Congress up to it. Whether we like it or not, Congress is the linchpin for democracy or autocracy. And they’re giving up their power to the executive branch to generate war and to express their fealty to Wall Street.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, we just have 30 seconds, but the — not exactly death, but the absolute diminution of local media in this country?
RALPH NADER: Local media is dying because of a lack of imagination and community organizing. There’s no reason why communities can’t have a weekly with a nonprofit community newspaper, three streams of revenue — subscriptions, advertisements and charitable contributions.
And we’re trying to prove it by launching this month The Winsted Citizen. I was a paperboy for the Winsted Evening Citizen. It had six issues a week, every day but Sunday. And now there’s — towns in Connecticut don’t even have a weekly. So we’re launching The Winsted Citizen. Associated Press just wrote an article on it.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ralph, we’re going to link to The Winsted Citizen and also Capitol Hill Citizen. Again, it is a paper newspaper. Its motto, “Democracy Dies in Broad Daylight.” Ralph Nader, longtime consumer advocate, corporate critic, former presidential candidate, founder of this new newspaper, Capitol Hill Citizen.
When we come back, longtime labor organizer Saket Soni on The Great Escape: A True Story of Forced Labor and Immigrant Dreams in America.
AMY GOODMAN: “Not a Love Song” by Sasami, dedicated to the late, great Jen Angel.