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Ralph Nader on “The Rebellious CEO,” His Upcoming 90th Birthday & Remembering Dr. Sidney Wolfe

Web ExclusiveJanuary 05, 2024
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Part 2 of our conversation with Ralph Nader, legendary consumer advocate, corporate critic and four-time former presidential candidate. He talks about his new book, The Rebellious CEO: 12 Leaders Who Did It Right, and the death of his longtime colleague Dr. Sidney Wolfe, who spent decades fighting the Food and Drug Administration and pharmaceutical industry and is credited with helping to force 28 dangerous medications off the market.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Part 2 of our conversation with Ralph Nader, who has spent more than half a century working as a consumer advocate and corporate critic, and now has a new book out. It’s titled The Rebellious CEO: 12 Leaders Who Did It Right.

Some may be surprised, Ralph, to see you write this book. I mean, you became famous for your book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile. You’re a well-known corporate critic. But talk about some of the examples, from the CEO of Patagonia to Andy Shallal, who founded Busboys and Poets, CEOs who you believe did it right.

RALPH NADER: Well, it’s very important for us, not to mention millions of students in business courses, to have contrast and comparison and yardsticks of the CEOs who did it right and made profit, in comparison with these giant, self-serving, self-enriching, dictatorial CEOs of Facebook, of Merck Sharp & Dohme and other companies, ExxonMobil, the military munitions companies, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics. How do you evaluate them? If you let them evaluate themselves publicly and give us the yardsticks, they’ll say, “Oh, we’re just meeting market demand.” Yeah, well, they can create markets, like the opioid slaughter situation, over 100,000 dead every year in the U.S. from overzealous marketing of these opioids. You can monopolize markets. You can deal with deceptive advertising. You can get unfair subsidies against small business, who doesn’t get these subsidies. You can commit corporate crimes and have bad business drive out good business, if they’re not prosecuted.

So, I wrote this book because I’ve known these CEOs over the years, Amy, and they reversed the business model. They didn’t just have a vision of what they wanted to sell and make money. They always paid attention to profits, but they reversed the business model and said, “We’re going to do it by state-of-the-art treatment of our workers, consumers, environment. We’re going to speak out. We’re not going to — we’ll criticize our own industry. We’re going to openly admit our mistakes. We’re not going to engage in secrecy.” I never saw any of these people whine about regulation, because they were way ahead of regulatory standards in their own business. They didn’t complain about taxes, because they knew they had to contribute to the community. They were free and independent human beings with a moral compass.

And it’s very relevant today. For example, Ray Anderson, the engineering CEO of Interface Corporation out of Atlanta, the biggest tile carpet manufacturer in the world, he completely changed his company to become carbon neutral, and which it reached in 2019, one of the first companies ever to do that. Now they’re going carbon negative. Well, unfortunately, he’s passed away, but his books and his performance tutor us today. They inform us today.

Herb Kelleher, who started Southwest Airlines, because he didn’t like the way the airline cartel was treating people, started treating customers very well. I called him up once, and I said, “Herb, thank you for treating airline passengers so well and making it the priority.” He said, “I don’t make it the priority.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “My priority are my people,” which he used to call workers. He says, “If I treat my workers well, they’ll treat the passengers well, and we’ll get more business, and that will help the shareholders.” So you see how he reversed the model. And he was the lowest-paid CEO among the giant CEOs in the airline industry. And he made more profit than all of them put together for a number of years, more profit than Delta, United, American. So, it worked.

And I like the way they spoke out. Saul Price and B Rapoport were Jewish Americans. They recognized the right of Israel to exist. They didn’t like the way Israel was treating Palestinians. And their charity contributed to job training programs in Palestine, education programs. They didn’t care about the pushback from their peers. They were intellectually independent, and they didn’t care that people say it’s going to damage your business. You know, they took their conscience to work.

One of the greatest in this book, The Rebellious CEO, is Anita Roddick of — who started The Body Shop in England. She was probably the most revolutionary. It’s still important to read her books. She not only insisted that her workers have civic pursuits on company time, but she allowed The Body Shop to be filled with posters and other materials for environmental groups. She went to Indigenous areas around the world for supplies, didn’t exploit the people there, protected their cultural way of life. And when she expanded into the U.S., she pretty much startled the cosmetic industry, because she was a strong critic of how they manipulated the psychologies of young people and sold a lot of junk cosmetics.

John Bogle completely revolutionized the mutual fund industry. He started out Vanguard as a mutual. That means if you invest in Vanguard, you’re technically part owner, instead of shareholders and being badgered by New York Stock Exchange analysts every quarter. And he cut the fees enormously and brought down the fees of his other competitors, like Fidelity. But he also wrote one of the greatest books a business CEO has ever written, called Enough, where he counseled, in the last days of his life, a few years ago, his business counterparts to restrain their greed, to think of other things in life. He was a classicist. And he gave a copy to every worker in Vanguard.

So, a lot of these — Yvon Chouinard, a complete focus on recycling and respect for the environment. And he just gave away his company, which is a private company, to a trust run by people in the company in California.

AMY GOODMAN: Chouinard is the head of Patagonia. Talk about that economic model, what he did in putting the whole company into a trust.

RALPH NADER: Right. He — his family owned the company. It was a billion-dollar-sales-a-year company. And he would promote his outdoor equipment and outdoor clothing company with ads saying, “Don’t buy our products, if you can use and repair the clothing and outdoor equipment you bought previously.” I mean, who would ever do that? He challenged Trump on Trump’s move to privatize or corporatize public lands, full-page ads. A coalition of companies he brought together sued the Trump administration.

But when it came time for him to retire — he was about in his mid-eighties — he gave the entire company to a trust, which is now the owner of Patagonia and has a very strong involvement of the workers and the people who have been running Patagonia, so, in order to perpetuate the environmental model that he developed, and not succumb to being taken over. The problem with a lot of these CEOs — Ben and Jerry’s, for example — they were bought out by big conglomerates and lost their cultural distinctiveness, although they still have some of it, Ben and Jerry’s. But he wanted to make sure there was no buyout.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Bernard Rapoport? Talk about American Income Life Insurance Company, not only one of the few companies to sell insurance to labor unions, but was itself unionized at Rapoport’s insistence.

RALPH NADER: That’s right. In this book, The Rebellious CEO, B Rapoport stood out, as did, by the way, Jeno Paulucci, who is the seller of Chinese food and started 70 companies in the U.S., including some in his nineties. They insisted on the workers forming unions. I mean, there wasn’t even a union drive. And B Rapoport insisted on having a union, and he joined it himself. And Jeno Paulucci insisted on having unions, because he wanted to have a coordinated, intelligent collective bargaining process. And in his long career, he never had a strike, not one strike.

So, you know, look at Starbucks now, and look at other companies like Amazon and how they’re resisting and trying to break up union drives, and violating federal labor laws in the process. Now, that’s why it’s important, this book, to show that there are yardsticks, contrasts, comparisons by these companies, who paid attention to profits, without which they said they couldn’t do what they were doing, but did it in the right way. There’s no more powerful argument against these giant dictatorial CEOs than to show that there are other companies who had made profit, sometimes more profit in percentage than the big CEOs, and complied with regulatory standards, paid their taxes, spoke out publicly on civic pursuits and treated their workers, consumers and environment well.

And if we don’t have those yardsticks, the media is not going to talk about it. They’re just going to talk about business economic indicators, like they do on Marketplace in the evening on NPR endlessly. So, we want to put heart and soul, health and safety, vision, posterity protection, climate — all this has got to be grounded in these companies that are doing it right, but they’re not getting enough media, which is — you’ll be surprised to know that one of the reasons some of the media is not interviewing me on this is because they said, “What are you doing, pushing good news? Don’t you know good news doesn’t make any news? Good news is not news.” Well, you know, when you have a culture and a civic community that does not champion good news, that’s an indication of decline and deterioration.

AMY GOODMAN: Ralph, talk about Paul Hawken of Project Drawdown, Erewhon, and also — he’s out in California — closer to home, where you are, in Washington, D.C., Andy Shallal.

RALPH NADER: Yeah, well, Paul Hawken was the great proselytizer. He ran some small companies, and he would build them and then sell them off. And he wrote a book called The Ecology of Commerce, which is now used in business schools, which I hope this book, The Rebellious CEO, will be used in business schools around the country. And he’s spoken to business audiences in the U.S. and around the world, saying, “Look, you know, whether you like it or not, you better get on it, because this climate situation, the environment situations, is omnicidal, and it’s not going to exempt you and your business.”

And he was an adviser to Ray Anderson at the Interface Corporation. And one thing led to another. For example, Ray Anderson advised mid-management Walmart to cut their packaging mass. “What are you doing, all this packaging on packaging on packaging? You want to save money? Cut it down.” And they did cut it down.

One thing about Paul Hawken, he gave one of the greatest commencement addresses ever to a college in Oregon, which I reprinted mostly in the book. And that’s worth the whole book, the way he raised the horizons of these young children and the language of these young students and the language that he used.

And also, Midas Muffler, Gordon Sherman, who majored in classics at the University of Chicago. He wanted to hire a Ph.D. in classics to run his Midas Muffler shops around the country. And he created powerful citizen groups. There’s a very powerful one now in Chicago. And if he wasn’t expelled from the company by his father — there was a tiff, family tiff — he would have been a great seeder of citizen groups all over the country through the Midas Muffler Foundation. But that’s how broad-gauge these people were.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Andy Shallal, the Iraqi American entrepreneur in Washington, D.C. He ran for mayor of D.C. Talk about Busboys and Poets.

RALPH NADER: Well, Andy Shallal reversed the restaurant business model. He revolutionized it. Why do I say that? Because he has eight restaurants. You walk into the restaurant, the first thing you see is an open bookstore, very artistic. He’s the artist, and he does murals for his restaurants. Then you go into the dining area, which can look at the kitchen and watch the cooks prepare the food. And then you go into a civic room where you can have dinner, but there are poets there, politicians talking, debates, citizen group leaders mixing it up, questions from the audience. So, it was like a community center.

And he’s doing very well. And because he gets so much publicity for the events in his restaurants and for his public-spirited advocacy in Washington, D.C. — he’s an advocate of statehood, advocate of equity and economic development, as if people count first — he doesn’t have to advertise. And he saves all this money from advertising to pour back into the model of his restaurant.

And he’s a remarkable person. He spoke out against the Iraq War, obviously. That was his ancestral home. He pickets with citizen groups in front of the White House. If anything, it helps his business. So he’s reversing the usual, cramped, sinecure-type model of a restaurant. And he treats his workers very well. When he started, he was paying his workers higher than any restaurant workers in Washington, D.C. Testifies before the D.C. City Council. As you said, he’s run for office.

AMY GOODMAN: And I’m just looking — I’m just looking right now just online, and it says, “Emergency open mic: Violence in Gaza and Israel. Hosted by Andy Shallal, the renowned artist and founder of Busboys and Poets. Free and open to all,” Ralph.

RALPH NADER: Yeah, there you are. And as another example, Amy, I mean, he had third-party presidential debates in his restaurant with the Libertarian Party, the Green Party. He even had debates coming off our website, debating taboos right in his restaurant, very controversial issues, like antisemitism against Arabs and Arab Americans, the other antisemitism, as Jim Zogby of the American Arab Institute has written and spoken about. It’s a wonderful repudiation of the principle of businesses: “Don’t get involved in public issues. You’re going to lose business.” When Howard Zinn passed away, he had an event in the memory of Howard Zinn. The restaurant was totally filled up, and there was a line for three blocks, to do that, to remember Howard Zinn, his antiwar activities, his many books, even for the young, on A People’s History of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Ralph, speaking of remembering the greats, I wanted to ask you about the longtime consumer advocate and your dear friend, Dr. Sidney Wolfe, who’s just died at the age of 86. With you, Ralph, he founded the Health Research Group in 1971 as part of the consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen, that you founded, spent decades fighting the Food and Drug Administration and the pharmaceutical industry, credited with helping to force 28 dangerous medications off the market. I wanted to go to a clip of Sid here on Democracy Now! It was what? Like six years ago. This is Sidney Wolfe.

DR. SIDNEY WOLFE: Fifty years ago, for the first time ever, this country decided that healthcare was a right for two groups of people: the old and the very poor. And we all hoped that shortly after that, something would happen to add more to those two vulnerable groups of people. And the only thing that’s happened in 50 years is President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which added about 20 more million people and put in important provisions, such as not discriminating against people because of preexisting illness. … So, to roll back the clock not only on the Affordable Care Act, but to start eroding Medicare and Medicaid, now 51 years old, is cruel, is not passionate and is not consistent with a doctor’s ethical duty to first do no harm.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Dr. Sid Wolfe. Ralph, can you talk about Sid’s legacy?

RALPH NADER: Well, there you have it, his intensity, his precision, his relentlessness, his knowledge, his accuracy, all in that excerpt that you just played. Dr. Wolfe was the doctor’s doctor. That is, he forced the profession to focus more on prevention of trauma and disease, even though it wasn’t profitable. Treating and diagnosing disease and trauma are what’s profitable.

He was a watchdog of the FDA. There wasn’t anybody in the upper echelons of the FDA who weren’t aware of his press releases, his books, reports, testimony, his withering criticism, even when he was put on one of the advisory committees to the Food and Drug Administration. He also policed the medical profession in terms of the bad doctors. He would expose them by name in reports.

But his greatest immediate contribution to people right now, as we speak, is how many drugs he got off the market, as you mentioned, but also his monthly report and his database called Worst Pills, Best Pills. So, tens of millions of people who take medicine today, they’re taking drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration. But some of them have bad side effects, and the others don’t have such bad side effects. And so he divides them into drugs that you should never take — even though they’re approved, they have a high rate of side effects, like gastrointestinal bleeding, nausea, dizziness, falls, etc.; drugs that you should be careful about taking, in not all circumstances; and then drugs that are OK — they’ve been around for a long time, they’ve been tested, there’s a lot of data on it. And that information is available to people for $15 a year. You can go to Worst Pills, Best Pills at the website, and have 24/7 access. You have a relative call you up and say, “I just took this drug, and I don’t feel right,” you can check it out, for just $15 a year, a database that should have been produced by the Food and Drug Administration, but wasn’t, should have been produced by the American Medical Association, but wasn’t, but instead was produced by Sid Wolfe and his small number of colleagues. He never had more than 10 or 12 people in Public Citizen’s Health Research Group to do all this work.

So, he sets an example in a hundred ways. We’re going to miss him terribly. His legacy will continue for decades, however. And we hope someday there’ll be a civic biography of Dr. Sidney Wolfe, graduate of Cornell and Case Western Reserve Medical School. And also a documentary is in the works now.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Ralph, February 27th is a big day. You will be turning 90. What’s your secret?

RALPH NADER: Well, I think being civically engaged, having a good Mediterranean diet. I was raised by parents from Lebanon who had a great diet that we ate, that now nutritionists say is about the best one, low on fat, sugar, salt, a lot of vegetables, a lot of fruits, legumes, nuts. And that’s one very thing: You got to keep physically active and intellectually engaged. So I think civic action is good for people’s health.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, I was there in Winsted, Connecticut, at the restaurant, when you took over the restaurant, and the owner made all of your mom Rose Nader’s, or some of her recipes, and you put out your mother’s cookbook. Can you talk about that, really seriously, how that affected you and your sisters, Claire Nader and Laura, the great anthropologist, Laura Nader at UC Berkeley? Talk about your mom and dad’s philosophy when they came to this country.

RALPH NADER: Well, that my dad opened a restaurant, bakery, delicatessen, and he would always talk to people about local, state, national, international issues. Some of them would say, “Mr. Nader, you know, you keep speaking out like this, you’re going to lose business.” He said, “Let me tell you something. When I sailed past the Statue of Liberty in 1912, I took it seriously. Don’t you?” And he reversed it and said, “If you don’t take your conscience to work, you’re doing nothing but selling. You’re not a real, full human being.”

And my mother was very active in the community. People would say, “Mrs. Nader, you’re raising four children. Isn’t that enough to preoccupy you? You spend so much time in the community.” She says, “What’s the difference between a community and a family? If one is not operating properly, it affects the other.”

That’s the way we grew up, by watching their example, not by having them pound the table in a didactic way and saying, “You must go to this town meeting, or you must do this, or you must do that.” To them, freedom had another side to it. It was civic responsibility. And they would do it by questions. I once came home — I guess I was, I don’t know, 8 years old or something — from school, and I said, “Dad, we just learned who discovered America.” And he said, “Who, Ralph?” I said, “Christopher Columbus.” He said, “Christopher Columbus? Sit down, Ralph.” He said, “Christopher Columbus invaded America for gold. He didn’t discover it. There were a lot of people there when he came with his three ships.”

That’s the kind of education we had from my mother and father, which is why we published this book, The Ralph Nader and Family Cookbook — it was really my mother’s recipes — with a long introduction I wrote about how she used food to raise us, tell us about agriculture, nutrition, how important it is not to eat certain foods, how to be curious about land. And she used food as a educational tool. And so, we put that in this book, The Ralph Nader and Family Cookbook.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, I was just thinking, Ralph, that when I went to the big opening for the book, that amazing meal that so many people came out to have, that’s when I met your grandniece. That’s when I met Samya Stumo, who was 24 years old and died in that Ethiopian flight, that plane that was made by Boeing. Samya’s middle name is Rose, named for your mother. If you can talk about the latest on that? I mean, you may remember, of course, that day she was there, and then we went over to the tort museum, not like apple tortes, but your famous museum in Winsted, Connecticut, and I got to spend time with her. Talk about Samya and the case.

RALPH NADER: Well, Samya was extraordinary. She was an emerging leader in global health in her early twenties. She had peer-review articles at international conferences. She had a vivaciousness and a charisma that was built on content and a relentless focus on delivering healthcare all the way to the people, breaking through bureaucracies and distortions of health aid. And it was a huge loss at the time when she went down with 146 other people right outside Addis Ababa in Ethiopia due to Boeing’s criminal design of the Boeing 737 MAX. I said at the time that a lot of people’s lives would not be saved, because Samya Rose Stumo was not going to be allowed to fulfill her great promise.

The families have all filed lawsuits. They’ve organized. They’ve got legislation through Congress to improve airline regulation by the FAA. They wanted a stronger bill, but it was miraculous that they got what they did. They had a lot of news conferences, as you know. You had them on Democracy Now! And the lawsuits are bogged down. And that’s a big story all by itself, that the judge is very inimical to having open trials with Boeing. He’s pushing the families into mediation, with more than a little arm twisting. And the plaintiff lawyers, you know, they want their fee. And the defense lawyers want to immunize the top executives of Boeing, who have thus far escaped the arm of the law for what they did and did not. And that’s a big story. And I hope the media gets on it, because it’s a gross distortion of the promise of the law of torts. Justice delayed is justice denied. And people should have a right to have an open trial in court with a trial by jury, which they’re not receiving. They’re forcing these settlements under gag order secrecy. And this judge has not allowed one single trial in four years. His name is Judge Alonso. He’s a Democratic appointee in Chicago Federal District Court.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ralph, I want to thank you so much for spending this time with us. Ralph Nader, longtime consumer advocate, the granduncle of Samya Stumo, corporate critic, four-time former presidential candidate. His new book is titled The Rebellious CEO: 12 Leaders Who Did It Right, also the founder of the Capitol Hill Citizen newspaper, named by Time and Life magazines one of the most — one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century. He turns 90 on February 27th.

To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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