February 23, 2011
From Ben Kharakh at Buzzine:
The problem with too much of the news one encounters is that it’s too problem-oriented. From local news to the 24-hour networks to investigative journalism, it’s often one problem after another. Even when one reads about people trying to make a difference, the narratives too often take the form of, “It’s just a drop in the bucket,” as opposed to, “Here’s how you can get involved.” It’s enough to work up a case of anxiety.
That’s not the case with Ralph Nader’s Only The Super-Rich Can Save Us!, due out abridged and in paperback on April 1st. The practical utopia by route of political fiction tells the tale of billionaires uniting to make a positive change. The Meliorists, as they call themselves, are comprised of luminaries such as George Soros, Warren Buffet, Ted Turner, Bill Cosby, and Yoko Ono. Together these individuals mount a campaign to level the political playing field, such that the owners of MacDonalds and Exxon have as much say as their employees.
Nader moves from diagnosis to solution in the book, but what is especially inspiring is the message at the text’s core: what separates people triumphs over that which divides them. And once united, nothing can hold people back. The question is: for what cause should people unite? Ralph Nader has some answers.
Ben Kharakh: I heard you’ve been meeting with some of the Meliorists since the book’s publication. How has that been going?
Ralph Nader: Some of them have been pretty responsive. I had breakfast with Warren Buffet in Omaha, and he invited me later to attend the gigantic shareholders meeting he has in Omaha every year. It’s 40,000 people, and they select a certain number of books and authors. He invited me to sell the books to the people who attend the meeting. Since then, I have spoken to him about his own efforts with Bill Gates to have billionaires sign pledges that they’re going to give away 50% or more of their wealth to good works.
I have also spoken to Ted Turner, spoken to Peter Louis, and William Gates Sr., Bernard Rapoport, and Max Palevsky, who just passed away. They were quite interested. I think the coincidence of the effort by Buffet and Gates–they’ve already signed up 47 billionaires (or more)–gives this book an even greater contemporary context.
And on May 4th, the New York Public Library is having a major event centering on the book, and maybe we will have a couple of the people in the book–a couple of billionaires–in attendance.
BK: Were they on board with getting involved or getting the ball rolling on some of the initiatives that you discuss?
RN: No, it didn’t reach that level. This has to be done rather incrementally. First, you have to feel comfortable with one another–with the Bill Gates group. And then they’ll talk about certain charities. The big leap is to move from charity to justice, from soup kitchens to preventing hunger, from symptoms to causes, in terms of change. Now some of them, like George Soros, are into that. Peter Louis was one of the major people behind medical marijuana laws, but by and large, others haven’t made that transition from charity to justice–from dealing necessarily with painful symptoms to prevention–a shift to power from the few to the many, for example, both politically and electorally, and giving workers, taxpayers, and consumers more rights and remedies. But the process is underway.
BK: One of the things I’m interested in is the motivation of the opposition to these sorts of things–the people in your book who were working against the Meliorists, as lead by Brovar Dortwist (based on Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform). It seems to me as though it has to be a fundamental difference as deep as diverging conceptions of justice. Because if both groups were at least on the same page fundamentally, then the opposition would have offered their own suggestions for improvement rather than trying to stop the Meliorists altogether…
RN: That’s one of the questions for the ages. I think one reason is that they really believe they’ve earned it or inherited it so it’s their private property; it’s theirs. The second is that they think anyone can make it in America. They made it so other people can make it. The third is that, once they have it, they sure as heck don’t want to let it go unless it’s on their terms. So they develop this standard of living gulf to begin with–mansions, gated communities, elaborate yachts, and so forth. And that distances them from the daily pain and agony and deprivation of the masses, so they don’t experience it day after day. They aren’t exactly foremen on the assembly line.
And then they get a bit paranoid. Everyone is after their money and they have to have all kinds of security. Basically, they isolate themselves from opportunities for compassion for people who weren’t as fortunate as they were. And a lot of rich people will admit, when you get to know them, that a lot of luck was involved. They have to be in the right place at the right time, make a contract at the right time; public investment made their real estate rich at the right time; public research and development in trillions of dollars to help build their industries like bio tech, semi-conductor, computer, aero space, and pharmaceutical… That’s why Buffet is so eloquent in saying, “I’m just lucky; I could have been born in Bangladesh.”
BK: There are those who wield tremendous power, but what about the everyday people who wouldn’t side with the Meliorists?
RN: That’s also a difficult question. Part of it is that they’re lied to. If they just listen to the Republicans’ words, they’ll think, “Wow this is great,” but they don’t take the next step and compare it with their deeds. They hardly know what their members of Congress do compared to the propaganda that comes out of their members of Congress. The second is they don’t see an alternative. If they think the Republicans are worse than the Democrats or the Democrats are worse than the Republicans, they’ll vote for the least worst. You just hold your nose and vote. And the third is ideological pigeonholing. People think they are conservative, and then a politician says that they are a conservative; that’s very important to get the vote.
BK: One thing that strikes me as problematic is the level of intolerance many hold for those who disagree with their political positions. And then there are parties who profit from and heighten that sense of intolerance.
RN: That’s a very good point. The first point is that the conniving politician is trying to make people feel comfortable with their own prejudices. That’s what the most craven politicians do. That’s what people like Limbaugh do. Because people grow up with certain hates and likes and certain bigotry and tolerance toward color, race, gender, you name it, and they play to it. In fact, there was a senator, I think it was Inhofe from Oklahoma, who was asked, “Why do you keep winning elections, Senator Inhofe”? He said, “Very easy: God, gays, and guns.”
That’s very important for people who give virtually zero time to politics. The less time people give to engaging in the political process, the more vulnerable they are to manipulation, the more vulnerable they are to a single issue determining their choice. Even though there might be twenty other issues that a politician may take a stance on, as long as he takes the stand the voter wants on a few issues, the voter feels as though that politician is on their side. It’s a function of time. You can actually develop an equation. The more time a voter spends before Election Day evaluating issues, the more resistant the voter will be to manipulation, propaganda, and sloganeering.
BK: I’ve been reading about a number of, say, societal ills. In the course of doing so, I’ve noticed a number of non-corporate and non-governmental avenues of dealing with these issues, like soup kitchens, community gardens, co-operative parenting, and so on. How is this something that can be tapped into?
RN: Do you mean expanding those services?
BK: Yes, or getting them to work knowingly together, as opposed to their efforts being dispersed.
RN: It doesn’t necessarily add up to more if they all meld together. You don’t want a charity bureaucracy. You just tend to get more efficiency and innovation when there are a lot of groups. Obviously, if they’re busy paying bills that are three months old, they can’t do very much. But once they become sustainable, I like a lot of groups. They come up with different ideas.
BK: It makes me think of how, in the book, you talked about getting rid of the corporate nature of our capitalist system and making it simply more capitalistic, such that the companies actually compete with one another, leading, hopefully, to innovation.
RN: And give people a stake in capital and not just labor. Right now, people are really just relying on their salaries and wages, even though, through their taxes and other things, they’ve built up a legitimate equity stake in the economy, which they do not get. For example, there are the trillions of dollars of R&D from Washington that has built all of these modern industries–more than you could ever imagine. Half of the drugs are based on NIH (National Institutes of Health) research. Three-quarters of the anti-cancer drugs, the Boeing 707 was basically a prototype of an air force plane, the Pentagon developed the Internet, NASA produced all kinds of civilian technologies, and so forth. And the people never get what I call “the residual.” They don’t get anything in return, other than paying more taxes to give Intel, Cisco, and Microsoft more R&D, more tax credits, and let them keep the money.
BK: In the book, it seems like these were the sorts of issues you were focusing on–that people were not getting their needs met by the institutions they looked to for getting their needs met. And it’s this talk of needs that brings people together across ideological lines.
RN: Have you ever read a book like that?
BK: No, but I saw that there are other books that seem equally ambitious in their attempts, for example, to end global poverty. There’s one by Jeffrey Sachs…
RN: The trouble is they’re non-fiction. They’re policy books. You can’t have the flexibility unless you do fiction. You can’t get down to the stage-by-stage of it unless you do it in a political-fictional. As you know, it’s not a novel. It’s political fiction. That’s what we need more of because that’s what gives us the imagination. For instance, try to do that in non-fiction, you couldn’t do it. You could just recommend policy, but you couldn’t recommend how to get there because that would just be policy too. We have to create it in our imagination so we can envision it and put it into practice, which is, literarily, a function of what’s called the practical utopia.
BK: What do you think people can do right now to be a force for positive change in America?
RN: They can change the wealthy people in their community and try to connect the wealthy with the kind of changes that will edify them as well as improve the community. That way, you have self-gratification combined with a better community life. They won’t be billionaires, by and large, but every community has their wealthy who are often bored with their daily lives.
I grew up in a small town in Connecticut. Look at the difference in charity between 1900 and compared to today: the public library was established by a Mrs. Beasley, 10,000 bucks; the high school was established by a clock manufacturer, an industrialist; the hospital was established by three wealthy families; the main park was established by a wealthy person. That’s four major factors in a town life, all established. This isn’t just giving a grant to a hospital or a business school; this is actually establishing the institution. And we don’t see enough of that now.
BK: That made me think about the part of the book where the Meliorist Society discussed what the moral philosophy underpinning their aims should be. A number of the things you discussed with me today and discussed in the book are the sort of things people often call “charity.” This made me think of when the philosopher Peter Singer came to talk at Rutgers. He argued that there is a moral obligation to give to charity. But if it’s a moral obligation, it seems to me that the term “charity” almost masks what’s going on. If you were morally obligated to do it, it doesn’t seem to me like it would be charitable. Calling it “charitable” strikes me as odd–as odd as it would be to say that a parent was being “charitable” by playing an active role in the life of his or her child. “Oh, my dad’s real charitable. He cares about me.” Isn’t that just what it means to be a good dad?
RN: I think you make a very important point. If it’s a moral imperative, you have to go deeper than charity. Charity ministers to people who, let’s face it, are either subjected to very bad luck like an accident, or a very bad injustice. If you just do charity, that isn’t a sufficient compliment to the rigors that are described as moral imperatives. Moral imperatives have to move from charity to justice–from administrating soup kitchens to preventing hunger. It has to move to a shift of power: a deeper democracy; more voice for the people; facilitating the ways people can organize as workers, as a communities, and so forth. The phrase that describes what I’m saying is: “A society that has more justice is a society that needs less charity.”
The new abridged edition of Nader’s Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! will be published through Seven Stories Press in April 2011.