Ralph Nader hosts “Billionaires Without Bull” at the NYPL

Ralph Nader hosts “Billionaires Without Bull” at the NYPL

May 6, 2011

A lot of people calm down as they get older, they get tired and the things they cared passionately about in their youth just seem too unattainable. Ralph Nader, 77, has not reached that point yet.

Mr. Nader, a native of Winsted and an attorney who made his name in the 1960s—when he attacked the auto industry for safety violations—has since pursued a career as a diligent consumer, environmental and political activist. He is still trying to save the world, and now he has a new plan for how to do it.

He believes that only the super rich—he notes that in America 5 percent of the population controls some 60 percent of the nation’s wealth—have the resources to address the many problems confronting the world today, and he is challenging billionaires to make a difference. Mr. Nader first broached this concept in his 2009 book, “Only the Super Rich Can Save Us!,” which postulated a utopian world in which the wealthiest people decide to work together for the collective good.

It was the latest of 34 books for the iconoclastic author and laid the groundwork for a move to engage wealthy movers and shakers in the preservation of American viability and global environmental health.

Mr. Nader met two billionaire pals—Peter Lewis, the chairman of the board and former CEO of Progressive Insurance, and media mogul Ted Turner—on a dais at the New York Public Library (NYPL) Wednesday night for a spirited conversation entitled “Billionaires Against Bull, From Charity to Social Justice.”

Mr. Nader began by defining the difference between charity and social justice. He said soup kitchens, while “commendable,” are charity, but that social justice asks why there is poverty in the world’s richest nation in the first place. “A society with more justice needs less charity,” he said.

The two men sitting with him Wednesday are living examples of the kind of philanthropy Mr. Nader would like use to change the direction of the world, but over the course of 90 minutes Wednesday he still nettled and pushed them to do even more. While both men are his friends, Mr. Nader’s call for a coalition of the super-wealthy did not get far on that NYPL stage, however.

“I have spoken to Warren Buffett and he says he will put in a good word [for my proposal for a coalition for the super-wealthy], but it won’t happen unless we bring people together,” the visionary Mr. Nader said. “Billionaires don’t return phone calls—how do we connect with their particular passions?”

Mr. Lewis, whose philanthropy is substantial, is often forceful in requiring that sound planning be the basis for his giving. He told Mr. Nader succinctly, “You have to have a realistic proposition. Create a plan.” He further suggested that Mr. Nader confine his plan to two topics out of a potpourri of issues he has on his list.

He said it is necessary to find people with management skills to promote the desired changes. “When we started in 2004 to form a political organization, we found the brightest people, but what I realized after a year or two was that these bright people, well-intentioned people, didn’t know how to get things done. I formed a management center to help them—but they don’t want to hear about it. Face it, people in business know how to manage; some people in the military know how—but people in politics don’t.”

Even with a plan and good managers, Mr. Lewis is not hopeful that a coalition of the super-wealthy could quickly effect the kind of change Mr. Nader wants. He said he has spent 35 years trying to find ways to intelligently apply philanthropy and, in some instances, such as trying to legalize the use of marijuana, has had only limited success.

He donated $300 million to the Marijuana Policy Project because it did have a solid plan of action, but even there the results have not been stellar. “We have been trying to concoct a public information campaign [in support of a Colorado bill that would allow marijuana use for medical purposes]. We are trying to take the poll numbers up 7 to 8 percent in support of the bill. We are doing it in as smart and luxurious a way as it can be done—but don’t bet on us,” he advised.

He also cautioned that billionaires are not team players. “They usually got where they are working by themselves,” he said. “They have teams that work for them—they are not part of teams.”

Mr. Turner, who presented a low-key, ironic demeanor throughout the evening, had little direction to give to Mr. Nader in his campaign to create a coalition of billionaires. “You do what you can do,” he said. “Keep writing letters and contacting people to get your ideas out there. I write letters and send them to hundreds of people.”

Typically, he said, the response level is less than 10 percent of those he has contacted. “But, if I am walking along the street and I see some trash, I pick it up and put it in a trash can. If more people are picking up trash than putting it down, we will end of living in a clean world. So you just do what you can.”

Mr. Turner also seemed to exemplify the parochial interests of billionaire philanthropists and the individual efforts they like to make. Mr. Nader pushed him for his views on a number of social problems, most of which he deflected because his activities are directed primarily toward nuclear disarmament and climate change. “I have been a worrier all my life,” he told the audience. “You-all can stop worrying, because I am the great global worrier. Then, I decided if I was going to worry, why not worry about the biggest problems.”

He decided that global climate change has great potential to disrupt this world within 20 or 30 years while, at the same time, the human population is growing exponentially. “I was born in 1938,” he said, “and there were then 2 billion people on Earth. There are now 7 billion—2.5 times more. At the same time, the number of elephants has dropped 70 percent … and the environment has deteriorated by about the same amount. We have to change the way we are doing things.”

Read the rest of the review here.

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