Ralph Nader, president of the United States.
Just the thought of it causes heart palpitations in corporate offices from one end of North America to the other, but nowhere more than in the executive suites of automobile companies.
Nader, who has championed dozens of consumer causes during his three and a half decades on the American scene, is best remembered for his 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed. It helped launch government regulation of motor vehicle safety in the United States.
Even in his latest incarnation as a presidential candidate, Nader returns periodically to his first calling, lambasting carmakers for slow progress on safety and fuel economy.
But the business community takes heart from the knowledge that Nader is not going to win. He says as much himself. He says his main goal is to help build the Green Party. Nader critics say he runs because it's another way for him to get on television.
Some in business circles are happy about the Nader candidacy. Their reasoning is this: Nearly all of the people who ultimately vote for him otherwise would cast ballots for Democrat Al Gore, whose own 1992 book, Earth in the Balance, said that the internal combustion engine is a mortal threat to the planet. While the total vote for Nader promises to be small, it could be enough in a close election to tip the balance in a few decisive states to the presumably more business-friendly Republican, George W. Bush.
Nader, now 66, is tall but slightly stooped, slim as ever. His face is gaunt under a shock of wavy, graying hair. He exhibits a kind of mischievous joy at the notion he could have an effect on the outcome of the election. When it comes to policy questions, he launches into long, complex sentences, which go off on stinging tangents about corporate greed and governmental incompetence but which, somehow, almost miraculously, return to the point. Whether he ultimately influences the outcome or not is almost beside the point for many fans of politics as sport. He is adding color to what otherwise might be a bland election season in the United States.
Nader's candidacy has helped reintroduce the self-styled crusader to a new generation of Americans. Many of his speaking appearances are on college campuses. He sometimes shares billing with entertainers such as the singers known as the Indigo Girls. For some of his fans from the past, the campaign has tarnished the Nader image. He solicits campaign contributions. And in a required financial disclosure, he revealed that he, too, believes in the profit motive. The value of his stock portfolio was estimated at several million dollars.
Automotive News International talked with Nader at an event where he spoke out in favor of legalizing the commercial cultivation of industrial hemp in the United States. Again, this is not a conventional U.S. presidential campaign. Here is the interview that took place after that appearance:
You say you don't like to make predictions, but best-case scenario, what do you foresee as the highest point for your campaign?
You never know. When you get on the debates, all bets are off. Just like Jesse Ventura was at 8 percent, and he gets on the debates, and he roars to 38 percent in the final election and wins the governorship of Minnesota. So there's no way to predict what's going to happen.
But I think we (the Green Party) will get federal funding on the next round (the 2004 election). I mean we'll cross that 5 percent barrier and move toward 10. It's harder to go from 1 to 5 than 5 to 10. And once you break into early double digits, anything can happen. Because a lot of people who want to support you say, 'Well, you can't win. Therefore, I'm going to vote for the least of the worst of the major candidates.'
But the more people who support you, the more the doubters will come on and support you. That's what we're working against. I mean, trying to take on the entrenched two-party system, which has the statutory ballot barriers, has the money, has command of the media, has almost every conceivable advantage, including the public expectation of the voters, is like climbing a cliff with a slippery rope. But we've got to do it.
You would expect to be the party's nominee in future elections?
I don't know. One election at a time.
Have you been able to invoke automotive issues to any great extent in the campaign?
Yes. Just as an example: how fuel efficiency performances are slipping behind. They are now at the level of 1980, at 24.5 miles per gallon, roughly. And Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore promised 40 miles per gallon average fuel efficiency by this year. They promised it in the campaign in 1992. So, that's an example.
Also, the transformation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from a regulatory agency to a consulting firm for the auto companies. Very little output in terms of safety standards. Extremely indifferent to upgrading 30-year-old safety standards, as the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety report demonstrated some months ago. And now we have this Bridgestone/Firestone tire situation.
You mention corporate welfare on your Web site as one of your campaign issues. You're including automobile companies in that?
Yes, the partnership (Partner-ship for a New Generation of Vehicles, joint government-industry research program) is a billion-dollar boondoggle. It hasn't produced a car with a clean engine, or a prototype engine, or even a deadline for when a prototype engine would be produced by the combined efforts of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, which received a great deal of that billion-dollar tax boondoggle.
Now, we managed to stop it in the House of Representatives, in a preliminary vote. But I don't know what the final outcome is going to be.
You've also described globalization as a threat, in many ways, to consumer well-being. But has not globalization improved the automobile, what with the influence of the Japanese and the Europeans and their greater sensitivity toward fuel economy and safety?
Yes, but that's not the new corporate globalization. The new corporate globalization involves companies shutting down here, going to Third World countries, collaborating with dictatorships, cutting deals with them and benefiting from the depressed wages and working conditions and environmental pollution, and opposition to form trade unions.
So, our companies close down, go to China, benefit from 32-cents-an-hour child labor, with new equipment. That is not a living wage in China. That is a dictatorially repressed wage. If those workers try to form independent trade unions, they are arrested and put in jail.
The company can pollute at will, perhaps bribe at will. All of these are dictatorially repressed costs, which the companies take advantage of, capitalize on, and send the products back, competing against companies and workers who played by the rules in the U.S.
That's not free trade. That's not fair trade. That's corporate-managed trade with dictatorially repressed costs. And that's what we have to talk about. Whereas the Japanese and German competition, they were paying good wages, they had unions, certainly in Germany, and they were competing against technologically stagnant U.S. auto companies and shook them up. And that's OK, that kind of trade.
They started opening plants in this country, like Honda and Mercedes and Volkswagen, instead of shutting plants down and going to the Third World and competing unfairly with U.S. companies and workers playing by the rules; or contracting with brutalized child labor with local companies and then using those profitable savings to unfairly compete against American workers. Because under GATT, you can have international trade produced by brutalized child labor. It is not a prohibited work process.
Do you see all auto companies, regardless of where they are based, participating in that same sort of unsavory globalization now? Or are there some good corporate players among the car companies?
Well, they'll tell you, they'll go where they have to. If one company goes and gets an unfair competitive advantage, the other company will go, too. Like what's happening now in Brazil. I mean, mind you, with Japan and Germany and France, England, Italy, when they were competing with U.S. companies, they had social wage standards, they had insurance, they paid them comparable wages - or even in the early years they weren't comparable in Japan, but they weren't 32 cents an hour either. That's more a level playing field. But what you're dealing with here are authoritarian regimes and oligarchies who say to U.S. companies, 'Come down here and pollute as much as you can, and we'll give you serf labor. We'll shut them up if they want to form trade unions. There is no due process of law. You never have to be sued in court. And you can grease palms.' And you take all that, roll it up into a competitive advantage, based on severely unfair polices and send it back to the U.S.
Who will win in November?
I've often said if Gore can't beat Bush without my help, given Bush's record in Texas and his inability to articulate any kind of case, Gore shouldn't be elected dog catcher.
You can e-mail Automotive News Staff Reporter Harry Stoffer at [email protected]