February 9, 2005: Reading Room
business and political power
As an undergraduate, Ralph Nader ’55 tried to ban spraying of the insecticide DDT at Princeton. Since then, he has become one of the country’s best-known activists, penned numerous books, and run for president twice. In two books published in 2004 before the election, In Pursuit of Justice: Collected Writings 2000—2003 (Seven Stories) and The Good Fight (ReganBooks), Nader explains how he believes that a continuing shift of political power away from individual citizens toward large corporations has affected the economy, the environment, American culture, and individuals’ rights. Nader spoke in mid-November with Leslie Brunetta ’82.
What are some of the major problems caused by what you see as corporate control of Washington?
Politicians have given corporations round after round of tax preferences, shelters, and haven opportunities. Because corporate profits are undertaxed, individuals pay higher taxes, our children will pay for higher budget deficits, and we receive fewer public services. Politicians have socialized traditional corporate investment risk by giving away taxpayer-financed pharmaceutical research done under the National Institutes of Health to drug companies and then eliminating market competition by giving these companies monopoly marketing agreements for the drugs. The company has low risk and high reward because consumers pay twice, once as taxpayers and again as patients.
Corporations, with their campaign money and lobbyists, have weakened the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, and other regulatory agencies. Now the agencies that are supposed to protect the environment or stem corporate fraud, for example, consult with the corporations and mildly exhort them to do better. So our air and water are dirtier than they should be, and worker pensions and investors have lost trillions in corporate scandals while a few executives get slaps on the wrist.
What legislative remedies would be effective in checking corporations’ political influence?
You could pass laws that would make it easier for individual consumers, investors, taxpayers, and workers to band together so they could have more power. For instance, in 1983 Illinois enacted a law requiring monopoly utility companies to include an insert in their bills explaining how and why customers should join the state Citizens Utility Board. The board’s staff researches the utilities’ operations and then reports and testifies on how customers’ interests are or aren’t served. In 1993, the board negotiated a $1.3 billion refund from Commonwealth Edison [electric company] to its customers.
But how could such legislation be passed if, as you suggest, corporations control legislators?
The one giant lever to turn things around is to take control of Congress. Congress is just 535 people. Get two or three million people as serious about watching to make sure Congress acts in the public interest as some people are about watching birds, and the situation would change dramatically.
Golf Courses of the PGA Tour — George Peper ’72 (Harry Abrams). The author describes golf courses of the PGA Tour in a coffee-table book with large color photographs. He includes schematic maps of the courses, yardage and par information for the holes, tips on how to play specific shots, and historical tidbits about the courses. Peper was editor-in-chief of Golf Magazine for 25 years.
Good Deeds, Good Design: Community Service Through Architecture — edited by Bryan Bell ’83 (Princeton Architectural Press). A collection of essays by architects and individuals working to help communities, this book argues that good architecture should be made available to underserved people and communities. The essayists describe their own efforts to design houses for low-income families, a waterfront park in California, and other projects. Bell is director of Design Corps, an architectural firm.
Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons — Paul Lettow ’99 (Random House). A revisionist view of Reagan’s presidency, this study maintains that the late president had long wished to ban nuclear weapons — a hope that led Reagan to pursue the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, otherwise known as “Star Wars”) and influenced his administration’s Cold War approach. Lettow is a student at Harvard Law School.