Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
In Ralph Nader’s nearly half-century-long career, he’s worn more than a few hats, from frequent presidential candidate to progressive political activist to consumer advocate. But beyond that, he’s also a longtime Washingtonian. Kojo talks with Nader about the state of political activism in the U.S., and how Washington has changed at the federal and local levels since Nader first arrived in 1964.
- Ralph Nader Consumer advocate; political activist; author, "Told You So: The Big Book of Weekly Columns"
Longtime political activist Ralph Nader talks about his two-year, $11 million proposal to achieve statehood for the District of Columbia. “There’s something lacking in the psychology here in the District that allows this colonial situation to persist,” Nader said.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. When Ralph Nader first hitchhiked into Washington in 1964, his car may or may not have had seatbelts. Now, nearly 50 years later, few citizen activists have had greater impact on the arch of our -- on the arc or our nation. He's put auto safety seatbelts on Congress' agenda, uncovered abuses on just about every federal agency starting with the Federal Trade Commission. And, of course, he's run for president a few times.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut throughout the years, Ralph Nader has also had a unique perspective on Washington, D.C. as it transformed from a segregated town that was the South's northernmost metropolis into a vibrant yet troubled contemporary city that is still developing. Ralph Nader joins us now to talk about both the local and the national. Ralph Nader, thank you for staying with us.
MR. RALPH NADERThank you.
NNAMDIIn an introduction to a previous book called "In the Shadow of Power," you painted a dire picture of the nation's capital, a city with one of the highest rates of child poverty despite continual economic growth where voters are disenfranchised from Congress and where local government gets caught up in corruption, dysfunction and indifferent -- indifference. Put that way, it sounds like your adopted hometown is a poster child for just about everything you have campaigned against, is it not?
NADERWell, plenty for certain. Our book "In the Shadow of Power" is a book of photographs of conditions that are not unrepresentative in the District, and it's really the other Washington, D.C., not the glittering Washington, D.C. And we're still dealing with enormous poverty, serious health problems, very little civic voice, inadequate housing, inadequate public transit, inadequate public works.
NADERSome of this, like the DC Water, they're trying to recover that and end the differential of quality, systems of transmission for drinking water after the lead in drinking water scandal. But I think a lot of it stems, Kojo, from the lack of representation in Congress and the ability of Congress to overrule anything that the D.C. government does. The D.C. government still doesn't have budget autonomy, and any congressional committee can initiate an overrule of a widespread D.C. initiative as they have in the past, overruling the will of the people.
NADERThat's why we think there's got to be a new drive for statehood. There's got to be an awareness by people in the District that they're losing credibility among other civil libertarians and civil rights people in the country because they're accepting a colonial status. They're accepting the disenfranchisement of the people in the District of Columbia, unlike any national capital around the world, which have votes for parliament, but not the District of Columbia.
NADERIt's sort of crass, isn't it, to see Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Barack Obama and others lecturing other countries in the world about more suitable election processes. But here right in our District, Barack Obama cannot vote for a member of Congress. He has to vote out of Chicago. And so the -- I mean, it's just amazing.
NNAMDIThis is why you maintain residence in Connecticut.
NADERYeah, exactly. You know, why should we disenfranchise yourselves? We can put pressure on our representatives back in our domicile to try to get this thing moving. But it's only going to move if a few more thousands of people joined the valiant four or 500, who's my guess, who have really been behind statehood and have marched and demonstrated. Indeed, Mayor Gray was arrested over a year and a half ago down on Capitol Hill for demonstrating for statehood.
NADERSo there's something lacking in the psychology here in the District that allows this colonial situation to persist. And I have a proposal that nobody will adopt. But I can challenge the rich in D.C., that for $11 million, we can deliver statehood to the people of D.C. through majority vote in Congress by meticulous organization on every member of Congress that doesn't come out for statehood.
NADERAnd that's about two-thirds of them. Of course, that's a good start. About one-third probably are for it. President Obama would sign it. So can any of these mega-millionaires and billionaires in the District have a sense that they can go down in the history books as getting the 51 -- 51st State of Columbia for...
NNAMDIBecause you say, for that $11 million, we can appoint a group of citizens to essentially stalk every single member or Congress who's against statehood until they change their minds.
NADERYeah, not stalk, but I know what you mean.
NADERBut to keep on top of them everywhere, three members of the District for every member of Congress that is not coming around on statehood. And they would be at their office. They would go to their meetings where they're at. They would publicize their records other than the D.C. statehood. Do you know, one people -- one thing people don't understand, one of the reasons why AIPAC and NRA are so powerful is that they take the time of members of Congress.
NADERI've had members of Congress say, you know, I don't agree with these necessarily, and I don't care about their PACs. But they drive us into constant responding to people back home and meetings and to their petitions that they ask us to sign. So I think we need to take a cue from these successful obvious and do that. And my estimate that it would take a little over two years at the most and $11 million and we'd get it.
NNAMDIRalph Nader, he's a consumer advocate and political activist, author of several books. His latest publication is titled "Told You So: The Big Book of Weekly Columns." Why the title "Told You So"?
NADERBecause I got upset by all these wrongdoing neocons, people like Paul Wolfowitz and Elliott Abrams and Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld and others who pushed this country into disastrous situations, like the criminal invasion of Iraq, and predicted we'd be received with flowers. And look at Iraq now, 30, 40-day being killed, sectarian revenge. We're the ones who sided with one sectarian against another. And once it gets underway, it's very hard to stop.
NADERAnd these wrongdoers, these people who led us down the wrong path who predicted wrong, and it also applies domestically, people like Robert Rubin and Larry Summers on Wall Street, you know, don't worry. We can deregulate Wall Street in 1999 under Clinton. We can get rid of Glass-Steagall. We can mix commercial banks with investment banks. Things will be great. We'll be modernizing.
NADERAnd all it did was unleash a Niagara of devastating speculation and gambling with other people's money like pension funds and mutual funds. Now, these are the people who get access to the White House. These are the people who get top-paying jobs. These are the people who get $100,000 speeches. These are the people who get huge book advances.
NADERIn the meantime, on the progressive side of the political alignment, we have Jim Hightower and Gloria Steinem, and we have Bill Greider and Bob, you know, a number of people we all know who have written, who have spoken, who have warned about the disasters of these things. And they're lucky to get on public radio.
NADERSo they're lucky to get book advances. They're lucky to get on TV or written up. So here's my point, Kojo: It's about time that progressives start saying, told you so. And they start saying, there must be something wrong with the political economy that rewards the people who are wrong, the people who bring this country into disastrous conditions and penalize the people who are right. Charlie Rose is the perfect example. He's had Tom Friedman on 80 times who has been a cheerleader for disastrous globalization policies at The New York Times.
NNAMDIAnd you've known Charlie Rose for a long time.
NADERYes, I have.
NNAMDIHow many times has he had you on?
NADEROh, maybe two, three. I haven't been on since 2004. But a lot of other people who have been right have not been on. I suggested the other day, you should put Phil Donohue on. He's been right again and again. And he knows Phil Donohue. They're friends. But, no, it's the wrongdoers who align themselves with the power structure and the military industrial complex and Wall Street who get the attention, who get the awards, who get the monuments, who get the positions of power. That is reflective of a decaying society.
NNAMDI"Told You So: The Big Book of Weekly Columns" is a collection of Ralph Nader columns over the years, presented in the form of a book. Here's some of the criticism of you. Over the weekend, columnist from New York magazine compared your work with someone who's been in the headlines recently, the report of Glenn Greenwald.
NNAMDIThis columnist writes that you and Greenwall both reject reformist progress, which makes policies either good or evil. Do you think this approach to political activism is more effective than what Jonathan Chait seems to be advocating which is a moderate approach?
NADERWell, I think most of our proposals in the light of history have been understatements. If you look at our proposals, they are remarkably moderate, common sense, they reflect the golden rule. They reflect majoritarian support. I mean, we're saying, for example, that the minimum wage in Congress, the congressional inactive minimum wage, should catch up with 1968. That would make it $10.50 nationwide from the $7.25 now.
NADERThat would lift up 30 million workers who take of our ailing grandparents, clean up after us, service our food and many other daily chores, and they are making less today than the minimum wage workers made in 1968, 45 years ago. Is that a radical proposal, catching up with 1968? Is it a radical proposal to put seatbelts in cars? Is it a radical proposal to make sure that people are able to drink clean water and breathe pure air and eat safe food?
NADERI mean, it's absurd how the alignment has moved. What's radical are the people who maintain corporate polluters, who support them, who take money from them, who maintain the reckless speculators in Wall Street, who support one invasion, one incursion, one drone attack after another in country after country after country that doesn't threaten us.
NNAMDIHere now is Chris in Washington, D.C., who brings us back to a local issue. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISHi, Mr. Nader. A big fan of yours. And speaking of wrongdoing, I wanted to get your sense of -- as I understand it, you work on -- you have a project here working on libraries.
NNAMDID.C. Library Renaissance Project.
CHRISThere's been two particular things. One, there's -- the recent -- in the Budget Support Act passage of legislation that talks about public-private partnerships for our central library and what that might mean. And also there was the West End Library where the public library land was sold to a private developer. And that's been held up in court as I understand it. Can you tell us more about those scenarios...
CHRIS...what that might mean?
NADEROur D.C. Library Renaissance Project, Kojo, started about 12 years ago because I just couldn't believe the rating for D.C. libraries was the bottom of the list of all major cities in the United States. Here's the national capital, and it was rated the lowest. Crumbling buildings, inadequate collections, inadequate utilization, obviously, a terrible situation and there wasn't any news. The Washington Post didn't cover it. It was not exciting.
NADERAnd because of our urging and pushing and demonstrating and neighborhood organizing and high-level contacts with the officials including D.C. Councilmembers, the D.C. government started reacting. And the D.C. Library Trustees started reacting. In fact, Ginnie Cooper, who's leaving, has said years ago on -- before Mike Fishers -- Mark Fisher's interview that without us, you wouldn't have had a job because there was a renaissance.
NADERNow, the plus side is we have 17 or so libraries have been renovated. Attendance is going up. Collections are being improved. Events at libraries are expanding. But the two points raised by the caller, this idea of public-private partnership, when you have surplus D.C. budgets and the Urban Land Institute just said that D.C. -- it has about the best financial status of any major city in the country.
NADERAnd so, all right, so the D.C. government has allocated $100 million for the MLK Library renovation. St. Louis is doing it for $70 million. We have built new neighborhood libraries in the District of Columbia for twice the amount that it cost in places like Kansas City. So the money is available. Why in the world would they want to have the upper floors of a new MLK Library renovated be condos or offices and only the first two floors be the library?
NADERThey should -- if they want to fill the top floors, they can put the archives, the D.C. Archives in there, for example, and use it for other public purposes. The bottom line is we don't need corporate development money. We don't need the real estate industry to compromise the status and dignity of architectural libraries, which should be standing alone public institutions, not having a store, not having a condo, not having people walking in for other purposes. So...
NNAMDIBut what do you say to residents who want those things? Here, in the case of the West End Library...
NNAMDI...obviously, you believe that the project's lead developer was simply making a whole lot -- maybe too much money on the deal and should not have been exempted from affordable housing requirements. But what do you say to people who say, look, we want this kind of mixed-use facility? You're being heedlessly obstructionist, they say.
NADERWell, they want the library. The library, by the way, is open. It's functioning. But they want a new library. Sure, we want a new library renovated. But there's no reason to give away the citizen's land, this is public land, for bargain basement prices to developers whose own internal documents -- the developer indicate they're going to make $50 million on the deal. And yet, they cried poor and got the mayor and the D.C. City Council to subsidize the offset moderate income housing.
NADERSo here they are, privately bragging about how much they're going to make and saying, well, they can't afford seven or eight or $9 million for affordable housing offsets, let the D.C. taxpayer pay for it. Now, we want a new library in the West End. But we don't like the giveaway of public land that's happening elsewhere in the east part of the District. This process of giving away, that is, evaluating much lower than what the market would go for, the sale of public land for a mixed-use developer profits.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. We're going to be taking a short break. If you called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you haven't and you like to, the number is 800-433-8850, if you have questions or comments for Ralph Nader. How would you describe the state of political activism in the U.S.? Do you think the U.S. has made more progress from the prospective of conservatives or from the prospective of progressives? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Ralph Nader, consumer advocate, political activist, author of several books. His latest publication is titled "Told You So: The Big Book of Weekly Columns". These columns not only allow readers of "Told You So" to look back over what you've been writing over the years, but I'm wondering if, for you, it was also an experience of going back and covering ground that you may not have covered in a little while.
NADERWell, that's true. We -- unlike a lot of citizen groups, we're into a lot of issues. And some of them are pushed by the powers at be. Some are opposed. Some are put on hold. And this collection covers a huge range of issues that affect people's daily lives and lives of their progeny. But it also has profiles of very heroic citizens who really are ignored because they've been right too soon.
NADERHarry Kelber, for example, who just passed away at age 99, who has been a labor advocate out of his New York City apartment for years and is the greatest pamphleteer in labor union history, he was putting up three columns a week on his website laboreducator.org. And he was the hair shirt of the AFL-CIO and other unions who weren't pushing enough for lower income workers and aren't putting enough money into organizing for unions. So there are a lot of portraits and descriptions of people who really are heroic, but they're not defined as such by the power structure.
NNAMDIOn to Dennis in Washington who's been waiting a while. Dennis, thank you for waiting. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DENNIS(unintelligible) Mr. Nader and Kojo. I just had a few thoughts. I was sitting here listening and kind of easy to through today, so I thought I'd give you a call. But one thing I was thinking about with all this influx of labor come in from the South, it just seems like it's a situation where it's like scabs used to be in the '60s where they would take over the union, and they would just bring in, you know, cheap labor. And that what it seems like it is. And also...
NNAMDIWell, let's see if Ralph Nader agrees with that point of view.
NADERWell, that is the hidden factor in the discussion on immigration these days. I start with by saying that if our government didn't support historically the oligarchs and the militarists in Central America and Africa and Mexico and simply led these countries democratically develop, we wouldn't have people desperately trying to cross the border in order to feed their families. So there's much link to our foreign and military policy going back over 100 years. But having said that, it's important to ask, why is the Wall Street Journal supporting open immigration?
NADERWhy would the Wall Street Journal editorial board again and again support open immigration? Because the more extra workers there are, the more wages can be pushed down and the more arguments can be made by employers, like chicken processors and meat processors, very dangerous work, that Americans don't like to do this work. Well, they may not like to do this work at seven and a quarter or even lower in the tomato-growing parts of Florida, which are like involuntary servitude. But would they do this work for $12 and a half?
NADERWould they do this work for $10 and a half? That's why we're pressing for a minimum wage that at least catches up with 1968 because a lot of these jobs would be taken by American workers if they can meet the basic necessities of life from what they earn off these jobs. Now, there are millions of people here without documents.
NADERThey have jobs. They're paying taxes. Their Social Security is being deducted and Medicare, et cetera. There's an equitable doctrine here, Kojo, which simply says that after a while, when the country's economy induces these people to come -- and they do induce them. The employers do induce these people to come.
NADERAnd they put them to work, and they're producing valuable services, often in dangerous work for the American people, that the misdemeanor of crossing the border illegally is, in effect, neutralized by the equitable argument that we have provided a dependency on these workers, and therefore, retroactively dissipate their misdemeanor.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your, Dennis. A few weeks ago, I went to hear you speak at Politics & Prose. By the way, Ralph Nader will be talking about his new book and about local issues at Busboys and Poets at 14th and V Street Northwest at 6:30 p.m. tonight. That's July 1, 6:30 p.m. at Busboys and Poets, 14th and V Street Northwest. And a couple of the things you said during your remarks at Politics & Prose, I wanted to ask you about the significance of them even though we're running out of time very quickly. You said there's no corporate crime database. What did you mean by that?
NADERThat is in the Justice Department, they have a street crime database. They know how many burglaries, how many rapes, how many arsons, et cetera. But there's no corporate crime database for what Wall Street has done, the deceit, the monopolization, the illegal acts, the pollution violations, the anti-trust monopoly situations, the price-fixing, the bribery.
NADERAnd we have tried again and again with past attorney generals, with whom we've met, to get a corporate crime database because once you have a database, the media reports it more. We know what the patterns are. We can argue for bigger law enforcement budget. Unfortunately, Attorney General Holder would not meet with us over the last 4 1/2 years on this subject.
NNAMDIYou also mentioned that there is no website for civil servants across agencies. What's the significance of that?
NADERThe civil servants have been badly maligned by politicians running around the country to get a political office in Washington, D.C. -- Congress and the presidency -- and their morale has been damaged. And yet they're the ones who know what's wrong. They're the ones who know earliest what's wrong. They're the ones who know how to fix it earlier than most people. And we ought to elevate them, and we ought to give them more whistleblowing rights.
NADERThey have some now compared two years ago, so they can go to work with their conscience every day. But I have thought that it's good for them to have cross-departmental and agency website so they can communicate with each other as a body, not as a specialization, and as a state of the civil service that needs internal reinvigoration and morale boost. And the Forester started a group called PEER, peer.org -- it's got office right off Dupont Circle -- because they didn't...
NNAMDIYeah. That was another one of my notes that I couldn't remember what was about.
NADERYeah. They didn't want warehouse and other timber companies going to Washington and politically override their professional judgment as to what acreage should be clearcutted and what shouldn't on federal forest land. And they're a marvelous group. They lobby. They've -- they have had good litigation. They put out great reports, more recent one on gas pipeline hazards. And that's an example of civil service-supported groups. The staff of PEER is independent. They're not part of the civil service.
NADERThey're supported by civil servants as well as foundations. And I've noted that to -- for people from the Pentagon and others with whom I've spoken at seminars. They've never heard of PEER. And, you know, it's been around for a long time. And so that's one reason why you need -- how you need a civil service website.
NADERSo you can encourage one another on how to take your conscience to work and put your foot put down when you see corruption, when you see tremendous corporate influence on the military budget, corporate contract and abuses, et cetera. I never had anybody say they didn't want it, but I hope someone listening to this program will get it under way and look up peer.org, P-E-E-R.org.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Josh in Brookland, who writes, "Since Mr. Nader strategically stays as a Connecticut voter, I'd like to know if he's met with the officers of his two senators or his representatives to get them to support statehood for the District. If he hasn't, then will he?"
NADERYears ago, I hammered them, and they agree. I think the Connecticut delegation will almost be unanimous in supporting statehood. But they're not going to take the first step. The first step has to be taken by people living in the District who have been colonized.
NNAMDIJackie tweets, "What's the most important and underreported political activism story right now?"
NADERWhat's going on locally all over the country in terms of building local economies, farm-to-consumer marketplaces, credit union community banks, renewable energy, public transportation facilities, community health clinics that focus on prevention. Yes! magazine chronicles a lot of this and I urge people to look it over.
NADERThis is what's called the alternative displacement economy displacing the sales increasingly of the giant corporations who have no allegiance to this country or community other than to shift jobs and industries abroad and then say to the American people, thanks for the past. In other words, they were built on the backs of American workers and build out by U.S. taxpayers in Washington and saved by the U.S. Marines abroad.
NADERBut their answer to this country is one of distinct ingratitude to the workers who are increasingly underemployed and unemployed. And this alternative economy, what I call the displacement economy, where your consumer dollars, instead of going to the big corporations, the big health giants and the drug companies and the energy companies, can go to local businesses who are not going to roll up their doors and go to China.
NNAMDIWe're just about out of time here, but you have spent a great deal of the last 50 years working in Washington, D.C. How important has living here been to your life and your career?
NADERWell, it's been increasingly difficult to get the attention of Congress. I can't even get the Democrat leaders to really make the minimum wage, catching up with 1968, a priority for them. And that includes Nancy Pelosi in the House and Harry Reid in the Senate. Alan Grayson has put in the $10.50 minimum wage -- he's a congressman from Orlando -- and he's not getting much support.
NADERNow, when you cannot get the Democratic Party to extend Franklin Delano Roosevelt's great legislation of 1968, the minimum wage, it's not a very propitious atmosphere to be an advocate for. However, citizen advocates never give up.
NNAMDIRalph Nader, he is not giving up. His latest publication is called "Told You So: The Big Book of Weekly Columns." Ralph Nader, thank you so much for joining us.
NADERThank you very much, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd as I said, that's at Busboys and Poets at 14th and V tonight, 6:30 p.m., July 1. Ralph Nader will be talking about his latest, "Told You So: The Big Book of Weekly Columns." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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