In Ralph Nader’s book a few American billionaires want to return power to the people – a work of fiction
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And joining us now in Washington is Ralph Nader. Thanks for joining us.
RALPH NADER, AUTHOR AND POLITICAL ACTIVIST: Thanks, Paul.
JAY: And I’m not going to say you don’t need an introduction, ’cause you really don’t. So we’re just going to get into it. You have, over the decades of your career, fought a campaign against corporate—I shouldn’t say greed, ’cause it’s sort of inherent in what a corporation is: you can’t fight corporate greed, or there wouldn’t be any. But you’ve fought for stronger regulation; you’ve fought for the public interest; you’ve fought against the rich, one could say, in favor of the public. And you’ve just written a book of fiction called “Only the Rich Can Save Us”. So how do you get from there to here?
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NADER: It’s called “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us”. And it’s in quotes because it’s a grandmother after Katrina, north of New Orleans, when all the poor families who were streaming out and FEMA was not to be found. Warren Buffett, who’s one of the characters—I use real super-rich Americans in an advanced stage in fictional roles, and he’s the leader. And he rushes down with all kinds of trucks, supplies, and public health workers. He’s passing out life-saving materials—food, medicine, tents, and—
NADER: —water, and so on. And a grandmother comes up to him and says, “Only the super-rich can save us.” And that—all the way back to Omaha in the car, it’s ringing in his ears: only the super-rich can save us. And when he gets back to Omaha, he knows what he’s going to do, and he gets together 16 other super-rich Americans, including William Gates Sr. and Ted Turner and George Soros and Yoko Ono and others, Phil Donahue, Paul Newman, and others, and he gets them in a mountaintop hotel in Maui in January 2006. The whole book occurs in one year. And they decide they’re going to put megabucks behind the people of this country to organize, to recruit the talent, to start a clean elections party, a People’s Chamber of Commerce, to have a whole network of radio and TV. Barry Diller is one of them, media mogul. And the whole book is designed to be realistic. Once you accept the premise that 17 very, very rich older people with a different perspective—they want to look at their grandchildren—.
JAY: So it’s sort of like watching pro wrestling: you’ve got to decide, okay, it’s real enough, and now I’m going to buy into the storyline.
NADER: Yeah, and every page is realistic once you accept the money and the smarts and the fact that they’ve got a big circle, each one of them, in one area or another. Ted Turner starts a group called Billionaires Against Bullshit, for example. Well, in real life he wanted to do that. He gave $1 billion to the United Nations in 1998. Warren Buffett, he gave $35 billion in installments to the Gates Foundation. The early antislavery movement in our country, abolition? Funded significantly by rich Bostonians and New Yorkers. The modern civil rights movement? Take the [“stern”] family and the Curry family. They pumped millions of dollars into those movements. So there is a precedent. But I take it to a new level of intensity, strategy, as they take on the giant corporations and their cronies in Washington. So those are very—a large bit of drama and not—and humor as well. Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes read it on her vacation, and she said, I read and read and read, in a note she sent to me. She said, I found it engrossing, creative, and funny. I said, I’ll take all three. So the idea is to liberate our political imagination, because in the US we have the lowest imagination of any people in the Western world when it comes to the kind of society and justice we should construct.
JAY: Yeah, expectations are pretty low. But why do you have anything other than low expectations of these guys? Like, are you hoping you’re going to inspire these now 14 that are left of the 17?
NADER: Them and others like them.
JAY: ‘Cause I—if I—I talked to Ted Turner about The Real News Network, which in theory you’d think is something he would like, and his response was, oh, I’ve done that; I can’t go back there again.
NADER: Yeah. Well, you know, they make quick judgments, and they’ve been very successful financially with quick judgments, so it’s hard to teach them anything. However, they all have their particular interests. Like, Peter Lewis is in the book, head of Progressive Insurance. What does he want to do? He wants to legalize marijuana. What does Buffett—would like to do? Change the tax system and its perverse incentives, and make it fairer and better. What does Ted Turner want to do? He’s an environmentalist now. I mean, he really believes in, you know, solar energy and so on. So the idea is to go beyond those 17 and also spark the imagination of others. Now, super-rich people give a lot to charity. This isn’t charity. This is justice. This is shift the power. This is going after the causes of hunger, not setting up soup kitchens. And that’s going to take a while, that kind of move, because, you know, years ago the rich just gave to their churches, and then they started giving to their own foundations—Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie. Now we have to move them into the justice arena.
JAY: But some people have suggested that this is a bit of you getting pessimistic or giving up on a people’s movement.
NADER: Well, partly it’s a recognition that justice needs money. And I go all over the country, state after state. I see people fighting the good fight in the inner cities and the rural areas, you know, wherever, right? And they lose and they lose and they lose. Not all the time, but they do lose a lot, up against city hall, up against the big developer, the big polluter, etc. However, when they lose and they look back on their loss, what do they say? They say, what if we had more organizers? What if we had more media? What if we had more money, right? And that’s what this book addresses, the “what if”.
JAY: But if we’re going to talk real world rather than the book, in the real world Soros has a foundation, he gives away a lot of money, but they pick projects that are within the realm of what they consider acceptable. Buffet does give away money. A lot of these guys have given away political money.
NADER: One reason I picked it: to move them into the justice area. Now, let’s take Soros. He started the Open Society Institute. It’s done a lot of good. It’s actually created new citizen organizations. Now, he was dead set against the invasion of Iraq. He went after Bush like no super-rich guy. He wrote, he spoke out, he gave interviews. He even put out a book. He said this is catastrophe, this is disastrous, there’s no reason to invade Iraq, it alienates so many people, and so many lives. And at the same time, Paul, at least 300 retired generals, admirals, former diplomats, former heads of security, you know, CIA and NSA—like Bill Odom, four-star general; Adm. Shanahan; Gen. Zinni; two guys close to Bush’s father, Brent Scowcroft and Jim Baker—they wrote op eds, they spoke against the war, right? Here’s what was missing: if Soros connected with them and said, I’m going to make you nationally known, $150 million—.
JAY: But what stopped them?
NADER: Lack of imagination.
NADER: I swear, he—.
JAY: He had the imagination to buy some hundreds of thousands of shares of AOL Time Warner. He was actually—I don’t know if he got on the board, but he had clout at CNN.
NADER: That’s right.
JAY: And what good did any of that to do?
NADER: It’s that last link that wasn’t made. Had he put them on TV in the six months [inaudible] March 2003, put them on radio, got them up on Congress—’cause Congress reacts to that—it would have informed—already, half the people didn’t want it, even though all they heard from a compliant media and Bush and Cheney was the lies, you know, weapons of mass destruction, etc.
JAY: But where does their economic interests—there’s a line there where they’re not going to cross if it’s going to jeopardize their own position in the society. So where is that line? And I’m not saying all the billionaires are the same. There’s big divisions between them, and some of them are a heck of a lot more rational, and a lot of them are sociopaths. So there is a spectrum there.
NADER: That’s the point. All we need is 1 percent of them. The rest can be narcissistic—.
JAY: One percent of non-sociopaths.
NADER: No, 1 percent of the mega-billionaires in the country will do it. Fifteen billion dollars turned the country around in this book, and I defy anybody to show how this could not have been done, ’cause it’s very realistic, page after page, how they built the nation
JAY: Okay. So [inaudible]
NADER: Now, here’s the point. Here’s the point. They see the country going over the abyss. You know, they’re in their ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Their economic incentive to amass more wealth is subordinated to the way they want to be viewed in history, the way they want their grandchildren, great grandchildren to inherit this country. And I’ve talked to a lot of these billionaires. They are incredibly demoralized.
JAY: And what are they saying to you?
NADER: Like, it’s like, I can’t believe our country’s where it is, you know, military, foreign policy, the economy, everything going down. “And this is the way I’m going to leave it?” they would say. I mean, but—so you have to turn it around. That’s what I want to do with this. This could be a movie. You know, Warren Beatty’s in this, running against Schwarzenegger for governor of California, and it could well be a movie. The idea is, if we don’t—.
JAY: Well, and it shouldn’t be a fictional movie; it should be a documentary. We should take the book—.
JAY: We’ll go with you. Let’s go talk to the 14 of the 17 and see if they buy in.
NADER: That would be very good. Ted Turner called me. He said he’ll go to any meeting of billionaires to discuss the points in this book in terms of the reality. Others are coming around. Look, most people don’t read books this size, you know? They read novels this size; they don’t read books this size. But this book’s going to be used in courses. It’s a book about the reality of power, how it concentrates, and how it can be deconstructed, and at a far lesser civic energy level than most people think.
JAY: Okay. Well, read the book, “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us”. And we’re going to follow up, because I’m serious: if you go, we’ll go with you. Let’s see if some of the super-rich buy into this concept.
NADER: We’ve never had more super-rich. So all you need is less than 1 percent.
JAY: And we’ve never been quite on the same precipice of the Apocalypse. So thanks for joining us.
NADER: You’re welcome.
JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
End of Transcript
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