Nader’s work is related to many child advocacy themes. His orientation is toward future interests, and in some ways he marries consumer and child advocacy through his work. That work has included two themes important to children. The first is direct work on child safety. Indeed, the auto safety aspect of his work alone, together with the related achievements of Joan Claybrook, has saved perhaps more children from death and disability than anyone else outside of Drs. Salk and Sabin. The important work of Rob Weissman while with Nader saved many lives in underdeveloped nations by making otherwise expensive pharmaceuticals affordable for millions – particularly of benefit to children subject to the AIDS scourge. His work to inspire the Consumer Product Safety Commission and to stimulate child safety inclusion in FDA studies, including a lifetime of work by Dr. Sid Wolfe of Public Citizen started by Nader are other examples. Second, he is well aware of the current imbalance in political influence favoring “here and now” profit by those organized around a profit stake in public policy. His work, in concert with John Richard and Russell Mokhiber, have long shined an ethical light on corporate illegality. Importantly, corporations properly advance immediate, short term interests (their capital investment that their directors and officers are bound as fiduciaries to protect). That obvious corporate orientation may often involve long term costs – the amelioration of which is central to child advocacy purpose. The concern here has been magnified by the regrettable impact of campaign contribution influence from the burgeoning trade, corporate, and other associations (horizontally organized economic interests) who increasingly make up the “stakeholders” now determining public policy. Their orientation is hardly one of long term impact. And the regrettable discounting of future effects is perhaps the quintessential concern of child advocacy. Nader seeks balance — and the representation of diffuse and future interests rather than the increasingly disproportionate domination of courts, agencies and legislatures by those who have other foci.
Ralph Nader is now out with a new book: “Told You So” (Seven Stories Press, 2013). It is a compilation of over 300 weekly columns written by Nader over the last 41 years. It is not turgid prose, but has a readable diction; each commentary is concise and reviewable in several minutes. Its warnings are disturbingly prescient, and well illustrate his child, safety and diffuse interest orientation. This book is a revisit to many of his prior critiques and predictions.
Their short length and direct messaging depart from the style those of us in “academia” publicly respect and try to emulate. Many of us would be among the first to sneer that a “three page analysis of auto fuel efficiency” is insultingly brief and obviously designed to inflame and not educate. Indeed, it would require at least 150 pages on a subject using pretentious passive voice, complex sentences, citations to every factual contention, and, ipso facto, much gratuitous Latin. But has the world ever changed! Our students now communicate via Twitter and with incomprehensible acronyms: OMG, please KMN. In a world borne of books and chapters, it is a task to get my students to think beyond phrases and to actually construct …. paragraphs! So all of a sudden, these columns read more like in-depth, thoughtful essays than like the “radical excitations” we may have labeled them in 1975 in order to sniff our dismissal. And his theme speaks to the future concerns of child advocates. It is not just global warming the inefficient autos exacerbate, it also raises a seminal ethical issue – to wit, the exhaustion and deprivation from future generations of the earth’s limited assets.
The second feature to the work is related to its title: “Told You So.” As one who has passed 60 years of life, here is a secret I pass onto my juniors. During our lives we ideally learn things, and profit from our own failures and the much easier ones to identify (those of others). And during the course of our life we will warn people about economic trends, cultural changes, and, of course, other people with whom we disagree. We will predict dire consequences. And here is something interesting – we may suffer short term memory loss, but we will remember with perfect acuity every single such warning whose message correctly came to pass. As with yours truly, you will come to believe the following: “I have been right so often in my 68 years, and predicted every calamity that could be predicted, such that I can rightly say ‘I told you so, you idiots.” You so conclude almost daily as you peruse the newspaper – or, excuse me, the blog postings and tweets, by our omnipresent twits.
Although we do not admit it, there is likely an element of selective memory in such expansive self-congratulations. “If only they had listened to me, we would not be in any of these fixes – environmental despoilment, educational regression, child disinvestment and debt imposition, and the rest of it. The damned ads on television are still twice as loud as the damned programming, don’t get me started!” But in point of fact, we tend to engage in a natural selection of remembrance, recalling perfectly everything that turned out as we warned, and forgetting everything where we were wrong. And that is what makes the book rather remarkable. Of course, there may be a number of columns not included because the predictions failed to materialize, but even taking that into account, you do find yourself mumbling after reading each column: “Okay, he was right on that one.” But you have to be predictive sometimes, especially if you are hypercritical of government and business. I mean, both are sitting ducks, often making horrible mistakes in concert. But what is remarkable here is the breadth, degree and incidence of accurate prediction. Most interesting are the oldest columns from the 1970s and 80s. This is a book best started from the back where the oldest columns are located. My Lord. “Crime in the Suites,” “Nuclear Power Plant Risks,” “This Land is Your Land,” “Subsidizing the Banks,” the “Student Loan Scandal,” and my personal favorite: “Gobbledygook is Growing.”
Most of what is written could be repeated today, with a tag line after many sentences, uttered in the voice of the Sheldon Cooper character on the Big Bang Theory: “Did you read that, idiot? Did I not tell you so? Did I not? Did I not? Hmmm?”
Later columns warn us either well before or during the early stages of: the savings and loan debacle, the Enron energy scam, the Iraq war and many other problematical policies of the past two decades. He also predicts in repeated columns the derivative gambling fiasco of this decade (let’s gamble a trillion dollars, and heads I win – tails you lose). With such a record, even if there is some selectivity, the author may earn a measure of credibility, such that what he is saying now may warrant more attention than the time we shall devote to, say, posting our vacation photos online to win the envy of our 460 “friends.”
And it is most remarkable that so many of his messages have had and will have future impacts – impacts that form the primary crucible for child advocacy. You should read this book, and click here to order it from Amazon. If you ignore this suggestion and do not do so, and thusly miss one of its prescient warnings, you can count on me to tell you that I told you so.
Professor Robert C. Fellmeth
Price Professor of Public Interest Law, University of San Diego School of Law