Albion Monitor
Speech of Ralph Nader (St. Francis Church, Sacramento, CA) October 17, 1996
Part 3 of 6

America Held Hostage by Corporations

Every four years, I, like many of you, stood by and watched two things get worse. Every four years they've told us we have to choose between the bad and the worse, between TweedleDum Bad and TweedleDum Worse. And every four years what happens? Both of them get worse. They move to the right corporate, they move into the hands of the multinationals.

The other phenomenon we've been witnessing is that I have never seen in 30 some years in Washington the government be such a prisoner of corporate interests -- the Congress, Executive Branch and the courts -- that citizens are shut out of their own government. They're shut out of participating. They're shut out of having a chance to have a chance to take on the big guys to make this a more just, safe, healthy and prosperous society.

When that happens, you can no longer just wring your hands. As citizen advocates, we must enter the electoral arena. It may not be to our liking . It may not be to our taste, and I can assure you, I have experience with that. But we have to do it. We have to do it because our democracy, the greatest problem-solving mechanism ever devised, is being dismantled.

The access to the courts for ordinary people -- down, restricted. The contracts we sign are all printed for us, take it or leave it.

Hey! You want to sign a contract with an HMO? Sign on the dotted line.

You want to get a warranty from an auto company? Sign on the dotted line.

You want to open a bank account in the Bank of America? Sign on the deposit slip, the dotted line.

You want to get a job? Sign this employment contract if you're a non-union workplace.

You want to go to the hospital? Sign on the dotted line.

And what is behind the dotted line? And what is after the dotted line? One-sided provision after provision rigging the whole arrangement against you and you're expected to sign on the dotted line.

You see? Here's an example. What if you wanted to reverse it? Let's say you went down to Sears and you bought a major appliance, and you couldn't pay for it right away, so you wanted an installment loan agreement. So they checked out your credit, hit a few buttons here and there, asked for your private Social Security number, and then they say, "Okay, your credit's all right. Here's the papers. Here. sign on the dotted line."

And you say, "No. My Daddy and Mommy always told me to read everything before I signed it. do you have a chair, for me to sit down? And I have my magnifying glass and my felt pen."

The clerk says, "No one's ever done this before."

"Well, there's always a first time for everything."

"Well, here's a chair."

You sit down and start going through the entire contract, and there are some things you just don't think are fair. So you cross out a paragraph here, double the warranty there, eliminate the compulsory arbitration over here which strips you of your right to go to court, and then you initial it, go back to the counter and say, "Well, I think we've got a deal. Here -- you sign on the dotted line."

The fact that millions of people sign on the dotted line, think nothing of it, don't even imagine that it could be done in another, more two-way negotiated manner by having large-member consumer groups with their own negotiators sitting down in hotel rooms with Montgomery Ward, Sears, Citicorp, Metropolitan Life, and rewriting those contracts to be a little more two-sided; we don't even think of that. You know why?

Because we grow up corporate.

We grow up looking at the world the way the corporations want us to perceive it. Style in cars, instead of safety. Junk food instead of nutrition. Look at the ads to the kids on kiddie-TV: Junk food. Junk food. Junk drinks. We grow up thinking, "Well, that's the way things are."

If I were to ask you "What do you own?" and you say, "What do you mean?" and I say, "Well, what property do you own? You don't have to give me figures, just give me categories."

You say, "Well, a house, a condo, a car, a bicycle, a motorcycle, clothes, books, newspapers, VCRs, radios..." and you keep going. Then you run out and I say, "What else do you own?"

"Well," you say, "my debts?"

"No. What else do you own?" Um-m-m. You never get the answer.

You are part owner of the greatest common wealth in the United States of America, which is, one, the public lands, one-third of America; two, the public airwaves over which radio and TV broadcasts to you 24 hours a day without paying you a cent in rent; three, $4 trillion in pension funds; four, trillions of dollars in mutual insurance assets like Prudential, Metropolitan.

Now, we're not talking metaphor. We're talking that you, the people, legally own the public airways, the public lands, the pension funds, mutual insurance assets, the public works of America, the R&D down at the National Institutes of Health to produce anti-cancer drugs, for example, which are given away free to drug companies under monopoly marketing agreements that charge you $10 to $15,000 per patient for a series of treatment and give back to the government nothing by way of royalties.

Now, if we went to school and learned about the commonwealth that we own; if in our economics courses, our government courses, or whatever, we learned that we are owners of the greatest wealth in this country, more than the private wealth, what would we start thinking about?

We'd start thinking, "You know, if we legally own all this wealth, why in the world don't we control it? Why do the banks, the insurance companies, other employer corporations with their government toadies in Washington, the Department of Interior, the U.S. Forest Service, why do they control what we own?"

When you hear about the 1872 Mining Act, where a foreign or domestic company can go on the federal lands, like a Canadian company did a while back in Nevada -- you know they discover $10 billion in gold and they documented with their geologists and they sent the papers to the Department of Interior and the Department of Interior, against its will, was forced by the 1872 Mining Act to sell the acreage, 3,500 acres or so, above that gold mine, to the Canadian company, with full ownership of the gold, as far down deep as they could dig and sell, for $30,000. Ten billion? With a "B"? for $30,000.

Now, when I told you that, did your mind immediately react, "That's our gold!"

It didn't. It didn't for me either. It is our gold. We have to have a sense of common wealth property ownership if we're going to get riled.

If somebody stole a bicycle from your garage you would say, "That's my kid's bicycle!" And it's done all the time: molybdium, all hard rock metals, in the coal mines, on the federal lands , in the oil and gas -- they're leased for bargain basement prices. Nigeria, Venezuela, Indonesia strike tougher deals with our mining companies than our U.S. government.

How about the public airwaves? We're the landlords. The radio and TV are the tenants. They pay us no rent. The license to the FCC is free. You pay more for your auto license than the richest TV station in the land.

Now look at what the tenants can do -- have you ever seen tenants like this? Anybody here like to be tenants like this?: You pay no rent, you decide who says what 24 hours a day on our property, and when we want to get in to our property they tell us get lost, and if we don't they'll call the cops and evict us from our own property. We have no audience time, no audience network, no program on citizen activity.

Many of you have worked hard to document an abuse here in California. You put out a report. You have a news conference. And then you have your fingers crossed.

Will they come? Will they show up? And if they do, will they give us a sound bite or a sound bark on the evening street crime, weather, sports and chit-chat news?

This is the land of the free, home of the brave? Let's act like it. This is our property. There's no reason why we shouldn't have an audience network, with offices and programmers, and producers and reporters, free of conscience, full of talent, without the advertising censors on their back or some myopic executive in the 80th floor of a New York skyscraper telling them what they can report and what they can't report through intermediaries.

Why shouldn't we have an hour of prime time, drive time, on all radio and TV stations? Why don't we get an hour back of the 24 that we give them free so we can begin communicating, mobilizing, lifting our morale, so we can begin communicating problem solving ways to get out of so many of our problems and injustices and abuses and deprivations and denials of the fulfillment of human possibilities/ Why can't we do that?

Because we grow up corporate!

We're told -- here's what happens when you grow up corporate: You don't like the program on your TV? You're sitting in your living room, what are you free in America to do? Turn it off! You don't like any program? Get out of the living room! In other words, if you don't like the way your property's being use, get out. Instead of get in and together with other Americans form an audience network.

Another example of growing up corporate is the cable TV in your home. We give the cable companies monopoly rights. Correct? It may break down a little bit later, but they have a monopoly to serve a community. What do we get in return?

They say we're going to get 500 channels. And we're gong to have movie rerun channels; an home shopping channels; and now we're going to have Macy channels; General Motors channels; Exxon channels; I mean, who need Orwell's 1984 when we've got Brave New World by Huxley?

Growing up corporate means we curtail our imagination. We don't even dream of what is possible, never mind impossible. Why don't we have a citizen activity channel? Twenty-four hours a day so anywhere we are in the United States we can learn how citizens are solving problems in City X, Village Y -- problems that we have in our own community; with 800 numbers and telephone numbers and addresses, and Internet formulae. Why not? Why can't we lift ourselves up by the successes of our neighbors and friends miles away?

Why? Because we grow up corporate. We don't even think of demanding it because we think in the land of the free we can shut off the TV and say "There! Take that!"

Why isn't there a labor channel for workers? Why isn't there a student channel? Why isn't there a consumer channel so we can find out information of the best shopping comparison between auto insurance companies, cars and repair and recalls? Because our imagination is not up to it.

You want to know what the greatest power of the giant corporations is? It's not their money. It's not their technology. It's not their control over what we own. It's not their political connections. It's their knowledge that millions of Americans believe that they, Americans, do not count , can't fight City Hall, can't take on Exxon and can't win, so why try. It's the public apathy which is the other side of the coin of powerlessness that is their greatest asset to further concentrate power and wealth in too few hands

Now there are many other ways that we grow up corporate.Once we stop growing up corporate and grow up civic, we will be much more focused on nutritious food, rather than junk food; we will be much more inquiring about different kinds of products; we will look at pollution as a form of violence, not just something that is nasty and dirty; we will demand the mechanism so we can control what we own and use these great resources for an enlightened, just, prosperous, happy society where the pursuit of justice is filled with such joy it itself becomes the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of happiness becomes the pursuit of justice.

Our second President, John Adams, said something very wise once. He's not very quotable, you know. It was Thomas Jefferson who got most of the historic quotes, and it was Jefferson who said, "The purpose of representative government is to curb 'the excesses of the moneyed interest'." Today, the corporate interest. Instead, the reverse is happening. The moneyed interests have curbed the just activities and representativeness of our government.

Here's what John Adams said: "Our generation (meaning his generation) is full of politicians and statesmen so that our children can become physicians and scientists so their children can become musicians and artists."

How far distant we are from that noble progression.

Many of the claims of working people today are uncannily similar to what they were in 1896. They're still asking for the right to make ends meet. They gotta work more members per family. They gotta pay for all kinds of thing they didn't have to pay because family functions have been commercialized in the marketplace -- fast food, counselors, entertainment, repair, driving back and forth, another car, another auto insurance, all kinds of expenses. And the the economists say, "Gee, the American people are in a delusion. They think the economy is not doing very well and the macro statistics say that the GNP is going up and corporate profits are increasing."

But not purchasing power. That's not increasing, because people have to work more and more to buy more and more things that they'd never have to buy to begin with and they come home exhausted.

So the road ahead isn't all that murky, is it? It starts with the following:

Growing up civic. Thinking civic. Doing civic. Saying to ourselves we're going to take a portion of our day throughout the year, maybe not every day, but in the aggregate several hundred hours a year to our community civic responsibilities, local or state or national. We're going to work on problems that we are temperamentally concerned about, injustices. Some people may be worried about City Hall, the National Parks, children's health, the schools, the tax system, corporate crime, swindles, banks, the insurance companies, the abandonment of our youngsters, the inner city, all kinds of things are awaiting us for our justice to be applied to.

And you know, people who do seek justice -- and you know that from your own experience -- are happier people. They don't go through life on their knees thinking that they can't make a difference, that they don't count, that they don't matter, that they've got to swallow their grievances; they go through life standing tall, self-confident, informed, with a strategic sense of collaborating with their fellow citizens , neighbors and coworkers so they can change the country for the better.

And you know when that happens, you feel better about yourself. That's why the pursuit of justice is really the pursuit of happiness. If you're not an active public citizen trying to improve the country, the country's going to decay and deteriorate and you're not going to have a very happy life as a private citizen. That's the history of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes abroad.

Then step two is to talk more to one another. Just because you can't get on TV in a sound bark age, or you can't get a spread in the newspaper, doesn't mean that each and every one of us can not have a community, an epicenter of friends, relatives, neighbors, coworkers where we begin discussing the state of the public immorality, the state of public crudity and injustice and corporate hegemony, and so we can start talking, reading -- lot of great materials around -- and more talking. Then you get ideas. And you get great ideas. Ideas no one has ever had before in terms of strategic breakthroughs for justice.

Years ago we had an idea on how could we organize rate payers of electric, telephone, gas companies. We drafted a bill and got it passed in Wisconsin and Illinois. Look how simple the idea: it required each utility monopoly -- electric, telephone, gas company -- three or four times a year when they send you the monthly bill -- and they never miss -- to carry this little envelope printed by the emerging consumer group, chartered by this new state law. And this envelope -- this is from Illinois -- says "Commonwealth Edison is trying to raise your electric rates again. Dear Commonwealth Edison customer, even though the Illinois State Court overturned the rate hike, ComEd won't call it quits. They're still demanding over $250 million more of the customer's money. And they just might get it. But, if you join this statewide consumer action group for $5 a year in Illinois you'll have your own advocates, investigators, attorneys, economists, accountants to take on the utility company before the regulatory agency in the council of public opinion, in the media, before the courts and the legislature."

Look what happened. When do you think the customer's peak point of interest is in the utility arena? It's when they get the bill. Out falls this little thing. It is not printed by your utility company, doesn't cost any more postage for the utility company. Two hundredthousand people joined in a year and a half. They have a budget of about $1.2 million a year. They've saved over $4 billion. They have monitored all the utilities and they got a $1.3 billion refund from Commonwealth Edison in 1993 for Northern Illinois families because they were charging them for excessive capacity in a nuclear power plant which they should have charged their stockholders, not their residential customers. So they made another important point.

Now comes the California utility -- it always happens here -- and they take this rule, which a regulatory agency in Sacramento implemented for a consumer group here, all the way to the Supreme Court. They lost at the trial court. They lost at the California Supreme Court. And at the Supreme Court of the United States they said , "This requirement for a legal monopoly makes us violate our First Amendment rights." Why? "Because it forces us not to remain silent. It forces us as a company to rebut this letter and this violates our First Amendment rights." And they win, five to three, with Rehnquist dissenting. He's now Chief Justice, so it may be overturned.

But you know what the citizens of Illinois did when they could no longer get this in their bill? They passed a bill in the legislature requiring the state government mailings -- motor vehicle registration, tax mailings -- to carry this and this group is still going on. And San Diego has a group like this, too. It's called U-CAN, and it's done very well itself. It has about 50,000 members in the greater San Diego area.

This idea can work in bank statements, for bank customers. Never again a savings and loan debacle if this were operating. It can work in your insurance premium billing envelope, on your cable TV screen to invite you to join a cable viewer's group, and all kinds of ways.

It doesn't take a fraction of one percent of the people to join one or more of these groups, representing broad consumer justice values to turn the tide. Voluntary, no tax dollars, universally accessible. This is what we mean when we talk about a tool of democracy. In this case, a tool of consumers banding together with a full-time staff, with technical, political and informational power. That is what we should do for our voters' rights, by getting rid of private money in political campaigns; by strengthening the labor laws so that more than 10 percent of the workers in this country can have a fair chance at collective bargaining and forming trade unions, and making sure the laws keep the trade unions honest and the people at the top listening to the rank and file.

(And by the way, there's a new Labor Party that's been formed, a huge convention that you didn't read about because it wasn't reported in Cleveland in late June, a huge convention, 1500 delegates from 45 states, no balloons. They worked out their constitution, they worked out their bylaws, and they're going to launch candidates in the year 2000. The era of the two-party domination of our country in the pockets of Big Business is about over!)
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Albion Monitor October 27, 1996 (

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