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Is Ralph Nader On To Something?

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In his recently published novel, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us, which he describes as a "speculative utopia," Ralph Nader has seventeen real life billionaires and multi-millionaires -- Warren Buffett, Ted Turner. George Soros, and Bill Gates Sr. among them -- getting together to form an organization focused on bringing about desperately needed social change. As Nader sees it the caring super-rich are our nation's best hope for bringing about change in issues such as health care, protection of the environment, Wall Street regulation, taxation inequity, worker's wages and working conditions.

Buffett recently testified to Congress that the super rich need to be more highly taxed. He pointed out that while he pays 16% of his income to taxes, his secretary pays 25%. Years ago, when Bush was pushing for eliminating the inheritance tax, I heard Bill Gates Sr., who was vehemently opposed to this, make similar points, and also argue that his son, the world's wealthiest man, owed this country an enormous debt--he could never have achieved what he did had he been born in a poor third world country.

Nader's perception is that if Buffett and other responsible industrial and media billionaires who care about the well being of our country and its people were to put billions into paying organizers to mobilize American workers to stand up for their interests -- thus providing a counter balance to the influence of corporate America on government -- change would become possible. (Right wing billionaires like Richard Scaife have for some time been funding think tanks and spokespeople for their cause who have influenced many Americans to think and vote against their own interests.)

It's difficult to argue with the basic premise of Nader's book -- that it's hopeless to hope for real change as long as government officials are on the take. The facts support it. If we focus on health care alone, candidate for President Obama got $19,439,769 from the health industry for his campaign. Democratic Senator Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee picked up $1.2 million from health industries in 2008. Altogether, six key members of this committee--three Republicans and three Democrats-- which has been at the center of the health care reform fight have received $6,036,626 from the health industry so far this year. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch who sits on three committees central to health care decision making has netted over $5.5 million from health industries this decade. Democratic representatives Frank Pallone, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Charlie Rangel, House Ways and Means Committee Chair, each raised over $800,000 from health industries in 2008.

When candidate Obama proposed expanding Medicare or providing some kind of public healthcare option for Americans, a worried industry increased its already huge donations. "Major health interests have spent an average of $1.4 million per day to lobby congress so far this year and are on track to spend more than half a billion dollars by the end of 2009," we are told in a study, Legislating under the Influence, published by the non-profit Common Cause in June of this year.

While members of key decision making committees receive the lion's share of these funds, the members of congress mentioned above represent a small fraction of the recipients--for a complete 12 page list of Congressional recipients, see the Common Cause study.

It is standard for industries to shift a majority of their contributions to whatever party is in power, so right now Democrats are getting more than Republicans. Is it surprising that it's looking more and more like we won't get a public option, that the major winner in the most recent Senate health care bill championed by Baucus, would be the insurance industry, with government providing subsidies mainly for low income Americans to buy insurance at the industry's bloated prices. (Industry stock prices went up the morning after President Obama's health care address to Congress.) As is the case in Massachusetts which passed a similar bill some years ago, many middle class Americans would be unable to afford mandated medical insurance.

In the U.S. where we call toilets restrooms, we call the money by which large corporations buy undue influence, "political contributions." In any other advanced democracy, this would be called bribery.

This undue influence has left American workers way behind those in other advanced industrialized countries --where elections are almost entirely publicly funded and candidates receive free time on TV-- in terms of health care, child care, family leave, working conditions etc.

As Nader points out the fact that so many Americans need to work two jobs to make ends meet makes it all the more difficult for them to stand up for themselves. Their average of 11 days per year of vacation--by contrast with four mandated vacation weeks in many European countries--doesn't help either. On top of this, the influence of the largely corporate controlled media often leads working class Americans to focus more on issues, such as gay marriage, which play little or no role in their daily lives to the detriment of the issues that do.

It is difficult to listen to president Obama's brilliant and moving speeches about our urgent need for affordable universal health care and then contrast them with his over-readiness to compromise, and not be perplexed. The independent variable--big bucks from the industry distributed among all the key players--goes a long way toward explaining the discrepancy.

Nader may well be right, perhaps the only independent variable that can counteract those big bucks is the big bucks of our pro-social billionaires.

Some of the mega-wealthy have already taken steps in this direction. The Democracy Alliance, backed by several dozen wealthy donors including billionaire financier George Soros, Rob McKay the heir to the Taco Bell fortune, and the Lewis family of Progressive Insurance, will help fulfill Nader's dream if they put at least as much of their resources into grass roots organizing as they now steer toward progressive think-tanks. Ted Turner has given hundreds of millions to environmental causes, and bankers Herb and Marion Sandler's ProPublica is desperately trying to salvage what's left of investigative journalism.

Billionaires as saviors of the working class! Karl Marx is undoubtedly turning over in his grave.