THE BLOG
10/02/2014 09:02 am ET Updated Dec 02, 2014

Unstoppable , Ralph Nader's Plea to Billionaires

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We live in a world of tribalism. We always have. The history of human warfare, of ethnic prejudice and of religious groupings are Exhibits A, B and C, respectively. Perhaps it is a misguided vestige of natural selection to hate and destroy the "other" tribe. And American politics is gravely infected with this human flaw, as the current groupings demonstrate. Yes, it is a real difference to want government less involved in our lives, or to regulate business more. Or to spend more or less on environmental protection. And we may disagree on taxes and whether we need to intervene in a foreign land.

But to a large extent we have divided up based on the usual tribal basis that "I call myself by this name, you call yourself by that name, you are evil, I am virtuous -- you must be defeated, humiliated, or eliminated -- at least as a tribal entity." And the American media feeds these simplifications because of the bias to entertain. We love a contest. So the mischaracterization of the other tribe, and the beating on its evils and duplicity, has become the basis for a large part of media reporting.

What is interesting about American tribalism is the contrary nature of our very formation. We are in our essence the confluence of many different traditional tribal groupings: by race, religion, place of origin. Few nations in human history are a better example of this diversity. And it is also interesting that on individual issues, there is variety in points of view within our groupings -- views that often comport with parts of other allegedly contrary "enemy tribes." Defense department spending? Civil liberties? Child investment? Conservation? On these and many, many issues the views of conservative Republicans with civil liberty concerns and traditional Democratic liberals are much closer than to others in their own alleged groupings.

Ralph Nader has just released a book ("Unstoppable") looking at these underlying commonalities. And then he adds something else. Some folks are rich, very rich. Yes, that means they are in the "2 percent tribe." But as with the tribal groupings above, it is not homogenous on real life issues. The super-rich do not all want their incomprehensible wealth to go to heirs. They are often as concerned about their nation and other people throughout the world. And they understand the concepts of fairness, and equality of opportunity, and the obligation to leave the world a better place for future generations. But they tend to waste their good intentions on endowing buildings and providing direct services. There is something gratifying about knowing you have gotten medicine into a vulnerable group that will prevent deaths. The joy of seeing that spoon of porridge going into the mouth of a hungry child with distended belly, and knowing "I did that."

So Nader is asking two questions. First, he is listing 25 issues upon which they might agree with others in other tribes and asking "why not support this?" Second, he is asking that they consider not just the direct gift, but some attention to systemic change that inhibits the paralysis, that leads to more public decisions on the merits. He is appealing to an admirable human ethical idea -- advancing a group you are not a part of. Adults today do that rarely. Almost all openly proselytize for their own grouping, whatever it is. As a result, children and investment in their future is low in public policy influence.

These wealthy people are not necessarily tied into a system that makes public policy based on wealth. And most of them well know that the corporate interest in maximizing return on existing capital -- which is the fiduciary duty of corporations -- is not the ideal determinant. That corporate duty is at variance with the interests of the diffuse and the future, e.g., the interests of children and their children. And the concern over legacy should lead the super wealthy to want to leave behind a system that gives weight to long-term effects of human activity.

Look at the nature of Nader's 25 "proposed redirections." They include: require the Department of Defense to be audited annually, look carefully at businesses seeking government handouts (not just at fraud by social welfare recipients), and adjust the minimum wage to inflation. The idea behind the last is not to increase anything, it is to change in either direction by considered decision.

The list includes breaking up the big banks. And antitrust enforcement is at base a very conservative concept -- we want more market reliance and less government regulation -- so let's create a market that so functions without it. He advises support for direct democracy and for community self-reliance -- principles of federalism basic to conservatives. He would allow our courts to enforce the law where millions are victims through a reasonable class mechanism, and to include in that enforcement white collar crime. He suggests clearing obstacles to a more competitive electoral system -- including possible choices beyond just the candidates of two parties. He adds the rejection of patents for "life forms." And he includes environmental responsibility, and effective, efficient widespread health care. Perhaps most important, is his rejection that a "corporation" [a state created "person" charged with maximum return on investment] is equivalent to a real "person" in political status. These are all, in essence, conservative ideas.

Will the billionaires listen? Well for those who earned their wealth through brilliant achievement, it would seem that such natural selection should commend it. If they were effective in producing things we need and in leading us in the marketplace, they should be smart enough to apply their core values effectively to this end product -- what they might actually leave behind that might become more profound gifts than their laudable ideas and products while among us.