Nader Crosses Enemy Lines
DETROIT -- It was not the rowdy rock-star reception the presidential candidate has received along the campaign trail. Over the clink of water glasses and dessert plates being cleared by uniformed waiters, three hundred professionals at the Cobo Center in Detroit applauded politely as the afternoon's speaker took the podium. He extended his gratitude for the opportunity to address them, noting that "invitations to the Detroit Economic Club do not come frequently to me, for obvious reasons." Everyone chuckled.
Having Ralph Nader speak to the Economic Club of Detroit is a little like having Gandhi address the British Royal Society -- underneath all the nods and smiles, you can still sense a thick layer of resentment. Since its inception in 1934, the club has been a forum for the discussion of economic, social and political issues among Detroit's corporate elite, including, of course, the auto industry titans whose lives and companies were irreversibly altered by Nader's crusading 1965 book "Unsafe at Any Speed," which took General Motors to task for fatal design flaws in its popular Corvair.
Bill Warner, a former associate director of corporate strategy at Ford Motor Company, explained that Nader was invited along with all other presidential candidates. "I don't think he's [the Economic Club's] favorite person," said Warner, "but this club is known for welcoming all kinds of speakers, and in an election year, we're open to hearing all the views." A representative from the club said Republican candidate George W. Bush had addressed them in January, and Libertarian candidate Harry Browne came a few weeks ago.
Nader's address began on a cordial note, but quickly devolved into an outright indictment of the auto industry. Like his condemnation of the Democratic Party for failing to follow through on its progressive promises, he accused the auto industry of similar hypocrisy, and used as an illustration a recent announcement by Ford that it would voluntarily cut emissions in its sport utility vehicles.
"Every time we read these nice statements and get encouraged, we trip over their lobbyists in Washington who are trying to do the reverse," said Nader. "They're working to block all kinds of advances in health, safety, emissions and fuel efficiency. Now I happen to know, as many of you know, that there's a big difference between what the engineers and scientists are able, willing and very pleased to do inside the auto companies, and what the executives at the top are willing to let them do. That's not only documented by history, it's documented by people who leave the industry."
Nader claimed the auto industry already possesses the technological capacity to build safer cars that go fifty miles per gallon, could improve or phase out the internal combustion engine, or even implement a large-scale, environmentally-friendly system of public transport. "What is it about this industry," he asked rhetorically, "that it sits on such talent and has such an obligation to the global environment, to a more balanced transportation system, to the health and safety of millions of people, to energy conservation, and that it is constantly putting the brakes on itself unless it is targeted and challenged by government regulations or trade unions or consumer and environmental groups? I don't know the answer to this."
The answer, which Nader applies as easily to the pharmaceutical, military and biotechnology industries, is the lure of greater profits, which prompts auto executives to disregard safety and the environment. He reminded the audience that in the 1930s and 1940s, General Motors, Standard Oil and Firestone collaborated to buy up trolley systems in 28 large metropolitan areas, then ripped out the tracks while pushing legislators to fund a national highway system. For this, he said, the companies were indicted by a federal jury in Chicago just after World War II, charged by the Justice Department with a criminal violation of antitrust laws, and convicted and fined $5000 per company for what Nader called "one of the economic crimes of the century."
Nader managed to raise eyebrows with several of his controversial proposals. He said corporate violators of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act should have their maximum penalty raised from $925,000 to $15 million, and he supported the pressing of criminal charges against executives of Firestone and Ford for allegedly marketing products which they knew to have fatal defects.
But while these scathing remarks went over predictably poorly with the well-heeled crowd, many of those who would have been the most offended stayed away altogether. "I don't see any auto executives here today," said Republican state legislator Andrew Richner, who represents Grosse Pointe, a wealthy suburb dominated by the auto elite.
"I don't support Ralph Nader for president and I think he's showing a lot of courage in coming here to Detroit, because of his past criticism of the auto industry," he said. Richner described the Economic Club as a largely conservative Republican institution and guessed most of the audience attended out of simple curiosity.
Attendee Charles Sabadash, 89, was unimpressed by Nader. "I think that he gave enough truths that he couldn't be denied, but on the other hand, he only gave half of it so it wasn't the full truth," said Sabadash, who worked on the development of the first automatic transmission. "Just like he was [saying] that Ford was restraining certain [developments], but I don't think so. I don't think these things can be evolved, and he was accusing them of willingly and knowingly holding back."
Still, not everyone was put off by Nader's speech. Dan Platt, a retired employee of Chrysler's sales and marketing department, conceded that in his experience in the auto industry, people understand the necessity to change but need a catalyst to do so.
"People in decision making really understand this, but they've got to come to grips with it and they've got to make things happen, and that's what's lacking" said Platt. "I think the next generation of leadership is apt to put things into practice because it's a cultural way of looking at things. It's difficult to change ingrained minds, but I think you're going to see very positive things in the future. I think in the next fifty years you'll see some radical developments."
A handful of members of the Metro Detroit Green Party attended the luncheon. As all the men and women in smart business attire filed out after Nader's speech, they contended he had not been as hard on them as he could have been. "Who can argue with safer cars, cleaner environment, better fuel efficiency?" said Scott Tyrrell, a Green. "They all know they should be working towards that. Ralph has said nothing here today that these people haven't heard over and over, it's just a matter of what they want to do in their actions."