The Megacorporate World
of Ronald Reagan

excerpted from the book

The Ralph Nader Reader

(presented at The National Press Club, Washington D C., June 6, 1984)


Many years ago, when some of our nations political leaders were wise, Thomas Jefferson said that the purpose of representative government was to curb "the excesses of the monied interests." Many decades later, in I936, Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of the last presidents to hold corporations accountable for the state of the economy, promised that while "the malefactors of great wealth" had met their match in the previous four years, they would meet their master in the following four years.

Ronald Reagan has the opposite plan in mind. During Mr. Reagan's first term, "the malefactors of great wealth," now described as big business or multinational corporations, have regularly met their obedient servant in the white house. The power of "the monied interests" has become ever more focused on turning representative government into a versatile accounts receivable for too many mismanaged, speculating negligent, avaricious, unsafe or downright criminal companies. This Reagan-corporatist revolution, whereby business regulates government in pursuit of private profit at the expense of the legitimate interests of Americans as taxpayers, consumers and citizens, has little to do with being conservative. It has everything to do with building a government of the Exxons, by the General Motors, and for the DuPonts.

So systematic, recurrent and widespread are these retrograde policies against basic, historic American values, as shall be noted shortly, that political commentators have wondered aloud how Mr. Reagan can still be so much in the running for re-election. The implication in their observations is proper: Presidents should be judged for what they do, not for what they say, or what they say they do. These commentators still expect a framework of accountability around the White House that includes the departments and agencies of the Executive Branch directed largely by presidential appointees or Schedule C personnel.

"The Teflon President"-one of those very apt descriptions by Democrats that ironically serve to encourage their discouragement about November- has a strategy for irresponsible power that invites closer scrutiny.

Rule One is never get openly involved in the details. He who rises by details falls by details could be his motto. Stay abstract, using heroic phrases of reassurance and national pride.

Rule Two is amiability-especially in 'Aw shucks' demeanor with lots of even-toned voice, pendant smiles and head shrugs. Remember Reagan in China. When asked by American reporters what he thought of Peking censoring his remarks on Chinese television, he replied with a slight smile "You fellows do it all the time." Imagine how Nixon would have been treated had he tried that one.

Rule Three is insulate the President from impromptu media exposure. His aides even joke about it, as Lyn Nofziger did on the campaign trail in 1980 when he told reporters, "I've got Ronnie under house arrest from you guys."

Rule Four is induce condescension. If people think they are so much smarter than you, they don't expect much and they forgive more.

Rule Five is create a banality of wrongdoing, of cruelty, of hypocrisy, of selling the country short. Banality avoids the constant search for novelty by the media and helps opposing politicians throw up their hands in despair. Any President whose administration can incite the response of the jaded- "So what else is new"-is already almost out of the woods. Banality is nourished by a numbing frequency of abuses whose very quantity depreciate their provocative impact.

Rule Six is seize the semantics and wrap the national symbols around one's own political ideology.

Rule Seven is be blessed by an opposition party that has largely surrendered the basic contention of its politics-namely that of challenging the mal-distribution of power between the haves and have nots. The formula which used to win again and again for the Democrats-that they were the party of the people and the Republicans were the party of the rich-is no longer used. It fails because these are times of massive campaign finance beggary and a giant corporate lock on an economy increasingly within corporate prerogative to transfer operations overseas or close down plant by plant. People see this overlap by the two parties in currying the favor of business interests. Deprived of distinct political choice, citizens begin to doubt the credibility of the party out of office when it claims it will be different. The candidates who can convince us that there will be a difference on concrete policy after concrete policy will move people's minds.

The radical regime of Ronald Reagan does provide a background against which there indeed can be significant choices affecting the perceived needs and rights of citizens. Here are some of the directions pursued by the Reagan-Big Business axis

The concentration of power within government and business has increased in both political and economic manifestations. The corporate merger movement, given the green light by Reagan, is moving from rabid to frenzied. Nine of the ten largest mergers in U.S. history have occurred under the permissive reign of Reagan. It is difficult to know what limits Reagan would put on mergers, most of which promise no greater efficiencies, no economies of scale, no market discipline of bad management (without golden parachutes) and no new jobs. His former Justice Department antitrust chief, William Baxter, said: "There is nothing written in the sky that says the world would not be a perfectly satisfactory place if there were only one hundred companies, provided each had one percent of every product and service market." Nothing written in the sky, but there is much written in the anti-monopoly laws, their legislative history and judicial decisions that would give pause to such a concentrated political economy. Corporate bigness makes its demands on small business and the consumer in prices, in political manipulation, and in being too big to fail without a bailout. The loss of the family farm in the tens of thousands each year to agribusiness and banks receives no attention from this former rural Illinois native who extolls this way of life when he wants votes and forgets it after the election.

Over at the Federal Communications Commission, with Mr. Reagan's full support, his appointees, led by Chairman Mark Fowler, want to eliminate the few viewer's rights under the Fairness and Equal Time Doctrines. They want to repeal 7-7-7 limitation (7 am, 7 fm and 7 tv) stations which can be under a single owner and allow a vastly greater concentration of electronic media ownership.

Within the Federal Government there is greater concentration of power from many agencies to one-the White House Office of Management and Budget. The OMB makes political judgements, invites back door "ex parte" meetings with business lobbyists, excludes the public from its right to know and respond under the Administrative Procedures Act, and generally translates unilateral white house dictates. OMB does this in violation of fair play, and by some expert opinion, in violation of administrative laws as well. The Reagan Government also shuts Americans out of its decision-making processes by ending legal aid for poorer petitioners before regulatory agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission. They do so by using every technical objection to deny citizens legal standing to challenge their government, and by giving early preferential notice of proposals to their industrial and commercial friends. If there is any company on the fortune 500 list that objects to these anti-democratic powerplays, it has kept a very low visibility.

There is a wholesale repudiation of the historic role of the American Government's duty to protect or expand the public's health and safety. Health and safety laws go unenforced or underenforced below even laggard levels of the past. The Food and Drug Administration's enforcement level is down about 50 percent, as are the enforcement actions against dirty meat and poultry plants and violators of motor vehicle regulations. The enforcement record at OSHA-the job safety agency-is a disgrace made worse by Reaganite reductions in serious inspections and redrawing what constitutes sanctionable violations. Since taking office, Reagan has not issued a single new worker health standard to limit any chemical or gas, though dozens in January I981 were nearly ready to be issued to reduce cancer, emphysema, and other diseases and injuries in the workplace. These diseases claim about I00,000 American lives a year. Only one motor vehicle standard has emerged-that dealing with rear mounted lights on automobiles, while several critical lifesavers were revoked or shunted aside. The list can go on and on to demonstrate that Mr. Reagan has little interest in saving American lives when it inconveniences his corporate masters.

With the stroke of Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis' pen, a lifesaving, crash protection standard was illegally repealed (according to a 9-0 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court). Thousands of Americans are now dying or being seriously injured every year in frontal collisions by their non crashworthy cars. Mr. Reagan campaigned against this humane and economical engineering system right along with General Motors which pressed upon him this macabre position. The pattern recurs in one industry after another. What do the pesticide companies want? Just follow the Reagan trail of waivers and exceptions for dangerous pesticides, the absence of regulatory action against suspected farm chemicals, the virtual cessation of testing foods for pesticide residues and the reduction of research for non-toxic ways of controlling pests.

The sordid behavior of Reagan's Environmental Protection Agency in bowing to corporate polluters on demand has been reported many times. But Mr. Reagan's responsibility needs to be made clearer. EPA Chief Ann Gorsuch did the president's bidding. It was the Reagan White House that stopped the new EPA Chief William Ruckelshaus from doing anything to reduce the sources of acid rain. It is Mr. Reagan and the corporate polluters who oppose overdue implementation of stricter safety standards for America's drinking water-now contaminated with heavy metals and cancer-causing chemicals. The corporate polluters want the air and water pollution laws severely weakened. Many polls conclude that the overwhelming majority of people want them strengthened. Ronald Reagan joins with his corporate patrons on these issues as well. Even in the field of toxic waste dumps, scarring and poisoning the America that he professes to revere, Mr. Reagan exerts no leadership. For the Great Communicator, there is no time for compassionate recognition of victims of corporate abuses, corporate cancer and other forms of industrial violence. It is as if there needed to be proof that the contamination of America's air and water were the products of an International Communist Conspiracy before Mr. Reagan would leap into action. Alas, for those sick or dying under Reagan-"The Real King of The Special Interests," as a Washington Post headline put it-there is no such relief ahead.

Mr. Reagan's insensitivity seems at times to go beyond taking orders from business. It reaches to uncharted realms of indifference and irresponsibility that congeal to form a type of intellectual incontinence. Some view his hard line determination against law and order for corporations and his softness on corporate crime as the result of an ideologically indentured mind. It is perfectly attuned to his political creators-the multimillionaires of the Southern California kitchen cabinet who, like they'd acquired a sure winner horse, selected, groomed, trained and financed him for Sacramento, and finally for Washington. It is all that but more.

How else can anyone explain why Mr. Reagan would so mistreat the most vulnerable in our society when he could so easily defend their right to live in health, safety, and dignity? Infants and children surely cannot be expected "to vote with their feet," Mr. Reagan. Yet, in I98I, he pushed to drop requirements that gasoline refiners reduce the amount of lead in gasoline. Too many little children in this country already have the devastating symptoms of lead poisoning; more lead violence cannot be allowed in their bodies. What of asbestos in thousands of school buildings? Despite visible protests from concerned parents, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Stockman refused to ask Congress to appropriate any money to help seal or remove exposed asbestos surfaces spinning off deadly microscopic particles into those young lungs. This Commander-in-Chief, who has never met a weapons system he didn't like, wanted to abolish the Consumer Product Safety Commission-a tiny agency with a major mission of protecting children from household and other product hazards. With an annual budget worth less than two hours of pentagon expenditures, the CPSC did not fit within Mr. Reagan's definition of defense in depth. Fortunately, Congress disagreed. so just the budget was cut. There is more. After mothers of brain-damaged infants lobbied through Congress a bill to have the Food and Drug Administration establish quality control standards for commercial infant formula, Mr. Reagan's White House delayed the issuance of these regulations for eighteen months. Without press exposure, the delay may have been longer. Because of the lack of care and compassion so characteristic of this Administration, three million additional cans of deficient formula were sold to unsuspecting parents.

Two years ago, health officials at the Food and Drug Administration wanted to require aspirin makers to place a label on their product warning about Reye's Syndrome, a disease causing convulsions and sometimes death in some children who take aspirin when they have chicken pox or the flu. The White House OMB intervened on behalf of aspirin manufacturers and blocked both the move and distribution through supermarkets of a half million copies of pamphlets cautioning parents. Again there was wide publicity of this intragovernment struggle but Mr. Reagan let the aspirin industry prevail.

It was said about Woodrow Wilson that he disliked individuals but loved humanity. The reverse seems to apply to Mr. Reagan, with the qualification that the individuals are those friends who share his dogmas or who are politically useful symbols during photo opportunities. He brought back, with calculated media exposure, two Korean children who needed medical operations. Would that he wield his great powers as President on behalf of America's infants and children instead of reducing special nutrition programs for impoverished pregnant women, mothers and their newly born.

He must know by now that polls consistently are showing sizeable majorities of people dislike his policies though they think he is a nice fellow. As long as that anomaly continues, he has little incentive to sensitize himself by meeting with active-victim groups such as the disabled. He has little incentive to ask his speech writers for genuine declarations of his compassionate recognition of their plight and determination to alleviate pain and prevent further trauma and disease.

Recently a young pediatrician took a long unpaid leave of absence from his California practice to crusade for reinstatement of the Crash Protection Standard (commonly called the Airbag Rule). He has received some mass media coverage of his efforts. He held a well-prepared vigil of physicians at Lafayette Park one Saturday afternoon and delivered a "visual letter" on video tape to the President. The White House, I subsequently learned, did not even bother to do the routine thing and forward it to the Secretary of Transportation. The doctor wondered why he and his fellow physicians could not see the President on a matter that public health specialists have called "the single most effective domestic life saving decision that the administration is in a position to make this year and perhaps for many years." I could have told the physician, recalling the list of past visitors to the President, that he did not qualify for a meeting since he had not won a boxing championship, performed a decisive slamdunk or won an Emmy.

Mr. Reagan is consistent with his pitiless deregulatory generalities. Had Congress not stopped him, he would have abolished crucial health and safety requirements imposed on the heavily tax-supported nursing home industry. Instead of firmer enforcement efforts and more adequate standards, he was content to leave defenseless the more than one million elderly in nursing homes.

So extreme is the President's corporatism that he is finding more genuine conservative groups taking sharp issue with his policies. In a little reported evolution that may change the future complexion of American politics, organizations who call themselves conservative populists are teaming up with their progressive counterparts to oppose corporate bailouts. Last year this coalition defeated the breeder reactor boondoggle-a high Reagan priority. In ~98~, it nearly defeated the legislation regarding the Alaska gas pipeline that would coerce consumers into paying for the pipeline even if the project isn't completed and consumers did not receive any natural gas. The synfuel industry's welfare project is under similar pressure, though its predicted mismanagement and awful economics appear to be self-dismantling. This new coalition put up a strong fight against the Reaganite bailout of the big U.S. banks that made such imprudent loans at sky-high interest rates to foreign countries. Reagan, who spent years lecturing around the country for General Electric on the virtues of sink or swim free enterprise, has become the most prominent advocate of big business bailouts in American history.

If this all goes against his philosophic grain, it demonstrates the contrary power of giant business over his government. His formerly strong belief in states' rights is surrendered when companies want his backing for a weaker federal law replacing the adaptable common law in the fifty states that gives people injured by dangerous products rights to sue and recover compensation from manufacturers. It is surrendered when the banks demand that his agencies preempt stronger state regulations designed to protect depositors and borrowers. It is surrendered again when the nuclear industry wants him to strip state and local governments of their police power over the transportation of radioactive materials through their communities. Corporatizing the ex-conservative Ronald Reagan is a routine matter these days, even when Wall Street's economic and tax policy demands result in placing Main Street, with its small businesses, at a comparative disadvantage.

The simplest of international decencies are rejected by the Reagan administration in obeisance to the multinationals. Mr. Carter's executive order requiring notification to foreign governments was revoked early in this republican administration. The order had been intended to restrain the export from this country of hazardous products illegal for domestic sale but not for export (e.g., certain drugs, pesticides) or to stop outright illegal exports. Now, with Mr. Reagan's knowledge and support, a clutch of global corporations, State and Commerce Department officials, and this government s United Nations' mission is working to stop the United Nations' draft guidelines on consumer protection. These principles of consumer safety and economic rights (the freedom to form consumer associations and the like) are drawn heavily from U.S. Iaw and practice. They are just principles, having no force of authority but meant to have a moral impact on many countries and companies. Apparently, however, suggesting that the world has something to learn from U.S. consumer protection achievements over the past century is too provocative for the corporate statists in the Reagan camp. They seem unmindful of the disasters that have occurred in Third World countries, not a few generated by Western corporations taking advantage of the absence of indigenous consumer safeguards.

Such unmindfulness has become a habit. The Reagan government is the only member of the United Nations to vote against a U.N. resolution seeking to deter the kind of dumping of hazardous materials as occurred with the export of tris-treated (a carcinogen) children's pajamas from the U.S. All our allies voted the other way. The World Health Organization, with just one dissent, that of Ronald Reagan, approved a code for better marketing practices for infant formula promotion. This code was stimulated by the death of millions of Third World babies during the seventies linked to over-promotion of infant formula through scare techniques and other deceptions in conjunction with unsanitary village water sources. This tragedy has been reported in the context of the Nestle boycott that was recently settled with international children's defense groups after Nestle agreed to modify its actions.

Every president has a unique mission of trust imposed upon him by certain conservation laws, some of them enacted by Republican-dominated congresses and presidents early in this century. I refer to the federal lands onshore and offshore with those glorious wildernesses and natural resources for present and future generations of Americans to enjoy and preserve. These lands comprise one-third of our nation from the pristine wilds of Alaska to the barren deserts of Arizona (a prime solar energy region someday). Does Mr. Reagan use his communications skills to graphically etch in the minds of more Americans the grandeur and permanence of his public trust? No, although he no longer talks about his support of the Sagebrushers who want the states to have these lands on their way to private ownership and exploitation.

Instead, he launched, through his agent James Watt, the biggest natural resource giveaway program to corporations in modern American History. The Reagan-Watt team wanted to lease billions of acres of offshore lands so fast that the oil company beneficiaries-to-be had to say, "Whoa, we can't absorb that rapid a transfer." So they settled for merely massive leaseholds on public lands whose oil and gas potential the government could not independently verify. In a glutted market of declining prices, Reagan-Watt proposed to lease as much coal in fifteen months as eleven administrations have done in the sixty-three years since the government began to lease its coal-bearing lands. These men knew that the coal and oil companies already were sitting on existing federal coal leases without producing any coal. What these companies want is not to produce but to control huge reserves of the people's resources at giveaway prices obtained in a depressed market. Reagan was all too eager to deliver, until organized civic opposition retired Watt and cooled off an election-sensitive President.

One would at the very least expect Mr. Reagan to want to give taxpayers (that majority of the taxpayers who will pay more in total taxes in 1984 than in i980) value for what they paid government contractors to develop. Not at all. By presidential directive, agencies are urged to turn over to companies exclusive patent rights to government-financed discoveries to the fullest extent permissible. This is one of many areas of corporate privilege to which the Reaganites neglect to apply their cost-benefit formula. But the formula is so often rigged to cater to corporations, one shouldn't be surprised when it is not applied at all.

The curtain around Reagan's corporate state is one of intense secrecy whose function of excluding the public's participation and monitoring is nourished by a rising base of zero data. This administration does not want to know what corporations do; it has stopped collecting much data about the large oil companies. It has stopped collecting data about line of business reporting by conglomerates. Referring to across-the-board cuts in federal statistical gathering services, University of Chicago Dean William Kruskal wrote: "When a vessel is in stormy seas, it is foolhardy to cut corners on radar, navigational equipment, good maps, and ample, well-trained crews." Coupled with not wanting to know, the government has defined as trade secrets whatever information companies want withheld from the public, even though it is supplied to the government for particular proceedings affecting the public.

The price of government reports and pamphlets has skyrocketed to levels reachable only by the affluent or desperate. Look at the government printing office's price list and you will see pamphlets of only a few pages selling for over two dollars each. Price hikes have driven the number of publications requested from the government's consumer information center in fiscal year 1984 to half of what they were in fiscal 1982 Many publications, such as the popular Car Book, have been discontinued. Citizens wanting to be placed on mailing lists of the FCC or the ICC for agency press releases are referred to private contractors who will sell you this service. The principle of the broadest possible distribution of information about what the government is doing and deciding has been destroyed. The pretext is that the user should pay and as printing volume declines the prices go up in a vicious circle of exclusion. The government pays almost $I00 million a year for marching bands. (That's twice as much as the cost of administering the Freedom of Information Act and there are no viewer fees charged there.)

To top off Reagan's Darkness at Noon, the basic research and development which elevates awareness of hazards to be averted and opportunities to be developed have been severely weakened due to industry demands. Thus, the experimental Safety Vehicle Program and the Fuel Economy Research Program have been closed. Sharply reduced are research undertakings in energy conservation, cancer prevention, drug safety, toxic chemicals and consumer product safety. Such inquiries could lead to stronger future safety standards-a prospect companies usually like to cut off at the pass. What is so deplorable about Mr. Reagan is that his supine relations with business brings out the worst in corporate behavior. Executives see that they do not have to do safety research or be concerned about compliance with laws that are about to be enforced. General Motors' Chairman, Roger Smith, disbanded the company's crack air-bag technology development section unit in April 1981, after learning that Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis was going to scrap the Automatic Crash Protection Regulation. Companies that stretch to advance the cause of safety, as have State Farm and Allstate, receive no plaudits, no medals, no encouragement from the man in the White House. If anything, these firms think they may be inviting resentment for their efforts.

All in all, the Reagan government is the consummate promoter of the rich and powerful when the latter are arrayed against the interests of the rest of America. We must not forget that it is not just Reagan who occupies that eminent political office. It is the network of collegial business interests who have learned so well that the essence of privilege in America's marketplace today requires control over the government's powers and its public wealth. Subsidies, monopolistic licenses, protectionism, selective enforcement, lucrative contracts, loan guarantees, bailouts, and the free results of expensive research and development are among the dispensations of modern Uncle Sugar in Washington, D.C. Together these goodies make a bustling bazaar of corporate welfare and largess that requires nurturing and enlargement. Toward this objective it helps to have your own business agent in the White House. It helps to have someone who does not raise American's expectation levels.

Americans have every right to some solutions to their everyday afflictions, some value for their everyday tax dollars and some voice for their everyday concerns, some remedies for their everyday injustices, and some civic mechanisms for building their futures.

The empowerment and widespread exercise of citizenship is a prerequisite for a sound, democratic society. Leadership that empowers more people. that reduces the severe concentration of power and information, and that lifts a nation into missions of accomplishment which will increase justice. happiness and opportunity-that is the leadership citizens must demand by involving themselves in a national political campaign. So too, the media should rise to their higher responsibility to report the White House and not just mimeograph its rhetoric.

Our history has demonstrated that the well-being of society springs from the growth of daily, active citizenship that provides an enabling environment for good leaders to come forth. Every significant social movement m this century has sprung from active citizens fighting for their cause - women's suffrage, workers' rights, civil rights, environmental and consumer protection, peace. Put in today's terms, citizens in our country need to spend more time being citizens. That is the real bottom line.

Ralph Nader page

Index of Website

Home Page