The Last Battle Over Big Business

Ralph Nader, now eighty-seven years old, has been a public figure for more than half a century. Many people know him as a long-shot left-wing Presidential candidate in four successive elections, from 1996 to 2008, and as the possible spoiler of a Democratic victory in 2000, when he got almost a hundred thousand votes in Florida and Al Gore lost the state by five hundred and thirty-seven. “Ralph Nader is not going to be welcome anywhere near the corridors,” Joe Biden told the Times back then. “Nader cost us the election.”

But his real heyday was in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. In 1966, he was the star witness at sensational hearings about automobile safety conducted by Senator Abraham Ribicoff, of Connecticut. Nader, a young lawyer who had just published a book titled “Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile,” seemed to know everything about auto safety, and to be motivated by a pure moral passion. What helped elevate him from star witness to celebrity, though, was the fact that his principal target, General Motors, hired private investigators to dig up dirt on him. There wasn’t any to be found, but Nader caught on and alerted first the Washington Post and then The New Republic. The idea of the country’s paradigmatic giant business corporation going after a penniless, idealistic reformer was journalistically irresistible.

In the years following the Ribicoff hearings, Nader was able to make himself into far more than an auto-safety expert. He sued G.M. for spying on him, and used the proceeds of the resulting settlement to start a series of organizations that investigated what government agencies did and failed to do. Nader’s parents were immigrants from Lebanon who operated a restaurant in the town of Winsted, Connecticut, but he had Ivy League degrees (Princeton, Harvard Law School), and in those days becoming a Nader’s Raider, as staff members at his organizations were known, was a glittering credential, a blazer-wearing way of participating in the culture of the sixties and seventies. A Pete Buttigieg of that generation would have gone to work for Nader instead of McKinsey.

In a 2002 biography of Nader that had the subject’s coöperation, Justin Martin identifies 1971 as Nader’s zenith. That year, by his calculations, the Times published a hundred and forty-eight stories about him. The following year, Martin reports, George McGovern offered Nader the Democratic Vice-Presidential nomination, which he turned down. Four years after that, Jimmy Carter, during his successful Presidential campaign, met with Nader twice. Martin credits Nader with influencing around twenty-five pieces of federal legislation that were passed between 1966 and 1973. When Lewis F. Powell, Jr., soon to become a Supreme Court Justice, wrote a memo to the Chamber of Commerce titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” which helped lead to a new network of conservative organizations, he made the source of his alarm clear: “Perhaps the single most effective antagonist of American business is Ralph Nader, who—thanks largely to the media—has become a legend in his own time and an idol of millions of Americans.” It’s hard to think of anyone in American history who achieved this kind of influence without holding any official position or leading a mass movement.

Nader’s appeal was enhanced by the fact that he seemed completely indifferent to worldly possessions and creature comforts. He was part prophet, part saint. Legend had it that he lived in a rooming house where he shared a telephone with three other residents—and, of course, he didn’t own a car. He was evidently celibate. He was known to work through the night. He wasn’t retiring or unambitious, exactly—he was a lecture-circuit regular, and his activism played out across a vast range of issues—but his selflessness was essential to his mystique. In the nineteen-seventies, Dupont Circle, a shabby-genteel neighborhood just past the edge of downtown Washington, was the acropolis of Naderism. It seemed as if everybody there worked for him, worked for an advocacy organization inspired by him, or covered him as a journalist. If you lived there, you’d sometimes see him striding briskly down the street, head lowered, a great wad of papers under his arm, wearing a drab suit and a skinny tie, and feel the validation that came from knowing you were at the center of a consequential movement.

Kenneth Whyte’s “The Sack of Detroit: General Motors and the End of American Enterprise” (Knopf), presents itself as an account of the decline of the leading automobile manufacturer, and, by extension, of the entire American project, but it’s really a book about Nader in the first period of his renown. Whyte argues that Nader and the hoopla surrounding the Ribicoff hearings set General Motors on the path that led to its humiliating bankruptcy, in 2009. That ascribes a great deal of power to Nader, but Whyte goes further still. The question of why the American economy has stopped providing for working people as well as it once did hovers over politics today—hence Joe Biden’s and Donald Trump’s similarly restorationist campaign slogans, “Build Back Better” and “Make America Great Again.” Whyte has a simple answer: the fault lies with Ralph Nader, and everything he stood for.

“The Sack of Detroit” is told entirely from General Motors’ point of view. It conjures a strain of business-oriented conservatism that seems to have receded, at least publicly, in favor of a preoccupation with the malign influence of “élites.” In Whyte’s account, the big automobile companies—which once occupied roughly the same economic and cultural space that the Big Five technology companies do today—were almost always entirely admirable, the principal creators of an almost miraculous era of American happiness, prosperity, innovation, and global leadership. Business, in “The Sack of Detroit,” is generative; its liberal critics are resentful and destructive. They aim to curtail honestly earned success and to limit people’s ability to enjoy their lives. Ribicoff, Nader, and their allies “brought to its knees the greatest industrial enterprise in human history.”

Whyte sees in Nader the confluence of two forces that had been building for some years. One was the dissatisfaction of liberal intellectuals—among them John Kenneth Galbraith, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Lewis Mumford, Vance Packard, and C. Wright Mills—with the post-Second World War apotheosis of the industrial corporation; they were troubled by the country’s uncritical celebration of materialism and growth, and maybe by the idea of a national culture dominated by business. The other force was less well known but more demonstrably connected to Nader: the emergence of the “second collision” theory of auto safety. In the early days of the automobile, efforts to reduce driving fatalities focussed on highway design and driver education, not on the car itself. They aimed at preventing car crashes from taking place. The “second collision” refers to the way injuries occur when an accident does take place: it’s the collision of passengers with the interior of the car. The creators of second-collision theory—a Chicago labor lawyer named Harold Katz, who wrote a law-review article about it that Nader read, and Hugh DeHaven, a former pilot who co-founded the Automotive Crash Injury Research Project, at Cornell—focussed on changes in automobile design that could make crashes safer.

In 1959, Nader wrote an article about auto safety for The Nation which led to a correspondence with the future New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had also become interested in the issue. A few years later, Moynihan, who by then was working for the Johnson Administration’s Department of Labor, got in touch with Nader, and wound up giving him an office at the department to pursue his research. Whyte treats the relationships among Nader, Moynihan, and Ribicoff, then a freshman senator looking for a way to propel himself out of obscurity, as an outrage: Nader wasn’t a lone crusader, he was a government-enabled compiler of other people’s research, enlisted by politicians to help them further their personal ambitions. G.M. and the other American automakers, on the other hand, were blameless. Deeply concerned about safety, he writes, they had formed an industry group to promote it back in 1937, and the annual number of American traffic fatalities had fallen since then.

G.M. and the other manufacturers had already begun offering seat belts in some of their cars; the constraint on their efforts to build safer cars was that customers didn’t want to pay the additional cost. The special target of Nader’s crusade, the Chevrolet Corvair, an innovative model developed to help G.M. ward off the imports that were already starting to compete with Detroit’s products, was no less safe than other cars. What distinguished the Corvair was that it had become the target of tort lawyers—“ambulance chasers,” Whyte calls them—who made a living by encouraging plaintiffs “to collect from others for one’s own misfortunes instead of suffering fate in a stalwart fashion.” (Whyte could have mentioned that, in 2015, Nader founded the American Museum of Tort Law in his Connecticut home town, featuring a bright-red Corvair on display in the middle of the museum.)

One direct consequence of the Ribicoff hearings was the creation, in 1966, of a new federal agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (Another was the demise of the Corvair, which G.M. stopped producing in 1969.) An N.H.T.S.A. report from 2015 estimated that between 1960 and 2012 auto-safety measures, most of them government-mandated, had saved 613,501 lives, and that the fatality rate per mile of travel fell by eighty-one per cent, substantially because of safety-enhancing changes in automobile design. The risk of dying in a car crash went down more over this period than the risk of dying prematurely from disease did. But Whyte insists that the auto-safety crusade was unnecessary, had little public support, and has produced few useful results. He will not entertain the idea that government is capable of doing something useful, rather than simply tearing down what business has built up. Liberals, in his account, are grandstanders, weirdos, or hypocrites. He tells us that Bobby Kennedy sped home from one of the Ribicoff hearings in a Lincoln Continental convertible, not wearing his seat belt; that Ribicoff, rather than being sincerely interested in auto safety, was merely “out for blood” and determined to “damage the reputation of automakers”; and that the prissy Nader found it repulsive that Detroit chose to give muscle cars of the sixties names like Thunderbird, Mustang, Cobra, and Barracuda. By contrast, big businessmen, in the book, exhibit an odd combination of idealism, a crippling inability to be anything but phlegmatic in public, and emotional vulnerability. Whyte surmises that Nader’s crusade may have killed Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., G.M.’s retired chairman, who died in 1966, at the age of ninety. As for G.M. executives who were still active, “their self-respect and their worldview were shattered.”

Whyte concludes his detailed account with the end of the Ribicoff hearings and then covers a great deal of ground with a series of claims that he doesn’t go to much trouble to support. One is that the campaign for auto safety wound up destroying General Motors. On the eve of the Ribicoff hearings, Whyte tells us, G.M. was, measured by economic output, “the size of Ireland, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Norway combined.” At its personnel peak, in 1979, the company had more than six hundred thousand employees in the U.S., most of whom were hourly workers making an average of around forty dollars an hour in today’s currency. In addition, G.M. and the other automakers spawned a vast network of ancillary businesses—“new and used car dealerships, repair shops, parts and accessory suppliers, automobile insurers, roadside motels, and fast food restaurants,” in Whyte’s summary. The company maintained a landscaped suburban research campus, designed by Eero Saarinen. Today, G.M. has about a hundred and fifty thousand employees, and currently doesn’t rank among the hundred most valuable American companies.

“I’ll probably only invite you to be in my wedding out of obligation and you’ll feel really out of place next to the friends that I’ve formed much closer bonds with.”
Cartoon by Luke Kruger-Howard

For Whyte, this is part of a broader tale of decline: in his view, the United States went from having a mainly unregulated economy to having a heavily regulated one—so much so that the country lost its ability to thrive. “Prior to the Ribicoff hearings, regulated industries in the United States represented 7 percent of Gross National Product,” Whyte writes. “By 1978, 30 percent. The regulatory state expanded into food, cosmetics, credit instruments, packaging and advertising, monopolies and pricing practices, and air and water pollution.” Within American culture more broadly, “torrents of entrepreneurial energy shifted from producing growth to identifying and combating growth and its consequences,” which “spelled the end of American enterprise as it was known for the first two hundred years of national history.” The interaction between Nader and General Motors is sufficiently interesting on its own that one can tolerate the tendentious way Whyte recounts it. But Whyte’s sweeping claims about the advent of the regulatory state miss what really happened.

The standard explanation for the auto industry’s decline—provided by, among others, Nader’s childhood friend David Halberstam, in “The Reckoning” (1986)—is that Japanese and German competitors began making cars that were higher-quality, cheaper, and more fuel-efficient than their American counterparts. Other accounts emphasize that G.M.’s spending on wages, pensions, and health care became unsustainably high, owing to a series of generous contracts with the United Auto Workers in the fat postwar years. Whyte gives little or no credence to any of these explanations, because he sees G.M.’s decline as being entirely attributable to Nader-inspired regulation.

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