Kiln Ralph Nader understood a huge amount about building self-sufficient operations. His original public interest projects were financed by the settlement he won from General Motors and his book, Unsafe at Any Speed. The Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) established in numerous large publicly funded universities shrewdly created capacity for consumer advocacy by winning student votes to finance them through a part of their school fees. Direct canvass programs still support PIRG, decades later. He built projects though not organizations. Lawyering and acting as an advocate for others, for ideas, and for himself has been an immutable part of his DNA and permeates his life and work.
Reading his new book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, is a curious exercise, partly because this is a book hoping that the mantra of claiming “convergence” of political and ideological views will somehow conjure a reality that doesn’t exist. Basically, the book in reality is a conversation Nader is having with himself, richly populated by the scores of meetings and hearings he has attended, speeches given, and people he’s met along the way. Working over much of the same time period, I found interest here that might bore others. A reference to former Justice Sandra Day O’Conner’s twenty-year old proposals to the American Bar Association to provide better representation for the poor was worth something to me. Discovering in the book that Jonathan Rowe had passed away recently was a shock because I remember him and many of our conversations well when he helped us mightily in the 1970’s on ACORN’s tax reform campaigns when he was with the Nader-related Tax Reform Research Group.
Nonetheless, the chapter which is a letter to a mythical billionaire pleading for the money to create this convergence is unsettling and kind of weird, like reading a 200-page funding proposal where Nader is looking for one last big client, one last big score, rather than learning the lessons he claimed to have soaked up at the small town Connecticut store that his family ran in his youth. If he had listened harder, he might have realized there were some unbridgeable gaps rather than simply diverse opinions, and one such chasm is the notion that the rich are really ready to fund the divestment of their own riches.
All of which made me wonder why in railing against corporations and writing letters to billionaires, he didn’t spend more time on the notions of what other business formations or even funding mechanisms might be able to accomplish. His opinions on all of that might have been fascinating. He mentions Lawrence Goodwyn’s Populist Moment, a great book, and it might have been interesting to hear him on cooperatives and mutual aid formations. Or how about social benefit corporations or L3C’s (Low Profit Limited Liability Corporations), like ACORN Global Enterprises the owner of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse locations?
Looking for alternatives, Ralph and I both might find something worth serious contemplation in Yale economist and Professor Robert Shiller’s notion of “participation nonprofits,” that give larger stakes to donors in exchange for mega-contributions.
Here’s Schiller in the Times on participation nonprofits:
…a “participation nonprofit,” meant for causes that need substantial contributions. Such an organization, which might run a school or a hospital, would offer to sell shares instead of requesting donations. The share sales would really be donations, but would be framed differently and come with rights that would change the whole giving experience. Shareholders could vote their shares at stockholder meetings, as they would in a traditional corporation. The organization would pay some kind of dividend, too, though this would go into a restricted account, to be used only for a charitable purpose of the owner’s choosing. And shareholders could bequeath the stock to heirs, and could even sell it, though the proceeds would also go into the restricted account. For this plan to work well, people would need to receive a tax deduction for their share purchases, which are really irrevocable contributions to charity. Structured this way, charitable giving would become personally meaningful in the way that investing is. Givers would feel a real sense of participation and partial control over their activities. Charities might also experiment with various other organizational forms to foster philanthropic or community impulses. Perhaps they could involve cooperatives, mutual societies or other groups that also impart a sense of ownership. To date, however, large-scale experiments with such forms have been limited — whether by tax or other legal barriers, or simply by old-fashioned mistrust of change.
I’ll stick with membership-based organizations, because I understand the “participants” better as well as what they want, but Ralph might do better with this kind of formation for his next project than writing letters to billionaires, especially since he’s turning up again in the business pages as a shareholder advocate. Either way both Shiller and Nader are proposing turning over more power and influence to the rich, this time in the nonprofit and advocacy sectors, and as clever and novel as it all seems, I would have thought there was convergence on the notion that the rich had quite enough power and influence in public life already.