Ralph Nader: Consumer Protection Progress And Regress From The Sixties To Now – OpEd
By Ralph Nader
I’m often asked whether consumers are better or worse off since the modern consumer movement took hold in the nineteen sixties.
Let’s look at the record. Motor vehicles are much safer, less polluting, and more fuel efficient now, but not nearly what they should be. Today, consumers have warranty rights, recall rights, equal credit opportunity rights they did not have back then. Labeling has also improved. There is no more lead in gasoline and paint, though lead water pipes still contaminate some drinking water systems.
From being King tobacco over 50 years ago, cigarette companies are more regulated and daily tobacco smoking is down from 45% of adults to less than 15% of adults. But now there is vaping. Deadly asbestos is out of most products.
Solar energy and wind power are growing, even though energy company propaganda smeared them as Buck Rogers science fiction over 50 years ago.
Nuclear power plants are closing and no new ones are under construction, except for the massive Georgia boondoggle projects costing taxpayers and ratepayers billions of dollars in cost overruns. Heating, lighting, and air-conditioning technology is more efficient, but nowhere near what it could be.
Clothing is cheaper due to production being taken to horrific polluting sweatshops abroad, leaving empty factories here (See, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes by Dana Thomas, September 3, 2019).
Now look at the dark side. Housing is less affordable and homelessness is greater. Hunger is still a shameful plague in a land of plenty, with some 15 million children going to bed hungry. Nutritional, organic, and ethnic foods are more widely available. We have pandemics instead of epidemics. Highway congestion and the paucity of mass transit are probably comparatively worse, despite some new investments in public transit since the sixties.
The profit-driven opioid pandemic taking over 100,000 American lives a year didn’t exist in the 1960s. Drug prices are sky high, even with large government subsidies and free research and development from the National Institutes of Health.
Corporate crime escaping accountability is more diverse, brazen, and massive. Big time corporate crime pays. Over $350 BILLION is lost in computer billing fraud every year just in the health care industry. There are very few prosecutions. Since computer use has grown, it has been much easier for corporations to cheat, fine, penalize, and overcharge consumers and commit automated billing fraud. With the repeal of state usury laws in the nineteen seventies, payday rackets and rent-to-own swindles have fewer restraints.
Fine print contracts keep reaching new levels of coercion unheard of in the nineteen sixties. This is due to the endless opportunities created by the incarcerating credit card economy, which has taken away consumers’ control over their own money. Over 80% of consumers do not use cash or checks as they did in the sixties.
It is hard to exaggerate the massive controls over consumers which come from losing their freedom of contract and being coerced by companies with threats to worsen consumer credit scores and credit ratings, especially if they dare to persistently complain about a lemon car or a callous landlord. Fine print contract companies – just about every major corporation selling to you –are now taking away your right to go to court and have a trial by jury if you are wrongfully injured and want to hold wrongdoers accountable for damages.
Working only three days a week when they are not in extended recesses, Congress holds fewer investigative public hearings on issues affecting consumers such as monopolies or oligopolies that plague one industry after another. There are far fewer full-time consumer reporters at newspapers and radio/TV stations. Wells Fargo Bank creates fictitious credit card accounts, auto insurance, and other sales for millions of their non-requesting customers for years and then when caught escapes any jail time for the top bosses. Where was the preventative oversight?
What would have been incredible in the nineteen sixties is the relentless drive by companies such as Amazon, rental car giants, and others to get rid of purchasing by cash or check. Many companies want everybody to be coerced into the credit/debit penitentiary so they can charge your account for their dictatorial fees and other abuses (see my column, Ten Reasons Why I Don’t Have a Credit Card, December 5, 2014).
Companies can charge you an outrageous fee or so-called penalty. They control your money through access to your credit card and deduct their bilk. What if instead they had to send you a bill to pay by check? They would probably decide to revise their business model, because you would be more outraged if you had to consciously pay them, instead of being passively debited.
Finally, the marketing to children is out of control. Companies are circumventing parental authority selling directly to kids, harmful junk food, junk drink, and violent programs and games. These avaricious corporations are electronic child molesters. Direct marketing to kids and pushing to hook them with credit cards at an early age are pulling them into the addiction industries and creating intense family turmoil – especially with children’s omnipresent iPhone as the delivery vehicle.
Now comes Facebook’s murky “metaverse” that sucks in these youngsters far beyond the cruel seductions of today’s internet, further distancing this generation from the realities of life and communion with their families and the natural world.
We need hundreds of new consumer protection organizations from the local to the national and international levels making tough demands on lawmakers and pushing for wider access to justice for aggrieved people.
Big corporations have meticulous strategic plans for humans, including robotic replacement of workers and human to human contact. It is time for a new consumer revolution and new consumer rules for a just, safe, and consumer-sovereign economy.
Alexa can’t help you with this portentous mission.
Ralph Nader is a politician, activist and the author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, a novel. In his career as consumer advocate he founded many organizations including the Center for Study of Responsive Law, the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), the Center for Auto Safety, Public Citizen, Clean Water Action Project, the Disability Rights Center, the Pension Rights Center, the Project for Corporate Responsibility and The Multinational Monitor (a monthly magazine).