Nader raps freeloading corporations
Candidate says Big chain stores 'are not paying their fair share of property taxes'
by Scott MacKayPROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND -- Ralph Nader pointed his bony finger out the window of the State House shortly after noon, in the direction of the big new mall that is one of the centerpieces of the city's much-touted rebirth.
"The Providence Place mall, I'm sure you are quite familiar with it," Nader told his audience of about 200. "This should be called the freeloading mall by corporations."
Nader, Green Party presidential candidate, was using the mall to make a point about corporate welfare: it is not confined to the usual suspects in Washington and the wasteful defense-contractors and oil-industry barons. Corporate subsidies are ubiquitous; every community has an example.
Yesterday's exhibit A was the $450-million-plus mall, which under separate deals granted by the Providence City Council and state's General Assembly, pays virtually no property taxes for 30 years -- a tax break of almost $170 million -- and gets to keep up to $3.6 million a year in sales-tax receipts to help pay off the mall's construction debt.
"You've got all those big chain stores over there," said Nader, pointing at Nordstrom. "They are not paying their fair share of property taxes. What does that mean? That means small businesses here in Providence, the small homeowners, have got to pay more than their fair share of taxes ... because the big guys are freeloaders."
Nader is a third-party candidate used to playing second fiddle to candidates of the Democratic and Republican parties, Vice President Albert Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Now 66, Nader, who made his name in the 1960s as the consumer advocate who forced the auto industry to focus on car safety, is running a grassroots campaign -- he won't accept political action committee or corporate money.
One of his main themes is that the creeping commercialism of American life has infected civic and political institutions and made both parties subsidiaries of large corporations -- the "big guys." The country is mired, Nader says, in a new Gilded Age, with the top 1 percent of the population controlling as many assets as the bottom 95 percent.
"I think the bottom 95 percent work harder, I think they earn their money more honestly," Nader said.
His audience of T-shirted college students are used to thinking globally -- many at yesterday's speech were Brown University students who are active in the movement to boycott products made for U.S. companies by exploiting workers in developing nations. Nader also wants them to think locally.
Two years ago in his home state of Connecticut, Nader was active in an effort to kill a $500-million taxpayer stadium subsidy proposed to lure the New England Patriots football team from Massachusetts to Hartford. (The team decided not to move.)
In Boston recently, he stood in the shadow of Fenway Park's Green Monster, the famed left-field wall, and blasted the Red Sox's plan to seek millions in taxpayer subsidies to build a new ballpark in the city's Back Bay section.
"The big guys are basically saying to municipalities all over the country: you are going to build us a stadium or we are not going to have our team here, you're going to build us a mall or we're not going to have our stores here," said Nader.
With his geeky rubber-soled shoes, off-the-rack charcoal suit, muted blue tie and oxford button-downn, Nader appears a thoroughly conventional man.
A Harvard-educated lawyer and self-described ascetic, Nader holds views that were once fairly common among liberal Democrats but, in today's centrist political configuration, are considered unconventional.
So far, Nader has stumped in 35 states, will probably be on the ballot in 45, including Rhode Island, and hopes to raise $5 million. Polls show him with between 4 percent and 6 percent nationally but 9 percent in the crucial state of California.
Nader supports public financing of elections, stronger environmental laws, making it easier for workers to join unions, and easier ballot access for third parties. He is against taxpayer subsidies to business -- "corporate welfare" -- the World Trade Organization, liberalizing trade with China, nuclear power plants and high rates of military spending.
At a Nader rally, there is none of the show-biz glitz that Democrats and Republicans use to attract crowds -- the brass bands, buses full of senior citizens, a conga line of party functionaries to wave and speak. It is just Nader, an awkward and somewhat soft-spoken man uncomfortable with the flailing gestures many politicians use to make a point, and a small group of local supporters.
Forty-seven million U.S. workers earn less than $10 an hour, said Nader, about the same number that do not have health insurance. The decline of labor unions has much to do with this, Nader said.
Less than 10 percent of private-sector employees now belong to labor unions, he said.
"You would think I'm talking about a Third World country," said Nader.
He mocks the major parties -- "Republicrats" he calls them -- and says he can't believe how Gore is "taking for granted" average workers and unions.
"[Major unions] endorsed Gore and they didn't get anything, they didn't get labor-law reform, they didn' get a stronger OSHA, they didn't get a ban on replacing striking workers," Nader said in an interview before his speech.
"The only language the Democrats understand is if you deny them the vote and put it into another visible column, like the Green Party," said Nader. "They have this mindset that the whole progressive part of our voting public thinks they are the least worst and the Republicans are worst."
And he railed against the large pharmaceutical companies, which charge Americans more for certain drugs than patients abroad. "People in Mexico and Canada are paying less for the same drugs produced by U.S. corporations," said Nader. "How's that for patriotism."
"Commercialism is dominating and overriding many fundamental value systems throughout society," said Nader. "You can see it just from your own experience -- everything is for sale . . . Our democracy is for sale, our environment is for sale, our universities are for sale, our human genes are for sale, our privacy is for sale."
"Look at the way children are exploited by these commercials and violent programming and overmedication," said Nader. "There has been a merger of the political and the corporate, with the political subservient to the corporate."
This article originally appeared in the Providence Journal.
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