Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Ralph Nader's Turn About?

Tibor R. Machan

So we have it on the good authority of The London Times that all is well with the Obama Administration's latest interference with the market place. Here is how The Times reported on this long-desired development, admittedly desired by but fraction of those concerned:

"In a coup that achieves something President Clinton promised but never delivered, President Obama has forced the big three US carmakers, and their unions, to accept tough mileage rules for cars and SUVs. The rules will cut emissions from vehicles by more than a third over the next four years. Whether the new rules end America's love affair with huge cars remains to be seen. But they are being introduced at a time when SUV sales are at a fraction of their peak level five years ago. Their demise coincides with the country's first mass-produced 'plug-in' electric car, which finally rolled off a Michigan production line this week. From 2016, new cars and SUVs will have to deliver an average of 35.5 miles per gallon (42.6 miles per British gallon), comparable for the first time with European and Japanese requirements. ... The rules were welcomed yesterday by the industry and environmentalists. The US Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which had little choice but to accept the standards after the $25 billion bailout of Chrysler and General Motors, said they gave the industry 'a clear road map' instead of a patchwork of differing state rules. The Natural Resources Defense Council said they were 'good for consumers, companies, the country and the planet'. Ray LaHood, Mr. Obama's Transportation Secretary, called them 'historic', claiming they would save consumers $3,000 per new vehicle and cut emissions by 1 billion tons." (Times of London)

Maybe I am just a tad too gleeful here, about the noticeable absence in this discussion of famed consumer defender and frequent American presidential candidate Ralph Nader who back in the mid-1960s penned his path breaking book, Unsafe at Any Speed (Grossman, 1965). Doesn't anyone else recall how vividly Nader condemned small cars back then claiming they are the source of traffic fatalities everywhere? Corvair, I believe, was one of his major targets and there was a huge court case involving that rare vehicle, a small car out of Detroit. (In an ironic twist, though, as recounted by author Bob Helt, "The 1960-63 Corvair compares favorably with contemporary vehicles used in the tests...the handling and stability performance of the 1960-63 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover, and it is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles both foreign and domestic.")

I am no expert on the history of this famous episode of one of Nader's influential roles as a consumer activist, one that both made him rich and helped him become a major player in public policy matters. What prompts me to bring up Nader, however, is that by all rights it seems to me that he ought to be a big, vocal defender of Detroit's switch to the production of SUVs, which are by all counts mostly very safe vehicles--the bigger, the safer--ones one would certainly want to be driving if one is going to be in a car crash, which is to say if one is primarily concerned with the safety of the occupants of a vehicle as Ralph Nader made out he was.

But I certainly haven't heard from Nader on this topic. Is it because he changed his mind? Has he come to the conclusion that small cars are, after all, better for us all than the gas guzzling SUVs?

It appears to me that some journalists ought to be curious about this and interview Mr. Nader now that SUVs (what I can only consider his dream cars from the perspective of highway safety for vehicle occupants) are under global assault. Maybe he has changed his views but if I recall correctly he wasn't all that concerned about the cost of safety back then. Maybe, in an interesting twist, he would not be today either.

But hasn't Mr. Nader become a big fan of "green"? If so, then by his current ideological commitments would naturally deride SUVs, after all. In any case, it seems to me that he owes us an explanation of where he stands in this debate--for "green" or for safety.

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