Larry Eichel

Ralph Nader’s never been one to doubt himself. So he’s not surprised that he can now say he told us so.

Two years ago, as the Green Party’s candidate for president, he was the only one railing against the abuses of corporate America. Now, it seems, everybody’s doing it.

“The big issue we campaigned on has become the big issue throughout the land,” Nader said last weekend before speaking to the Greens’ national convention in Philadelphia. “Neither Bush nor Gore wanted to listen in 2000, and the media didn’t think it was important. Today, it’s right in the central square.”

The longtime consumer advocate is pleased with the change in the political climate. He can barely believe it when he hears major-party politicians attack each other as “soft on corporate crime.” He’s confident that concerns related to corporate misconduct will dominate the coming elections. And he’s grateful to the president and vice president for keeping the issue alive by refusing to tell all about their past business dealings.

But he’s less than overwhelmed by the solutions being considered in Washington. “The legislation is not up to par with the denunciations,” he said. “A lot of the high-dudgeon rhetoric is just window-dressing.”

Beefing up the Securities and Exchange Commission, providing new oversight for the accounting profession, and stiffening penalties for corporate crime is nowhere near enough. The law, Nader says, must require the expensing of stock options by corporations and the repayment by executives of millions made through deceit.

“People want corporate crooks to pay back their ill-gotten gains, to be prosecuted, convicted and sent to jail,” he said.

If you listened to Nader the candidate in 2000, you know he doesn’t want to stop there. To be sure, he complained about how much CEOs were getting paid. But what he means by corporate abuse goes far beyond those sins attributable to greedy executives, deceptive balance sheets and accountants who are passive or corrupt.

He’s less concerned with how corporations treat investors than the way big business wields its influence in Washington. What drives him to distraction is corporate America’s ability to secure tax breaks and bailouts – and to block the public sector’s efforts to protect the environment, raise the minimum wage, toughen product-safety standards and expand the availability of health insurance.

“This is not a capitalist economy any more,” Nader said. “This is a corporate-socialist economy. We have government of big business, by big business and for big business.”

He wants a national commission to deal with the concentration of economic power and its impact, which he considers insidious at best. He’d like to rid politics of corporate money via public financing of elections. His long-run goal is to deprive corporations of the legal status that gives them all the rights of individuals and then some.

Suffice it to say that his ideas about what should be done go far beyond what most people seem prepared to support, even now, after millions of them have been victimized by the financial carnage. Many of his notions haven’t been proposed in Congress, let alone debated.

Nader says he’s a patient man who understands what is and isn’t doable today. But sooner or later, he says, the American people will come to understand that you can’t limit corporate abuses unless you confront corporate power head-on. In his view, all of these issues are connected, a seamless web of sorts.

I don’t think he’s right about how far the public will go in the name of repairing the system, at least not anytime soon. I think most people will be content with relatively modest adjustments, so long as they get to see their 401(k) accounts grow once in a while.

Then again, few of us thought we’d be where we are today, with the markets in chaos and major corporations the subject of near-universal ridicule. So maybe he knows something the rest of us don’t. It’s a distinct possibility.

Larry Eichel is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.