“Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” by Ralph Nader, New York: Seven Stories Press, New York, 733 pages, $27.50
From the Orange County chapters of the Lincoln Club to the interior pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, it’s been a good year for Ayn Rand and especially Atlas Shrugged. Fifty-two years after her book’s publication, Rand’s hero John Galt is still shaping the American political landscape.
Across the tracks from Atlas Shrugged, another American icon with a politically incendiary reputation, Ralph Nader, has been quietly working on a book of his own during the better part of the last decade. “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” takes 17 of our best-known plutocrats—people like Bill Cosby, Ted Turner, Phil Donahue, and Yoko Ono—and puts them on a path to American and global domination through a method antithetical to that of Atlas Shrugged: unvarnished social altruism. These 17 come to be known as the “Meliorists”: people who are making things better.
Nader himself has called “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” his “response to Atlas Shrugged,” and the books do line up in enough ways to invite extended comparison. They’re both national in scope, portraying a dystopic America that can be saved only by daring captains of industry led by a corporate swashbuckler. (Nader’s John Galt stand-in is Warren Buffett.) In both books, character development often runs to caricature, and “dialogues” turn into exhausting economic manifestos. In both books, immense, moralizing speeches suggest an author pulling strings rather than investing the characters with ideas of their own. And both books killed a lot of timber, though Nader’s 733 pages are a backstretch breeze compared to any edition you may have of Rand’s magnum opus.
The first great hint that Nader will fall short in the comparison is that the author feels obliged to hedge on the question of whether he is writing a work of fiction at all. “This book,” writes Nader in the author’s note, “is not a novel. Nor is it nonfiction. It might be described as a ‘practical utopia.’ ” Indeed, the text is more wishful thinking than novel on nearly every page, ultimately making it more farcical even than fiction can be.
The slightest of cultural moorings could have helped the book along. Rand, for all her pedantry, always aspires to be the best friend of the creative artist, and sometimes even of the reader, and this comes as a relief, especially for the nonbelievers. Culturally, Nader is tone-deaf, even illiterate, a quality that makes reading his book like watching an accident; you know it’s going to be awful, and it remains awful, but you helplessly watch anyway.
In Super-Rich, for instance, a character named Luke Skyhi (sorry, no choice but to report it) describes a media event where “a quartet of jazz vocalists broke into the theme song Yoko had composed for the glorious weekend, ‘If It Takes Forever, I Will Wait For You, but the Polar Bears Won’t.’ ” This is so absurd on so many levels that it may take forever to list them all, but chief among them must be that ’60s icon Yoko, an artist whose enormous wealth derives from the particulars of royalty contracts and song ownership, knows better than to desecrate any well-known music.
As that example suggests, it is culturally—musically, environmentally, even horticulturally—that Nader belly-flops. He shows almost no acumen for anything either cultural or natural and even politicizes nature itself. On Rand’s third page, we encounter something of nature: an oak tree. It’s a symbol: It has been struck by lightning and revealed to have a hollow core. Well played. I don’t remember encountering a single species of tree in all of Nader’s 733 pages. In lieu of nature, we encounter sentences like this: “Morning found the early risers strolling through the hotel’s lush gardens, which were alive with colorful bird life.” I picture Nader in Hawaii with a rumpled suit, barely touching the tropics at all, strolling through a very domesticated tropical hotel garden, thinking, “Wow, a colorful bird.” To the ceaselessly self-absorbed man, genus and species cease to matter. This incuriosity is the product of a lifetime of relentless self-promotion, of hotel rooms and broadcast booths and hired time at the National Press Club, fighting the good fight.
As in his thorny political career, Nader’s fantasies for America so often amount to solipsistic goofiness that the ceaseless suspensions of disbelief become part of the entertainment. You ultimately feel like you’re stuck in a room not with any of his characters, or even a book at all, but only with Nader himself; you’re thinking that these hours you spend together will be insufferable and horrifying but also something worth telling your friends about enduring. Did I tell you that in the conclusion to an eight-page speech, Meliorist George Soros quotes Nader’s father? It is sweet, but nothing more brands this work as not only a practical utopia but Ralph Nader’s practical utopia.
Even the character names Nader invents are mostly sophomoric wheezes on other notables. There is a bloated right-wing blabbermouth named Bush Bimbaugh, identified as the king of shout radio; another broadcaster is called Pawn Vanity. When there is nobody in particular to lampoon, the names are often tritely alliterative: Lancelot Lobo, Michelle Mirables, Roland Revelie, Wardman Wise. The chairman of the House Transportation Committee is Harry Horizon. There is a CEO named Cumbersome and a senator named Crabgrass, bringing to mind a postmodern Pilgrim’s Progress.
If Nader’s novel has one character with human qualities, it is Sol Price, the fabled retail magnate. Sol Price the historical figure is the founder of the deep discount retailers Price Club, FedMart, and Costco, the last noted for taking care of its worker bees far better than Wal-Mart. The Sol Price in Nader’s book is a dry martini-favoring nonagenarian who regularizes his haphazard billionaire life with a Sunday evening brisket when not engaging in Meliorist corporate crusades. He walks away with some of the book’s most compelling moments, one of which comes in the dead center of the novel: Sol pressures Wal-Mart to unionize by brandishing the three board positions he and his billionaire buddies have bought via that good ol’ progressive tool, stock accumulation on the open market—and the CEO, cornered, capitulates to Price’s demands.
But Nader removes this moment from the province of reality by failing to employ the greatest capitalist tool of all: a calculator. Buying three seats on Wal-Mart’s board? In real life, this kind of hostile takeover would require more than a year’s time, some ambitious proxy votes that all turned out favorably, and at least $30 billion for the stock itself, a steep price even for billionaires. For $30 billion, you could hire 100,000 professional labor organizers at $100,000 a year for three-year contracts—25 top organizers per American store, or one for every 15 Wal-Mart employees. But in Nader’s fantasy, this is simply how billionaires do things, without much thought for cost, time, or ROI.
“America was not built by wishful thinking,” Adlai Stevenson said on Kennedy’s 1960 campaign trail, hoping to save the country from the twin scourges of Richard Milhous Nixon and Norman Vincent Peale. “It was built by realists, and it will not be saved by guess work and self-deception. It will only be saved by hard work and facing the facts.” Rand’s magnum opus sees reason as an ally and wishful thinking as a foe. Nader’s book is the inverse: Full of fantasy and wishful thinking, it challenges reason on nearly every page.
Joseph Mailander (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer living in Los Angeles. This column first appeared at Reason.com.