Ted Turner, Ralph Nader, and an insurance executive walk into a library. No, it’s not the beginning of a joke, but of the first–and hopefully, not last– installment of Billionaires Against Bull. The event, which also featured former Progressive Insurance CEO Peter Lewis, was meant to emulate a meeting of the minds comparable to those which take place in Nader’s Only The Super Rich Can Save Us.
Nader’s tome, which has been shortened for its paperback release, details a practical utopia that envisions some of America’s über-rich getting together to lead a nationwide reform movement. Within it’s 512 pages, Peter Lewis speaks before Congress on the grotesque transformation of the insurance industry from a bulwark of safety and regulation to a profiteer of disaster and Ted Turner generates popular support for solar energy with flamboyant Sun God Festivals. The evening, in juxtaposition, was essentially an exploration of the differences between the Lewis and Turner that inhabit the real world and that of Nader’s imagination.
Those difference became apparent early in the conversation when Nader asked Lewis and Turner to comment on George Soros’s 2002 attempt to prevent the Iraq War by route of public appeal. Soros, along with nearly 400 experts (including retired generals and heads of security), had failed, but could they have succeeded with two hundred million dollars backing them up? Both Lewis and Turner agreed it’d be impossible. Simply put, money alone is not the answer. It takes infrastructure, organization, and management. The latter, Lewis confided, being a skill set even many CEO’s lack. That’s not to say that Lewis wouldn’t go along with a proposal buoyed by real life examples. He reiterated throughout the evening that he’d like to see just that, although the billionaire didn’t provide his phone number or email address.
The shift from charity to justice, as Nader envisions it, is one from the question of how to build soup kitchens to the question of how a nation with so much wealth can have so much hunger. When asked where the challenge lies in such a reorientation, Lewis is said to have answered, “You can build soup kitchens.” And while Lewis and Turner’s answers throughout the evening indicated skepticism and an awareness of their limitations, their actions betray resilient determination. They might not expect to change the world, but that’s not going to stop them from trying.
It may appear that the implication of the evening is that Nader’s practical utopia isn’t practical, but recent trends in philanthropy indicate otherwise. Plenty are willing to give; it’s only a matter of how best to do so. And with so many minds working on figuring out just that, it might just be a matter of time before we find ourselves living in Nader’s utopia.
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