He is, himself, the most minimalist of consumers. Threads from the frayed cuffs of his olive-green trousers hang down over ankles laid bare by socks that have slipped, exhausted, into the tops of his plain black shoes. He is in an office in Washington, D.C., where stacked cartons of books and dog-eared telephone directories serve to partition individual work areas. Occasionally, when listening to a question, he sips grapefruit juice from a paper cup.

It is more than an eccentricity, this asceticism: It got him his start in the world. When Unsafe at Any Speed was published on November 30, 1965, it might very well have passed out of print, totally ignored, if General Motors had not hired a private detective to look for dirt in the author's private life. There was no dirt. There was no private life. The man lived monastically in a rented room that contained more papers than possessions. GM's embarrassed apology, delivered in front of a Senate committee, handed Nader notoriety; the $425,000 out-of-court settlement launched his career.

He quickly expanded his exposes of alleged corporate abuses beyond the single issue of automobile safety and repairability. His advocacy helped push through wide-ranging legislation: to upgrade inspection standards for meat and poultry, to promote natural-gas pipeline safety and underground mine safety, and to establish the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. He founded both the Center for the Study of Responsive Law and the Public Citizen, which then spawned dozens of organizations and projects to study and expose wrongdoing in, among other things, California land policies, the U.S. Civil Service Commission, Citibank, federal irrigation projects, E. I. du Pont de Nemours, and Congress itself.

Even his friends have criticized Nader for behaving as if he held a monopoly on truth and for arrogating the duty to defend the public interest as he presumes to define it. His enemies have been less generous. "Nader's consumerism," wrote conservative columnist Ralph De Toledano, "is an ideologically motivated effort to take control of industry from the producers and to turn it over to government and to the Naderites."

But neither friend nor foe denies that Nader, however obnoxious he might be, has forever changed the assumptions that underlie the relationships between sellers and buyers in this country. The ghost of caveat emptor is still occasionally seen, but its substance has departed this world.

Personally, he is fiercely self-protective. Born in 1934 of Lebanese parents in northwestern Connecticut, educated at Princeton University ('55) and at Harvard Law School ('58), his preoccupation with privacy has always titillated speculation about what lies behind the public advocate. In the background, however, there is only more foreground. A sympathetic biographer, Charles McCarry, wrote in 1972 that Nader "dislikes any descent below the surface of behavior, his own or anyone else's. Men are what they do. There is nothing about himself that cannot be explained by what he does in full view of the world. The rest is unimportant."

What is Nader up to today? Has he won the consumer war? INC. sent senior writer Tom Richman to Washington to find out. His report follows.

He hasn't won the war in his own view. Today Ralph Nader is organizing CUBs -- consumer utility boards. They will represent customers' interests when electric, gas, and telephone companies go to state regulatory commissions for rate increases. The twist is that Nader wants to use stuffers in the utilities' own billing envelopes to recruit dues-paying CUB members. Eventually he would like to do the same for postal patrons and for users of financial services. "It doesn't cost taxpayers anything," he says, "and it's voluntary to consumers. It doesn't create another government agency, see. All we're trying to do is correct the imbalance of power in the private sector between buyers and sellers."

In Washington, where he still lives, Nader has created a fuel-buyers collaborative.It is not a co-op. In a co-op, members own business assets and may get involved themselves in the buying and delivery of their own home heating oil. The collaborative, called Buyers Up, is a group that pools its buying power and puts contracts out to bid by local fuel oil companies.

INC.: Has this sort of thing frightened Big Oil?

NADER: Well, it was interesting to pick up National Petroleum News magazine last year and see an editorial warning fuel dealers in New Jersey to watch out for the fine print in the agreements consumer collaboratives are trying to get the dealers to sign. It's usually the consumer who has to be told to read the fine print.

INC.: What's the motivation for the fuel-oil dealer to sign a contract?

NADER: Volume; they get tremendous volume. More important, the buying collaboratives have their own newsletters, and if there's another energy crisis, these groups will become a constituency for advancing consumer interests. They become quite knowledgeable about the business, you know: about the latest harbor price of oil in Baltimore, about markups.

INC.: Are you plotting any other plots?

NADER: There's something we'd like to do. We're proposing legislation to require TV and radio stations to give an hour of prime time to a congressionally chartered audience network. This network would be open to any viewer or listener who wants to join. They would have local and national studios, producers, programmers, and reporters.

INC.: And do you think people would use this? Would anyone watch it?

NADER: Yeah, if it's done professionally and it involves more of the community, it will go. It's like letters to the editor. If newspapers had never published them and then all of a sudden said we're going to publish the letters people write to us, it would take a while to get people's to write.

INC.: All this is very different from the kinds of things you started doing 20 years ago.

NADER: Yeah, 20 years ago it was disclosure of abuses and law enforcement. We had to use the governmental process. Then the counterattack came from The Business Roundtable, and eventually the counterattack froze the enforcement process. So our next step was to strengthen the consumer constituency out there in the private sector, not just so they could demand that pollution laws and antitrust laws be enforced, but to develop a whole new dimension, a whole new type of bargaining between consumers and producers.

What I envision 10 or 15 years from now is the following: The press is jammed in a corridor outside a suite of rooms in the Washington Hilton. Why are they there? Because national consumer groups with 15 million members are having their lawyers and economists renegotiate the installment-loan contracts of Citibank, which by this time is all over the country. Or, they're renegotiating the group health and life insurance policies with Prudential, or negotiating with General Motors on airbags or with all the auto companies on fuel-efficiency standards.

That's the kind of buying power we want to see consumers have, with significant ability to deliver buyers if the proper bargain is struck - or to deliver boycott or unfavorable publicity if it isn't. The government would have nothing to do with it. It would all be in the private sector.

INC.: Is there a model for any of this?

NADER: There's a beginning. For example, the American Association of Retired Persons now has 19 million members. For five bucks a year, if you're over 50, you can join AARP. Why do people join? Not to get the magazine. They join because they get a discount on pharmaceuticals, and because there's a better group health policy than they could get on their own, and there are some other discounts. Really, the AARP's appeal is a consumer appeal, even though we think of them as lobbyists representing the elderly on Social Security matters and things like that.

Nineteen million members. All they have to say is, "Okay, it's time for us to negotiate a new group health policy. We will entertain your bids until October 1." Prudential and all these other companies fall all over themselves to win the bid. That's a beginning.

INC.: In the world you envision, then, you've got these huge institutions bargaining with one another. Where does this leave the individual, and where does it leave the small company?

NADER: If there are small competitors that offer a better deal, they can instantly become giants through this mechanism. These bargaining groups will be putting out bids, not just negotiating with Sears around a bargaining table. They'll say, "Who wants to bid for our business?" Some $10-million company out there will bid to supply this or that, even if they can't expand immediately. Maybe they can subcontract some of the requirements. Anyway, they will influence the competitive standards.

INC.: I also asked where this left the individual.

NADER: The individual isn't bound, except when he's signed on to something specific. For example, say the group is negotiating with General Motors for airbag-equipped cars, and GM says, "Why should we listen to you?" The group can say that it has surveyed its membership, and here are the names of 300,000 people who are willing to buy GM cars with airbags. You want those, or do you want them to go to Ford?

Look, it isn't just about price; it isn't even just safety. The point is to elevate the consumer to an equal partner with labor and with management in the determination of economic policy.

INC.: What does not mean?

NADER: Economic evaluation in our system is skewed to the seller, not the buyer; we judge progress in our economy by seller indices, not buyer indices. Production numbers, inventory levels, GNP, employment -- those may be useful numbers for producers, but they're really just intermediate yardsticks so far as consumers are concerned.

When we ask, "How's the economy doing this year?" we get an answer like, "GNP is up 3.5%." But that's just an intermediate measure. The next question is whether the people in the country are better off as a result, or does this rise in GNP just reflect pyramided waste? Does it just reflect, say, a response to growing crime and corruption, which requires more guards and electronic warning systems? Does it just reflect the production of more house paint because air pollution levels have risen? Maybe there have just been more automobile crashes that generate economic demand for insurance, hospitals, funerals, and repair services.

In real terms, our economy has doubled since 1960, but there's no way we can say that the standard of living has doubled since 1960. Now people say, "Oh, we're so much better off." But a middle class family now needs at least two breadwinners, and they're lucky if they can afford to buy their house. So more and more of our time is being sucked into economic activity instead of other things -- family, civic duties, self-improvement -- at the same time that we're supposed to be a country of abundance, superautomation, and supertechnology. Our economy is set up so that almost everything bad as well as good breeds economic activity. If there are more crashes on the highway, more crimes -- it all adds to GNP. Even when you get a terrible law out of the Congress, like more tax loopholes, suddenly all over the country hundred-dollar-a-day seminars and books come out, and we've created a mini-industry.

We need some ultimate yardsticks to evaluate the consumer economy. If someone today asks how the auto industry is doing, we say it's either up or down in sales. But what is the auto industry there for? To facilitate surface transportation safely, efficiently, and profitably. OK? Those are the real yardsticks. When someone asks how the auto industry is doing, the answer should be something like "Great. Fatalities and injuries are down substantially, pollution has declined, and congestion on the highways has been reduced."

In the old days when people asked how the economy was, they were asking how many people were being fed, how many people were without shelter. Now, it's how many houses are being built or not built, not how many people are without shelter. It's how much food is being a produced or not, not how much malnutrition is there. Ideally we would say nutrition levels are up everywhere, hunger is down, and malnutrition has diminished significantly. Therefore General Foods, General Mills, and Ralston Purina are doing a great job.

INC.: You can't ignore the production side.

NADER: No, but I'm talking about who does the orienting. When the production side does the orienting, we get cars with fins that get 12 miles a gallon. When an informed, organized consumption side does the orienting, we'll get crash-worthy cars that do 50 miles on a gallon and generate a more efficient economy.

INC.: If those are the cars consumers want, why doesn't Detroit make them now?

NADER: Because, basically, you've got a homeostatic theory of an economy. That is, whatever is sold is by definition desired by the consumer. Therefore, no one needs to ask any further questions.

INC.: Explain why that's not right.

NADER: It's not right because most consumers buy meat with pesticide content, and they don't know it's there. They can't taste it, smell it, see it, and they don't know it's harming them. They don't know if it may kill them later on.

INC.: But they did know that cars had fins and got 12 miles to the gallon.

NADER: Yes, but what choice did they have until imports broadened it a little? One company defined modernity in automobile design. General Motors put fins on, and all the other domestic manufacturers put them on.

There are probably 30 million people now who have a much higher nutritional awareness and totally reject a large amount of the food they used to eat in favor of other food. Why? Because the sellers were pushing granola on them? No, the dynamism came from the buyer side. Nutrition, diet, exercise, medical findings, and so forth -- those were consumer-driven forces that changed the offerings in the supermarket.

INC.: But production did change in response.

NADER: Yes, well, that's what I'm saying. The more savvy the consumers, the more banded together they are, the more difference they can make. In other words, what makes sellers good is smart consumers.

In what parts of the world are the sellers most vicious, most conniving, most harmful? In the same places where buyers are undefended, unorganized, and uninformed. For example, the level of carcinogenic pesticides in our fruits is a national scandal. Why? Because the consumer doesn't see it, smell it, taste it -- isn't aware of it. For things that consumers can sense -- a rotten tomato, poorly constructed fabric -- sellers can't get away with abuses. But as technology expands, the effects are more complex and latent -- microwaves, for example. You know, every time there's a new product out there, there's a new kind of impact -- sometimes beneficial, sometimes not.

Remember when the only mortgages were fixed-rate mortgages? What did you have to know? How much down, term, interest rate, and points. Now you've got adjusted-rate this, variable that.

INC.: Wait a minute. All those options are there for a reason, and it had something to do with consumer demand. Consumers couldn't handle the old fixed-rate mortgage interest rates.

NADER: But they also couldn't handle the hidden risks in the variables, and they didn't understand a lot of the fine print, which is now leading to record foreclosures. They might have been able to understand all those things if they had spent an hour or two studying them, but the fact is that they were lulled into them by the banker. People trusted the banker, relied on the banker, and then reality hit them three or four years later.

INC.: Aren't you laying the whole burden of responsibility on the banker, the producer? You're not expecting the consumer to perform his own responsibilities to be informed, to make judgments.

NADER: No, just the opposite. Everything I've been talking about is designed to get the consumer more informed, more organized. They're not going to get any dispensations from the sellers.

INC.: Does government have a role in your scheme?

NADER: Of course if does, but for government to enforce the laws there has to be a constituency. I mean, if there were no environmental groups out there the Reagan Administration wouldn't be doing what little it is doing about pollution.

INC.: In everything of yours that I've read, I don't believe you ever had a good thing to say about businesspeople. Whenever you refer to them they are always perpetrators of terrible things.

NADER: Mmmmmm.

INC.: Did you mean to be taken literally? You seem to tar every businessperson with the same brush.

NADER: Well, we concentrated on business deficiencies, business abuses, business crimes, business fraud.

INC.: What do you think motivates these people to do these terrible things?

NADER: There is a lot of motivation. First, there's a slice that is outright criminal. They know the drug is dangerous and they sell it anyway. There is a corporate criminal dimension to our economy, almost an epidemic these days if you read The Wall Street Journal. Price-fixing. Bribes and payoffs. Dumping toxic waste. Fabricating data submitted to a regulatory agency for pesticide approval. Consciously violating job safety laws, consumer protection laws. That's one slice, one motivation.

INC.: What proportion would you believe that to be? Is that 1% of Fortune 1,000 executives?

NADER: It's mixed. Some people do it as part of their everyday business life, but it isn't everything they do. ITT was involved in some shady stuff, but not everything ITT was in was shady.

Another motivation -- although it's not exactly a motivation -- is bad management. They're cutting corners at the mine, for example, so there's an explosion.

Third is greed. They're just out for a higher profit or a bonus, and they'll do anything to get it. They'll bribe, or they'll adulterate the product.

The other is just negligence. It's just that they didn't take care to make sure the welds were adequate in the automobile, so they expose people to carbon monoxide leakage.

INC.: Do you see any qualitative difference between small business and big business in this respect?

NADER: There's more accountability to the consumer in the small-business sector. The small retailer, for example, faces the customer every day. These schemes that mail-order houses operate -- the little shenanigans with the credit on your unpaid balance -- the individual store owner can't do that and stay around for very long. Also, businesses with less power tend to be less abusive, because a certain amount of insecurity produces responsibility in business.

There are other differences, too.Small business is viewed as more inventive and productive, for example, because they don't have the margin to fool around and wase money the way a large company can. They aren't conglomerates that can cross-subsidize one operation from another. Most important, they have to pay attention to cash flow. They can't spend all their time fooling around with tender offers and acquisitions and mergers. These mergers and acquisitions -- it's mostly empire building. It doesn't discover any resource or generate any better way to meet customers' needs.

There's a new dimension, which is that we are becoming more and more an economy that deals more with speculation and economic gambling than with productive activity. Mergers and acquisitions soak up billions of dollars. Forced condominium conversions -- what do they do for the country?

INC.: They transfer capital from one group to another group.

NADER: Yeah, from one unproductive group to another. See, we've got an economy now that has several layers of abstraction in it. You've got the farmer plowing the ground producing food. That's a real economic contribution. Then, at the other end, you've got some guy in Chicago shouting in the futures market, which has now gone far beyond hedging and is wildly speculative. When you start betting on the stock market index itself, you're a little bit removed from productive activity.

We have the biggest economy in the world, which doesn't just mean that we have more industries and more products -- horizontal complexity. It also means vertical complexity, more and more abstract levels in the economy that become further removed from empirical reality. I think that's the biggest economic story right now in our country -- far bigger than the deficit, inflation. I mean, when you start speculating on Treasury bill futures, that's nothing but gambling. The more speculation there is, the less production there can be, and a lot of this speculation is a product of deregulation.

INC.: Deregulation?

NADER: I promise you that within the next 10 years deregulation is going to be one of the dirtiest words in the English language, and it's going to be dirty in business circles.They're going to be begging for re-regulation in banking and financial services. The only thing that's keeping re-regulation at bay now is the bailout. Financial institutions think Uncle Sam will continue to be Uncle Sugar, the final guarantor, their bailer out. Foreign loans, Continental Illinois, the Ohio savings and loans -- we've got to realize that we've gone too far with these speculative binges. A whole lot of things drive an economy, but the main force driving ours right now is greed.

INC.: Define greed.

NADER: More and more and more; not need, but greed. Need drives an economy to a certain level, but the belly's only so large; you can only have so much food. Once needs are met, the driving motivation is acquisition of material wealth by business, businesspeople, enterpreneurs.

INC.: Isn't that part of what drives most. . .

NADER: And, you see, when you rely more and more on avarice as the motive power of economic activity, you are relying on an infinite fuel. An infinite fuel breaks its boundaries, doesn't know when to stop, because it's always worried about what the other avarice is going to do across the street. That is why we've got to have a system that sets boundaries -- disclosure limits, reserve limits for banks, accounting standards, regulatory sanctions against abuses. Otherwise this economy will be known as the world's largest cannibalistic money machine. It will destroy itself.

INC.: How do you change that orientation if that's what you want to do?

NADER: Megabusiness is never going to cross the line and join consumers. But small business is more flexible. They can move from the producer model to the consumer model.

INC.: Give me some examples.

NADER: There are dozens. Manufacturers want to sell more manufactured goods, but some enterpreneur is going to cross over to the consumer model and instead of a shopping mall, he's going to devise a repair mall, a place full of all kinds of repair stores -- shoe repair, appliance repair, computer repair, umbrella repair. It can probably be done as efficiently as a regular retail mall, but you don't think that way if you're a producer.

A big consumer-side business is the companies that show people how to do their own home repair and improvements. You want to build a porch? They've got the design, all the equipment, a little videotape to show you how. That displaces some of the high-price commercial carpenters and plumbers.

Antismoking products and services. That's a consumer-side business. They weren't started by conglomerates, and they're also part of what I call the displacement economy, which is very significant. But the government doesn't give us annual indices on the displacement economy. Fewer smokers means lower medical bills, less gargle, and all the rest of it.

INC.: The displacement economy, what do you mean by that?

NADER: Businesses that promote either self-production or nonconsumption. Now that really cuts across the conventional models of economic development. But overall, I'm amazed at how unimaginative the business community is in looking for new models of development. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, they're just out there trying to make a sale and a profit, and they're not thinking about how we can meet needs in a different way -- by saving instead of spending.

INC.: Making a sale and making a profit is a necessary part of business. You can't blame businesspeople for worrying about those things.

NADER: Not individually, but, you know, there are 20 million businesses. You'd think you could get 20,000 or 30,000 mavericks spread out across the economy.

I'll tell you one thing: They're much more creative in meeting wants than they are in meeting needs. The real dynamic sections of our economy are in the area of wants -- you know, video games -- not in the area of needs. It's going to take the Japanese to show us, when they start importing prefab houses, how to really get the housing thing moving. And they will, eight, maybe nine years from now.

INC.: You've said that Americans aren't capital-conscious. What does that mean?

NADER: Here's an example. Everybody knows that shareholders own the corporation but management controls it, by and large, give or take a few T. Boone Pickens. But the split between ownership and control has now pervaded huge sections of the economy. Workers own $950 billion in pension funds. Who controls pension fund investment? Banks and insurance companies. The public owns the federal lands. Who controls their exploitation? Through the Department of the Interior, the mineral companies. There is over a trillion dollars in savings and loans. Who decides where it's going to go? Sometimes they redline the very areas in which their depositors live. We own the public airwaves. Who controls the airwaves? You've got a system of property where the controlling economic powers can say, "We don't care who owns it."

You'd think that would be a major issue in political campaigns. You'd think that there would be a major discussion of this in university economics courses. You'd think that once in a while there'd be an article on this in the business pages.

My thesis is that the closer you merge the ownership function with the control function, the healthier and more democratized is your economy. For example, workers could do a lot with $950 billion. Not that they're all going to decide how it is going to be invested, but if they were capital-conscious and if they informed themselves and they knew who their advisers and representatives were, maybe they'd put some of that money to work in more productive ways.

INC.: But doesn't the same principle apply to political democracy? And yet there are fewer and fewer people turning out to vote.

NADER: Oh, I agree. The problem is apathy and the lack of capital-consciousness. Most people think they advance their material well-being exclusively through wages and salary, but in our mature economy we've got to understand that people can saisfy their material well-being through the ownership of capital and the control of their property. And that's not happening.

INC.: What about the rage for equity participation?

NADER: Obviously we're talking about a matter of degree. Right now control is delegated with abandon. If we're now at 1 on a scale of 100, I'm saying we ought to get to, maybe, 30.

INC.: So how do you persuade everyone to start spending part of his or her day worring about the public lands or savings and loans?

NADER: Specialization. We have a little ratio we apply: one out of a thousand consumers. That's all you need in any area. If you get one out of a thousand bank depositors who decides to make this kind of thing his or her civic hobby, that's very decisive.

INC.: All this is new for Ralph Nader -- fuel-oil collaboratives, displacement economies, and so on. That's not what people think of when they hear your name.

NADER: That's because most people are looking for exposes. What's the latest defect? What's the latest industry abuse? But those are just symptoms, and you can spent 20,000 years taking care of symptoms, you know.

INC.: So how has your philosophy and your strategy developed?

NADER: I've always realized that you can never deal with fundamentals unless you start with symptoms. For example, you start with unsafe meat, you go to nutrition and diet, and only then can you get to self-determined food choices based on information. Or smoking. You start with exposing the tobacco industry. They knew for years it was killing people, and they're still passing out free samples on high-school corners. Eventually you work up to strengthening the nonsmoker group in the country. That's the progression.

INC.: So you have no grand theory?

NADER: I have grand values, like safety, health, opportunity. But these are very flexible in the sense that they don't commit themselves to a dogma. They can be attached to entrepreneurism, to an inventor, to a consumer organization; they can even attach to a reborn corporate executive, a consumer-reborn CEO. Which is quite different from dogma. It's as if you went to Russia and said, "I can show you how to triple your agricultural production. Just give everyone 160 acres an make them obey certain rules of civilized society." And the commissar says, "Comrade, we desperately need to triple our agricultural production. Our agriculture is the Achilles' heel of our economic situation. But we're not going to do it that way." So they don't triple their agricultural production. That's dogma.

INC.: Peter Drucker says we're entering an enterpreneurial society. Do you see that?

NADER: In technology.

INC.: Drucker says technology is the least important.

NADER: We don't have it in housing. Or in health care. Where is the great entrepeneur to do for those two what Henry Ford did for autos? I'm talking about organizational entrepreneurs. What did Henry Block contribute? He is a genius at organization. He's got, 7,300 storefronts, in every community above 5,000 population in the United States.Before H. & R. Block there were people advising people on tax preparation.

INC.: Ray Kroc didn't invent the hamburger, either.

NADER: That's right. That's what I think is lacking. There's an enormous need for organizational entrepreneurs -- in the consumer movement first and foremost, not just in business. We need them in education. We need political entrepreneurship. Political campaigns are unimaginative, rote, routine, sloganized. When are we going to get some political entrepreneurship? When are politicians going to start talking about things that matter?

See, almost 99% of what comes in on a person every day comes in with the message, "Don't create. Obey. Trust. Believe." When I was 10 years old I came home from school. My parents were in the backyard, reading, and my father looked up at me. He said, "Ralph, what did you do today? Think or believe?" I didn't quite get it, you know. I went up to my room and was trying to figure it out. A little later I got it, with some help. It's true.

What do all the ads tell you? Trust Texaco. You're in good hands. Rely. Be dependent. Take our word. Trust. Don't challenge us. Don't think.

It's the same in the workplace.


INC.: How do you spend your time?

NADER: Some of it writing; some of it supervising projects that I develop, like the CUB effort; some of it lecturing; and some of it up on Capitol Hill. Some time I spend just processing information. I go through a lot of materials -- 28 monthly publications and three or four newspapers a day, including the Journal of Commerce.

INC.: Do you still work the same kind of hours?

NADER: Yeah, I work two shifts in effect.

INC.: Still work at night?

NADER: Yeah.

INC.: There is all this myth around Ralph Nader. Would it seriously damage your efforts if you were to get married, buy a station wagon -- with airbags, of course -- spend a week on Nantucket, move to a suburb? Could you still do what you're doing now?

NADER: The focus would be less intense, and sometimes you win on the margin in these battles. You know, we've won battles because we've worked weekends to get ready for Monday on Capitol Hill, so you'd lose that competitive edge.

INC.: Competitive edge? You sound like a free marketeer. What's your reaction when you hear businesspeople talking about the "free market"?

NADER: They assume a free market because that's how they try to say that they are accountable -- sink or swim. They want to say, "Hey, we're taking a risk, and if we don't succeed we'll fail. So get off our backs." Meanwhile, they go to the government to get a whole slew of subsidies and guarantees and licenses and quota protection and golden handshake government contracts. At the state level they got all kinds of laws restricting price competition for pharmacies on drugs. They get marketing orders. It's all welfare, business is on welfare. That's why they're always coming up with this fictional, pristine version of the free-market system -- as if it really operates in this country.

INC.: Can you describe or characterize the extent of the change that you have brought about in the 20 years you've been at this?

NADER: There are 10,000 people, at least, that we've saved every year because of the federal highway safety program. We were very much the main factor in the 1974 amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, which I think is a very, very important thing. The co-op bank legislation, the drinking water safety law, OSHA legislation, many other health and safety laws.

But most important, I think, is to give people heart. If you show them what can be done, they feel that maybe they can do it on a different scale in their communities. It's an enabling function that we have given visibility to; you know, you can fight city hall. I think that more people have put it that way to us than anything else. They say, "You have given us encouragement; you showed us that it can be done."

I think we're on the up, but the question is, Are we moving fast enough? Citizen activity on the arms race is higher now than it was 20 years ago, but is it high enough? You can't have millions of people spending 80% of their leisure time watching TV and not pay a price for it socially. You can't have people looking the other way while the rascals are taking all the goodies without paying for it. If you're watching "Three's Company" or "Laverne and Shirley" or "The A-Team" that much -- an average of 25 to 30 hours a week -- then you're not likely to be watching the community you live in: city hall, the paper mill on the river.