Ralph Nader: Public Shakedown Artist

by | Apr 27, 2003

“Big business never pays a nickel in taxes, according to Ralph Nader, who represents a big consumer organization that never pays a nickel in taxes.” — Dave Barry Crystal Lewis hadn’t the slightest idea what “MOPIRG” was. Each semester, she says, the mysterious phrase was listed on her tuition bill at Meramac Community College in […]

“Big business never pays a nickel in taxes, according to Ralph Nader, who represents a big consumer organization that never pays a nickel in taxes.” — Dave Barry

Crystal Lewis hadn’t the slightest idea what “MOPIRG” was. Each semester, she says, the mysterious phrase was listed on her tuition bill at Meramac Community College in St. Louis, Missouri, and each semester the school billed her six dollars. Then she read the fine print. “If you opt not to support MOPIRG, please deduct this amount from your payment,” it said.

But her tuition bill gave no explanation of what exactly MOPIRG was.

In researching this piece, I got similar reactions from students at colleges across the country. PennPIRG, MASSPIRG, and CALPIRG – students in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Colorado and California had been paying small fees to all of these groups, and almost none of the students knew at first what it was they were paying for.

If you’re putting a kid or two through college, or putting yourself through, there’s a good chance you’re donating to a PIRG, too.

And Ralph Nader would like to thank you for your support.

Yes, the same man who rails against corporate welfare – because it coercively takes money from taxpayers and funnels it to corporations – has set up a rather ingenious, if underhanded and manipulative, way of coercively taking money from college kids – and funneling it to Ralph Nader.

The PIRG scam is short for “Public Interest Research Group,” and there are well over a hundred chapters of the organization spread out across the country. The scams vary from campus to campus, but it basically works like this:

Each time your kid registers for classes, the local PIRG chapter has arranged with the school to tack a fee on to his/her tuition. On most every campus, the PIRG chapter has made attempts to make this “contribution” as secretive and misleading as possible. Just how secretive and manipulative the method depends on how much resistance each chapter has met in trying to get the scheme implemented. At most schools, they first attempt to make the fee both mandatory and nonrefundable. If that doesn’t work, they lobby for as underhanded and sneaky a scheme as the school will allow.

This has been going on for twenty-five years.

Eight years ago, I was sitting in my fraternity cafeteria at Indiana University when representatives of the then-startup INPIRG group entered with a petition. They were starting a new student group on campus, they told us, and they’d like our support. We were assured that the group was one hundred percent apolitical. It was merely a group that would advocate for Indiana University students. They needed our signatures, they said, to get the organization up and running.

What they didn’t tell us was that our signatures were in effect an endorsement of a “reverse check” system, whereby every single Indiana University student (and there are about 40,000 of them) would automatically donate three dollars to INPIRG each semester, unless he or she specifically knew to “uncheck” a box on the computer screen giving authorization for the contribution.

The INPIRG method has since changed. Today, the group solicits signatures from incoming freshmen – again under the “apolitical” rubric – who, once they’ve signed, will then contribute each semester for the remainder of their college careers at Indiana. Students say it’s almost impossible to remove your name from the list once you’ve signed.

But at least students at Indiana have the option of not contributing.

On about 1/3 of the state college campuses in New York State, a student’s PIRG contribution is mandatory and nonrefundable. The University of Wisconsin and University of Oregon also require mandatory, nonrefundable contributions to PIRG.

You want to go to one of these schools? You pony up to Ralph Nader.

At other schools, such as Trinity College in Connecticut, students not interested in supporting the local PIRG are required to go a Bursar’s office or a student activities office, fill out a form, then take the paperwork to a campus PIRG officer to get a refund. That’s quite a bit a work for three or five or eight dollars – and that’s assuming the student ever notices the charge on his tuition statement to begin with. Not surprisingly, most PIRG chapters don’t go to great effort to publicize the refund option. They rely on college student indolence, and they’re making a killing.

What’s worse is that most of the time, the money these chapters shake out of college students doesn’t even stay on the campus where it’s generated. This is particularly true in the Northeast. At many New England schools, most or even all of the money coerced from college students goes directly to the state PIRG chapters, where it’s used to pay political lawyers and statehouse lobbyists, or is used as “seed money” for further fundraising efforts. And about 10% of campus-collected money goes to the national chapter, USPIRG.

The irony in all of this is that the PIRGs disguise their scam under the “free speech” mantra. The USPIRG site makes the incredulous claim that forcing students to pay for causes they don’t support is protected by the First Amendment. Yet this same organization, on it’s campaign finance reform website, claims that voluntary contributions to political candidates isn’t protected. Go figure.

PIRG chapters claim that their funding schemes are protected under the recent Southworth v. University of Wisconsin decision, decided by the Supreme Court last year. But Southworth says only that political organizations can receive student dues as disbursed through a general fund. It says nothing about reverse checkoffs or mandatory fees earmarked for political causes. In fact, the opinion stresses the importance of “viewpoint neutrality” in mandating student fees. That is, organizations from all ends of the political spectrum ought to have a crack at the funds. Despite their claims of political agnosticism, few could make the claim that PIRG’s policy positions are “viewpoint neutral.”

Craig Rucker works for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow, an advocacy group that helps grassroots organizers oppose environmental extremists. Rucker estimates that PIRG chapters on at least 70 college campuses have some sort of funding scheme that’s either mandatory, or puts the onus on the student to pursue a refund.

PIRG chapters are operational on at least 140 campuses nationwide, and if not funded by mandatory fees, most either employ deceptive sign-up campaigns similar to the one used at Indiana, or lobby usually left-leaning student government bodies to grant them disbursement from more general “activities funds.”

Like most of Ralph Nader’s puppet and satellite organizations, state PIRGS are notoriously reluctant to divulge financial information (more on that below), so an exact figure on just how much they’re collecting is tough to compute. Nevertheless, Rucker estimates that PIRG chapters nationally manage to collect somewhere between $10 and $20 million dollars from college students to advocate for Ralph Nader’s causes.

So just what are these “apolitical,” “student-oriented” issues PIRG chapters advocate for?

Well, the USPIRG’s 2001 annual report demands a moratorium on drilling for oil in ANWR. It criticizes the Bush administration for weakening forest protections. It also advocates for tougher CAFE standards, and it criticizes the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation for “not going far enough” toward publicly-financed elections.

If these issues are “apolitical,” one wonders what PIRG considers “partisan.”

The practice of forcing or tricking college students into financing causes they might not otherwise support seems particularly sleazy when coming from someone like Nader, a “citizen activist” who has always claimed to be on the side of the “little guy” – a public advocate who rails against the injustice of, for example, ATM fees.

Yes, it’s sleazy and it’s hypocritical, but it’s also typical. Nader’s public advocacy has always been at odds with his private business practices.

In the 1970’s, for example, the labor-loving Nader busted up an attempt by workers at one of his organizations to unionize – an effort instigated by Nader’s management style. The website Real Change quotes former Nader lieutenant Jim Turner:

“We spent a hundred years trying to clean sweatshops out of our system and what happens? Along comes the first major reformer of any impact, and he starts doing the same goddamned thing. … My wife had to tell Ralph once to stop phoning after midnight.”

Those fed up with Nader’s tactics have found that taking on Nader, while difficult, is not a hopeless fight. Regents of the state university systems in California and Montana have shot down PIRG requests for mandatory support from student fees (though California schools now use the freshman-pledge approach used at Indiana). And several years ago, the efforts of student activists and local legislators nixed a mandatory scheme at the University of Texas. Rucker says his organization regularly works with local politicians and activists to fight the schemes at the state level, and that they’re having some success.

The problem, mainly, is awareness. Campus PIRG chapters can implement their fee scams through petition drives, through student government organizations, or through university administrators, and they generally opt for the method they feel will provide the least amount of resistance. Once instituted, the fees then understandably get lost in the line item listings of various student athletic, health, housing, laboratory and various other academic fees.

So parents rarely notice them. And neither do students.

And even when they do, the charges are generally listed as they were on Crystal Lewis’ tuition bill – ambiguously, cryptically, and without a satisfactory explanation. Many times, school administrators don’t even know what they’re for.

And so students continue to unknowingly fork money over to Green causes. And universities continue to look the other way. And all the while, Ralph Nader and his nationwide army of advocates go on collecting millions – each three, five, or eight-dollar fee at a time.

Made available through www.techcentralstation.com

Radley Balko is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Virginia. He writes for FoxNews.com, and Tech Central Station, and the www.TheAgitator.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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