June 23, 2011 at 10:55 AM ET
IN A BEAUTIFUL GARDEN, DETROIT -- To call Esther Shapiro the Ralph Nader of Michigan is to compliment Ralph Nader.
The arc of her life runs perfectly parallel to the birth, life, and near death of America's consumer movement -- in fact, you might call her its grandmother. Now 93, Shapiro still lists herself as a "consumer consultant" in the phone book. But she frets about the state of the economy, the fate of her beloved Detroit, but most of all, about the lack of effective consumer protections across America.
From 1974 to1988 she ran Detroit's forward thinking Office of Consumer Protection, perhaps the most active agency of its type in the country. She had real power; she could revoke a firm's business license if it misbehaved, she could bar it from advertising in Detroit newspapers. She had a regular radio segment and newspaper column. She filed lawsuits, got refunds for jilted consumers, and -- with the help of her police commissioner husband -- put bad guys in jail. By the time she was forced to retire at age 80, she had vast files on every possible consumer scam -- and a heart full of stories from grateful consumers who she'd helped.
Early in her career, she helped stop a widespread scam run by criminals who took deposits from people desperate for leads on cheap apartments, then never furnished the leads. She was able to get refunds for some victims, and told me about one woman who showed up to collect her money.
"She just kind of grabbed it, like you would grab food if you were hungry. Then she said to me, 'Do you know what it's like to be a welfare mother and be cheated out of your last dollar?’ And walked away. That really stuck with me," Shapiro said.
Stories like those fueled her long hours, her endless lectures to community groups, and they still fuel her when frustrated consumers track her down through the phone book.
They call because no one really does her kind of work anyone. After Shapiro left, the consumer agency died a slow death. Her files were thrown away, she said, her eyes tearing up.
"For a while if you called the number, there was just a message that said this inbox is full," Shapiro said. "There's no place for people to call now."
Shapiro has called Detroit home for more than 50 years, and has lived just a few blocks outside the hardscrabble downtown area for the past 40. A Chicago native, she met her husband in New York and lived in Vancouver, Wash., during World War II, but fell in love with the motor city after her husband landed a job there as a union organizer in the 1950s. She has raised a family tree of do-gooders -- a grand-daughter in Seattle who fights for immigrant construction workers' rights, a daughter who's active in the Women in Black peace movement. In fact, her secret shame in the Shapiro family is that "I'm the only one who's never been arrested. They tease me about it all the time."
Talking with Shapiro, you get the idea that she still has plenty of time for that. I met her via email five years ago when writing about the death of price tags on consumer products – she’s still the nation’s most persuasive apologist for price tags and product labeling as a source of consumer protection, and I have interviewed her several times since. But we hadn’t met face to face until I made the pilgrimage to Detroit on Wednesday.
She's a bit unsteady on her feet these days, but still manages to scramble out to her perfect, tiny garden on request and has no trouble reciting entire scenes from Shakespeare plays during a pesky reporter's camera sound check.
But she turns gravely serious when talking about the people she used to help.
"I'm very worried about the future," she said. "In essence there is no consumer protection today. There are still laws on the books, but the enforcement isn't there. Nobody has the lawyers to do it themselves, the local organizations that are supposed to enforce don't do it. ... There are things on the books that would solve a lot of these consumer problems. But there is no one to enforce them or teach them."
America's consumer protection movement reached its heyday in the early 1970s, when Ralph Nader was one of America's most recognized figures. Almost all real help is local, however -- anyone who's every complained to a federal banking regulator can attest to that -- so various states and cities created their own activist consumer agencies at the time. Detroit's agency, and Shapiro, were a model for the country. That's why the destruction of her files -- and the shuttering of her agency -- hurts so much.
"I thought that was going to be my legacy," she said.
But even though her movement has run out of steam for now, Shapiro has a rich personal legacy.
"I run into people all the time who say things like, 'I remember you, I still have that article you wrote on how to shop for shampoo,' " she said. “People tell me they always look at labels when they buy things because they heard me speak. … It gives my life meaning."
Shapiro doesn't tour the speaking circuit like she used to, but she still makes occasional appearances -- in fact, she was on Detroit's NBC affiliate on Wednesday morning. And she still has plenty of sage advice for consumers, who she says are still falling for essentially the same scams they did 50 years ago.
"We don't learn our lesson because we don't want to," she said. "We seize upon the immediate. ...Someone who sounds knowledgeable and offers to solve your problems, you're going to take it and not ask questions because you don't want the answers, you just want the solution."
But the persistence of the current recession, which by now has squeezed many people out of their life savings and left them with no margin for error, plays a big role in the vulnerability of consumers, she said. She thinks consumers are worse off today than they were in 1974, when her agency opened.
"There's a sense of desperation. We're vulnerable, we're bleeding and there's nothing to stop the bleeding," she said. "I think things are worse because there's less hope. Nobody really believes that employment is going to pick up because we don't see it. No one really believes the stock market is going to recover. I think no one really believes that we'll ever have peace because we're always in a war. It's this desperation that tears apart whatever we might have built up in defense."
Shapiro's dark words will sound familiar to anyone who's spent time listening to a worried grandmother ("What kind of world am I leaving those kids?" she said several times.) But her sparking eyes and quick smile -- not to mention her sharp wit and persuasive abilities -- belie her stated pessimism. Shapiro has a deep, abiding faith in the rule of law, and in fairness. And it's clear that deep inside, she thinks fairness will come back into fashion again some day.
"I learned in a high school science class that nothing is every totally destroyed or disappears," she said. "You light a fire to destroy something, but then you have gases, you have ash that stay with the planet. Something is always there. It's never totally lost, and that's what gives me hope. We offer education, we hope someone will hear it, we know it's not going to be lost. That's my faith."