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Entries since August 2011Page 1 • 2 • 3 Next
August 30, 2011 · By Sam Pizzigati
A landmark historical anniversary passed by almost totally unnoticed last week. No front-page retrospective in a major daily newspaper. No ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. Not even a new postage stamp.
A postage stamp, to be sure, might have been a bit of a stretch. You can’t, after all, put a memo on a postage stamp. Not even a memo that helped change, 40 years ago this month, the course of modern U.S. history.
The writer of this memorable memo, Richmond attorney Lewis Powell, would later go on to national prominence as a U.S. Supreme Court justice. But Lewis Powell, back in August 1971, had no national general public presence.
Powell did have widespread respect within elite corporate circles. A former American Bar Association president, he served on top corporate boards — and had friends in pivotal places, like Eugene Sydnor, a mover and shaker at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Powell and Sydnor, notes corporate watchdog Charlie Cray, shared a sense of impending doom. The American “free enterprise system,” they feared, faced an existential crisis. The enemies of that system would surely triumph — unless business mobilized, as never before, to meet the threat.
The Chamber’s Sydnor asked Powell for a memo that outlined what the Chamber could do to jumpstart a crusade to save free enterprise. Powell's confidential August 23, 1971 response did just that.
Powell’s memo, reread today, can come across as wildly overheated and even, at times, laugh-out-loud paranoid.
Business confronts, Powell contends in the memo, critics “seeking insidiously” to “sabotage” free enterprise. “Extremists on the left,” he declares, have become “far more numerous, better financed, and increasingly are more welcomed and encouraged by other elements of society, than ever before in our history.”
With “extremists” and “social reformers” working ever more closely in concert, Powell's memo laments, “individual freedom” itself may stand at risk.
In truth, “free enterprise” in America had faced significantly more threatening — and better organized — challenges before World War I and then again during the Great Depression. In 1971, those Powell labeled “extremists” had no significant political parties, as they had in earlier eras. And the social reformers of 1971, unlike their predecessors, rarely questioned any “free enterprise” basics.
But corporate leaders, Powell correctly understood, did face a hostile political environment in 1971. Progressives were making headway against tax breaks that benefit “only the rich, the owners of big companies,” as one Washington Post columnist put it. “Populist” tracts in mainstream magazines like New York were arguing that “the root need in our country is ‘to redistribute wealth.’”
“This setting of the ‘rich’ against the ‘poor,’ of business against the people,” Powell’s memo seethes, “is the cheapest and most dangerous kind of politics.”
Corporate America, Powell goes on to exhort, must respond with more than “appeasement, ineptitude, and ignoring the problem.” Business leaders must show more “stomach for hard-nose contest with their critics.” CEOs need to consider counterattacking “a primary responsibility of corporate management.”
Yet individual corporate leaders, Powell would acknowledge, can only do so much. An individual corporation, he understood, might be reluctant “to get too far out in front and to make itself too visible a target.” The answer?
“Strength lies in organization,” Powell's would explain, “in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”
The rest of Powell’s memo would detail the sorts of steps Corporate America could take — on campuses, with the media, in politics — to sweep away what Powell considered “inequitable” taxes on men of means and tame regulatory agencies “with large authority over the business system they do not believe in.”
The memo would remain confidential until syndicated national columnist Jack Anderson did an exposé in 1973. That publicity only served to whet corporate interest in Powell’s exhortations. By year’s end, a Chamber of Commerce task force — with executives from corporate giants ranging from G.E. to General Motors — had translated the Powell memo into action plan specifics.
Powell’s 1971 musings,historian Kim Phillips-Fein reflects, “crystallized a set of concerns shared by business conservatives in the early 1970s” — and gave “inspiration” to corporate leaders who would later become familiar names and powerful forces, men like arch Colorado right-winger Joseph Coors.
Together, these newly energized corporate leaders would unleash upon America what political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have called “a domestic version of Shock and Awe.”
The number of corporate public affairs offices in Washington, D.C. would quintuple between 1968 and 1978, from 100 to over 500. In 1971, Hacker and Pierson relate, only 175 U.S. corporations had registered lobbyists in Washington. The 1982 total: almost 2,500.
Corporate leaders also joined together in new national organizations, most notably with the 1972 founding of the Business Roundtable, and bankrolled a series of new militantly “free market” think tanks and action centers: the Heritage Foundation and American Legislative Exchange Council in 1973, the Cato Institute in 1977, the Manhattan Institute in 1978, among many others.
Between the late 1970s and late 1980s, add analysts Hacker and Pierson, corporate PACs increased their outlays for congressional races “nearly fivefold.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for its part, would double its membership between 1974 and 1980 and triple its budget.
The end result of this all this political activity? Four decades of corporate pressure have transformed America. Tax rates on corporations and the wealthy have nosedived. Lawmakers have “deregulated” corporations in one sector after another. Unions, across wide swatches of the private sector, have disappeared.
The United States has become, with all these changes, a far more unequal place. In 1971, the year Powell penned his influential memo, America’s most affluent 0.1 percent reported average incomes — in 2008 dollars — of $1,263,485, and America’s bottom 90 percent averaged, again in 2008 dollars, $31,324.
By 2008, America's top tenth of 1 percent was averaging over four times as much, $5,648,768, and the average income of America’s bottom 90 percent had actually dropped, to $31,244.
The irony here? These numbers would likely trouble Lewis Powell, who died in 1998. Powell saw business as a champion for prosperity for all. He considered unions and collective bargaining “essential” to the freedom Americans enjoy.
Today’s U.S. Chamber of Commerce, by contrast, acts as the lobbying ringleader against any and all legislation that seeks to help workers organize and bargain.
Who knows? Lewis Powell might have come to feel, if he had lived a little longer, that his memo really needed a rewrite.
August 29, 2011 · By Emily Schwartz Greco
This week's OtherWords editorial package is a Labor Day special. Sam Pizzigati casts a light on corporate consultants who recommend gutting the pay of America's most experienced and skilled workers, Donald Kaul says "the Great Recession has sliced through American workers like a scythe, cutting them off at the knees," and Jim Hightower laments the newfound insignificance of middle-class consumers. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven't signed up yet, please do.
- A Tip for Joe the Machinist: Watch Your Back / Sam Pizzigati
- Endless War Isn't the Answer to 9/11 / Jim Cason
- People-Powered Media / Brandy Doyle
- The Government Can and Should Help Create Jobs Now / Elizabeth Rose
- The Rich are Raking it in, so Where are the Jobs? / Donald Kaul
- Mass-Marketing Goes Platinum / Jim Hightower
- The War on Labor / William A. Collins
- Catering to the Rich / Khalil Bendib
August 28, 2011 · By Joy Zarembka
There are few events in Washington that get me excited. But I'm relishing the opportunity to see the opening of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial this weekend. King's actions and words offer hope, inspiration, and a vision that, as an African-American and a practitioner of social justice, guide me daily.
King's legacy is also closely tied to IPS. In 1963, as King was giving his most famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, IPS was just opening its doors. Shortly thereafter, in 1964, several leading African-American activists joined the staff and turned IPS into a base of support for the civil rights movement in the nation’s capital.
Unable to avoid controversy even in his memorial, there have been heated debates over King’s statue — the choice of a non-African-American as the sculptor and the bold, cross-armed pose that was selected for the memorial. IPS board chair E. Ethelbert Miller took these critiques head on when he was quoted in The Washington Post, saying “I love that King is looking defiant …With so many of our rights (and money) being taken away we need some cold ‘Stone Leaders’ to stop the assault. Maybe the King monument will become a regular meeting place for the poor who can’t take no more.”
Also honoring King's tradition of civil disobedience, IPS expert Janet Redman was arrested protesting a proposed oil pipeline from Canada that would carry oil rendered from tar sands. Before being detained, she said, "Martin Luther King, Jr. called civil disobedience 'the sword that heals.' Today I’m joining more than 2,000 ordinary folks from the United States and Canada who are doing something extraordinary — putting their bodies on the police line to say no to the expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast."
King often lent his support to unsung heroes. And in that spirit, IPS announced the recipients of our 35th annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards, the Wisconsin Progressive Movement and Bethlehem, The Migrant's Shelter from Mexico. I invite you to join IPS in celebrating these courageous organizations on October 12th at the National Press Club in Washington DC.
Finally, I want to welcome back our own hero, IPS's director John Cavanagh, as he returns from his sabbatical. It has been an honor and privilege to lead IPS over the past year and I look forward to my new role as associate director as IPS tackles many of the same challenges King faced: injustice, rampant war, and a divided country.
Unconventional Wisdom is a biweekly newsletter published by the Institute for Policy Studies. To receive Unconventional Wisdom or other IPS newsletters in your inbox, sign up here.
August 23, 2011 · By Robert Alvarez
An earthquake measuring 5.9 on the Richter scale just occurred less than a hour ago. Its epicenter was in Mineral, Virginia, approximately 10 miles from two nuclear power reactors at the North Anna site. According to statement by a representative of Dominion Power the two reactors were designed to withstand a 5.9 to 6.1 quake. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission ranked the North Anna Reactors as being seventh in the nation in terms of earthquake risks.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires control rods to be automatically inserted to halt a reactor, if it is impacted by an earthquake. However, the reactor still has a large amount of decay heat that requires either offsite or back-up diesel generators to prevent a meltdown. This was the problem that led to severe accidents at the Fukushima nuclear site on Japan. It is not clear at this time what damage might have been sustained at the nuclear site.
The North Anna reactors are of the Westinghouse Pressurized Water design and went on line in 1979 and 1980 respectively. Since then the reactors have generated approximately 1,200 metric tons of nuclear spent fuel containing about 228,000 curies of highly radioactive materials — among the largest concentrations of radioactivity in the United States.
Nearly 40 percent of the radioactivity in the North Anna spent fuel pools is cesium-137, a long-lived radioisotope that gives off potentially dangerous penetrating radiation and also accumulates in food over a period of centuries. The North Anna Pools hold about 15-30 times more cesium-137 than was released by the Chernobyl accident in 1986. In 2003, the Institute for Policy Studies helped lead a study warning that drainage of a pool might cause a catastrophic radiation fire, which could render an area uninhabitable greater than that created by the Chernobyl accident.
The spent fuel pools at North Anna contain four to five times more spent fuel than their original designs intended. As in Japan, all U.S. nuclear power plant spent fuel pools do not have steel lined, concrete barriers that cover reactor vessels to prevent the escape of radioactivity. They are not required to have back-up generators to keep used fuel rods cool, if offsite power is lost. Even though they contain these very large amounts of radioactivity, spent reactor fuel pools in the United States are mostly contained in ordinary industrial structures designed to protect them against the elements.
August 22, 2011 · By Emily Schwartz Greco
In this week's OtherWords editorial package, Ann Mesnikoff hails the government's plans to strengthen fuel-efficiency standards and Jim Hightower laments a "loopy crusade" against energy-efficient light bulbs. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven't signed up yet, please do.
- Paving the Way to 60 Miles per Gallon / Ann Mesnikoff
- Let's 'Make Them' End the Great Recession / Mazher Ali
- Thrifty, Green Homeowners May Get a Boost / Andrew Korfhage
- High Noon in Washington / John Wright
- You Can't Milk a Butter Cow / Donald Kaul
- Dim Bulbs in Congress / Jim Hightower
- Muslims Don't Have a Monopoly on Terrorism / William A. Collins
- Terrorism in the Eye of the Beholder / Khalil Bendib