Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Did The Lewis Powell Memo Create This Mess?

History unfolds from hinge moments. I have been wondering lately about the Lewis Powell memo and what larger things have unfolded from it. If a private memo is a small thing consider its effects if it galvanizes far greater powers and undoes important precedents.

Did the Powell memo (and the doctrine that it made) make corporate and wealthy America immune to their obligations to society, enabling them to levitate away from tax obligations and the necessary support and protection of institutions and infrastructure and the environment? Did it enable them to hoist (permanently, it appears) the justice system and the financial apparatus out of the reach of the vast majority of Americans? Did it then enable the justice system and financial system to be reorganized to prey on the wider population rather than serving it? (Granted, the law has a recurring habit of acting to protect property from people, to become an instrument of property without a primary obligation to people.)

Did the Powell memo make corporations and the belief system of wealthy Americans immune to inconvenient science? Did it make science subservient to the profit imperative? Did the Powell memo obligate all businesspeople to ignore and defy any science that might diminish their profits? Not just reverse their profits but cut into them. Did the Powell memo lead to the mindset that made the profit imperative the single obligation, the only sacred idea?

I got on this train of thought after seeing the story this morning where NASA scientists are now convinced climate change will unfold more suddenly and devastatingly than previously thought. That is moreso than we were previously led to think by the corporate deniers. I began to think how colossally stupid we’ve become in the space of a few decades. What was the off button on the American genius? I think it was the Powell memo’s assertion of money, overruling intelligent discourse. (The assertion of what I’ve called Moneythink on my blog. A dangerously corrupt and corrupting philosophy, if you can call it a philosophy.)

Business and Money and Markets and Corporations and the whole apparatus of our financial side used to obey basic norms to correct folly and regulate the “animal spirits” that cause problems. Those regulators were turned off subsequent to the assertion of corporate power and veto that followed the Powell memo.

One chief example of a useful regulator that was turned off is the insurance industry, which was bought and harnessed by large financial companies and told to make its functions serve the profit of the larger company rather than do its job, which was to place a cost on risks. The insurance business didn’t raise the costs of insuring harbor facilities or coastal properties or the longer term risks climate change represented to our agricultural infrastructure (civilizations are based upon reliable climate, and our civilization is therefore at high risk.) The insurance industry was told to keep its mouth shut and to tailor its charges for risk to suit the profit demands of the shareholders and the corporate parent, which probably was investing decades of premiums in very profitable fossil fuel investments.

If nothing else, the Powell memo gave Money a veto over Reason. It allowed the shareholder class to veto the warnings of scientists in the matter of climate change and to veto the legitimate demands and grievances of people who work for a living because they might limit the return on investment to people who own for a living. The only loyalty was to return on investment, no other obligation mattered. That was the central justification for Lewis Powell’s memo which evolved into a fiat: that concentrated money ought to assert the deciding vote on all of our public decisions, because money had a better brain than people did. This breathed legitimacy into the ludicrous Citizens United ruling that stated Money = Speech. And the similarly ludicrous Bush v Gore decision that stated that equal protection required the Court to intervene to protect the interests of George W Bush from irreparable harm by the voters who had voted against him. Money and patronage (the values the Powell memo places uppermost) were again the pollutant in that decision: how many of the justices who stepped in for Bush Jr. were appointed by Bush Sr.?

Once you make Money immune to intelligent discussion you give it control over the public conversation. Which is why we have a billionaire of low cunning dominating one of our political parties right now. Who are we non-billionaires to question his right to rule us? We have learned not to embarrass Money with difficult questions. The galvanizing moment in Ronald Reagan's presidential run came early, when he faced down the annoying challenge of some journalist, saying: "I paid for this microphone!" Except he hadn't. General Electric and a few decades of other corporate sponsors had. Reagan had been employed as their spokesmodel. He was the political incarnation of Lewis Powell's memo.

Are we all to blame? We voted for Reagan, and all his works and all his ways. We liked him. Half of us still worship him even though he presided over the theft of our prosperity via Reaganomics. He organized the redirection of wealth from the many to the few. Money isn't speech, but it can buy a lot of it. And it can buy the likable voice of an aging actor. Money isn't speech any more than Money equals thought or intelligence. By delegating more of our decisions to our money, which the Lewis Powell memo urged, we stopped thinking. And that is why we are surprised to learn the oceans will rise and there is no longer anything we can do about it. Maybe that is also why a handful of billionaires are using their tax-immune billions to build personal rocket ships.

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