That Infamous Memo

For years, I’ve seen references to the memorandum written by former Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, well before he joined the court, to the Education Committee of the national Chamber of Commerce. I was always curious about its contents, (but obviously not curious enough to google or otherwise research it).

Fortunately, Vernon Turner reproduced it in his new book, Why Angels Weep: America and Donald Trump.

It is important to recognize that this memo was written in 1971–when the country was still in the chaos of the tumultuous events we lump together as “the Sixties.” Powell was hardly the only privileged white guy who experienced the events of that era as a wholesale assault on everything America stood for. Nor was he entirely wrong: there were certainly people in the streets at that time who would have cheerfully brought the whole system down. They weren’t into nuance or careful distinctions.

That said, it is fascinating to see the panic in Powell’s analysis and the obvious long-term effects of his recommendations.

Powell is less concerned with the “sources” of what he perceives as a broad scale attack on (an undefined) “free enterprise” than with the fact that elements of society he considers “respectable” seem to agree with many of the criticisms leveled by the “Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries.”  He is especially critical of “the campuses”–and seems particularly aggrieved  that institutions receiving tax dollars and support from the business community are harboring people critical of capitalism.

Pardon the aside, but I’m really getting tired of this particular trope. For one thing, it isn’t accurate. It may be true  that faculty in elite institutions tend to be liberal, but most colleges in the U.S. are not Yale, Stanford, Harvard or the University of Chicago. This country has 629 public universities, 1,845 private four-year institutions (a significant number of which are affiliated with conservative religious denominations), and 1070 public and 596 private two-year colleges. They defy uniformity in everything from the quality of instruction to the political orientation of their faculties.

Of course, when respect for science and evidence are enough to make people “liberals,” I guess most educated people must plead guilty…

What really struck me about Powell’s memo, however, wasn’t his somewhat paranoid tone. It was this passage:

“The day is long past when the chief executive officer of a major corporation discharges his responsibility by maintaining a satisfactory growth of profits, with due regard to the corporation’s public and social responsibilities.

Think about that last sentence. Powell’s memo was written at a time when it was accepted that corporations and other business enterprises had “public and social responsibilities.”

Back in “the day,” I served on a number of civic boards with local businesspeople (okay, local businessmen) who considered civic and social participation an integral part of their jobs–who believed that making their communities better places to live was an important aspect of their business responsibility–whether it added anything to the bottom line or not.

To say things have changed would be an understatement.

Later in the memo, Powell laments that “few elements of American society have as little influence on government as the American businessman, the corporation or even the millions of stockholders.” Today, this elicits an out-loud laugh (it probably wasn’t very accurate in 1971, either).

In the years since Powell authored his memo, the world has changed dramatically–and a good deal of that change was triggered by his memo. Today–in the wake of Supreme Court cases (in some of which Powell participated) that laid the groundwork for Citizens United– corporations pretty much dictate government policy. It is workers and consumers who are currently unrepresented in the halls of Congress.

The ancient Greeks were right to seek out the “mean between extremes.” Business interests certainly deserve a place a the policy table. So does labor. So do consumers. When no element of the economic universe has the power to dictate public policy to the detriment of the others–when there is a genuine balance of power and a recognition of the legitimacy of the claims of all elements of our economic system–then, and only then, will markets work.

Lewis Powell was a (somewhat blinkered) product of his time. That time is long gone.


  1. The ancient Greeks were right to seek out the “mean between extremes.” Business interests certainly deserve a place a the policy table. So does labor. So do consumers. When no element of the economic universe has the power to dictate public policy to the detriment of the others–when there is a genuine balance of power and a recognition of the legitimacy of the claims of all elements of our economic system–then, and only then, will markets work.

    Excellent, Keep On!

  2. When the accusation of communism rears its ugly head; my mind immediately returns to J. Edgar Hoover who saw a “communist under every bush and denied there was a mafia active in this country” and the Joe McCarthy Senatorial hearings with the resulting “black list” which destroyed careers and lives for years. Those of us who lived through “the sixties”; otherwise known as “the decade of assassinations”, had to search for our own nuance and distinctions but Viet Nam and government actions such as the unending Civil Rights actions were our distractions then. A lack of moral issues on a much different level than we deal with today.

    “The day is long past when the chief executive officer of a major corporation discharges his responsibility by maintaining a satisfactory growth of profits, with due regard to the corporation’s public and social responsibilities.”

    This quote immediately took me back to Dick Cheney who left his position as CEO of Haliburton which was responsible for the Gulf of Mexico oil rig explosion due to their faulty construction of the the cement foundation. Eleven lives were lost; many were injured, ocean life was destroyed permanently as well as many Gulf industries depending on ocean life for their livelihood. Cheney left that position as CEO of Haliburton to switch his corporation public and social responsibilities to aid George W. in the destruction of President Bill Clinton’s surplus, bringing this country to its knees as we neared another total Depression era. We must remember our past because we are reliving it today after a brief 8 year respite of hope and achievement during President Obama’s administration. Going…going…gone!

    “The day is long past when the chief executive officer of a major corporation discharges his responsibility by maintaining a satisfactory growth of profits, with due regard to the corporation’s public and social responsibilities.”

    I have copied and pasted the above quote again as a reminder that the CEO in the White House today fits that description; with the addition of nuclear war becoming a greater possibility by the day.

    We are a product of our time and that time is just beginning in this era of Trump; it began full force on January 20, 2017, and will not be gone unless and until we can vote it out before the Trump faction has weakened us to the point of total destruction.

  3. Several years ago I was asked to be on a committee of small-business owners to provide some advice to the Morgan County Council members. One of the other people on the committee was a town council member from Brooklyn (IN), who was ranting about college students, who he said learn nothing in college except Socialism.

    Of course, the guy knew nothing about Socialism and he may never have set foot on a college campus, where with the exception of (perhaps) some of the Liberal Arts faculty, a good percentage of college teachers are moderate to conservative in their politics. For example, I suspect that there are few Socialists in Business Schools, and most of the Engineering faculty I knew when I taught at IUPUI were “center right” or very conservative. And I wonder how much Socialism is taught in schools of Nursing.

    Those who yell the loudest usually know the least.

  4. “Come mothers and fathers throughout the land; and don’t criticize what you can’t understand. Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command; your old road is rapidly agin’. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand, for the times they are a changin’.” (Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-changin” )

    This is what Powell and others were afraid of. It’s what so many white people are still afraid of, even 60 years later. Change is the only thing that is always with us.

  5. Peggy; was it fear that kept the Democratic party from taking a very strong public stand against Trump’s racist, bigoted, hate filled campaign speeches and rallies or did they consider it his right due to 1st Amendment free speech. This is not an argumentative question; seriously, why were we not as vocal, as loud and as determined in our protection of those he and his minions spoke out against with our 1st Amendment right of free speech. Why is the Democratic party today not speaking out daily to protect the civil and human rights of Trump’s victims…and especially; why are they not speaking out against the Republican party ignoring the Constitutional rights of all of us and supporting with their silence the neo-Nazi, White Nationalist and KKK foundation of American government today. How can one man – no matter which party affiliation he claims – make such a monumental decision as Trump did yesterday by pulling us out of the Iran agreement. MSNBC newscasters reported Trump had “notified Congress of his decision” prior to his public announcement. It isn’t as if that decision had been kept hidden from the Democratic members of Congress or the public. President Obama did not make the decision and take the action alone to become part of that international agreement. I truly don’t understand how the rights of the majority of this country can no longer protect ourselves from one man and one party; especially when that one man has been publicly known for 40 years to be devious, a criminal in his business dealings and has been charged with sexual abuse against a number of women through those years.

    The only answer I see is gerrymandering and the Electoral College backed by the SCOTUS Citizens United which was slipped through while we still had a chance to stop the public auction of this government. We followed the rules; they broke all rules…evidently crime DOES pay and pays well. We watched as the times were changing and ignored the changes; or didn’t believe our lying eyes. Rudy Giuliani sat grinning and told us two weeks before the election that Republicans “have something up their sleeve and Trump will win by the Electoral College”. Sometimes we need to heed the words of a known fool; there are times when they speak the truth.

    Will history provide a memo at some time in the future to explain the “deconstruction” of American government and the destruction of democracy as Trump repeals the Constitution bit-by-bit as we watch and listen?

  6. Thank you, Sheila, for giving a breathe of light to a message sent long ago for current reflection. There many corporate CEO’s who are stepping up without microphones doing the right thing. AND, I am still in awe and surprised that a French head of state would address full chambers on The Hill while making what I believe to be one of the most important addresses on governance to do the right thing for all the right reasons to a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle. What that says for me is that there is still capacity for even this most maligned body of the elected are capable of responding to extraordinary leadership.

  7. Norris; Republican members of Congress have previously spoken against Trump and some of his family members and members of his administration and the Executive Orders and bills before them. But; come time to vote and they voted with Trump. What was their response yesterday when Trump “INFORMED them he was pulling the United States out of the Iran agreement”?

  8. A little different take on our wretched situation…

    I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks- no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea. If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men. So that we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but the people who are to choose them.
    James Madison

  9. The Powell Memo, and Lee Atwater’s Southern Strategy are very clearly defined and widely adopted political war plans. Despite their moral and philosophical dearth, they have been extremely effective devices in the war on the American public. These are not things to be dismissed or ignored. They are the cluster bombs of the oligarchy.

    To my knowledge, there are no equivalent countervailing documents or plans. That is the great tragedy of the present age –an inability to articulate a coherent counter-attack that is convincing and compelling enough to elicit widespread political commitment.

  10. Sheila,

    Thanks for the citation. Sometimes history is painful. Writing the truth sometimes hurts as much.

  11. 1971 seems so far away. There were warning bells that went unheeded, before that. Marine Corp General and two time Medal of Honor winner Smedley D. Butler said:

    “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.
    I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912.
    I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

    The Imperialism and Corporatism that Butler spoke about had it’s origins here in the USA. The Powell memo written at the height of massive anti-war and civil rights demonstrations, plus the riots in our major cities in the mid and late 1960’s shook the establishment to it’s core. The Silent 1950’s were no more. Nixon’s and George Wallace’s law and order was the first counter attack.

    The Powell memo was the blue print or template for what would come, that is the near total control of the political and McMega-Media systems by the 1%.

    The Republican Party was always in the pockets of big business. The old DLC (Democratic Leadership Council) sold out Main Street, and the Unions in favor of Wall Street.

    The Occupy Movement was a grass roots protest against the 1%. By the time of the Occupy Protests, the Democratic Party represented not the 99% but the 1%.

    There have been many Progressive voices, muted and ignored by our McMega-Media. Bernie Sanders emerged as a Presidential Candidate and became very vocal about the inequities in our system. As expected the establishment closed ranks against Bernie. The Trumpet (aka Agent Orange) for all his business failures and personality defects was given 24/7 coverage. The Trumpet was not only no threat to Corporate America, he was source of profits for the McMega-Media.

  12. Joe,

    “To my knowledge, there are no equivalent COUNTERVAILILNG documents or plans. That is the great tragedy of the present age –an inability to articulate a coherent counter-attack that is convincing and compelling enough to elicit widespread political commitment.”

    You’re exactly right. There is no POLITICAL EQUILIBRIUM. The “cluster bombs” are coming from a “protected underground silo” which the opposition is afraid to attack. Still, many of the contributors to this blog are trading their physical and political freedom for, at this time, a very questionable financial security. It’s the problem of CIVIC COURAGE which Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German martyr warned about during the Nazi Era. As I commented two days ago, we’ve become a NATION OF FOOLS.

  13. The uniqueness of Vernon’s new book……”Why Angels Weep: America and Donald Trump” is that he presents us with the BIG PICTURE. With the “big picture” in mind, it’s hard to come up with an excuse not to take action. Vernon published the book himself. I doubt that there is an established publishing house in the U.S. that would be willing to do so. Even if they would, their distribution channels would be eventually cut off.

    We need to help him with his distribution. Remember, there are many positive things about AMAZON.

  14. There are few advantages to being old but a clear one is that your experience covers a significant enough time span to see the consequences that aren’t that noticeable at the pace that culture changes. Let me recount one:

    I had a whole career mostly having technical fun at Eastman Kodak. I started in 1964 and was fortunate enough to have landed in a corporation well known for customer service, technology, loyal employment, social responsibility, and high profits all grown from the mind of George Eastman. I remember when a very expensive consulting company showed up and convinced the 160,000 of us around the world from the top down that those values where all wrong. What was right was simply making more money for the shareholders (exclusively) regardless of the impact on others, any of them. For one thing, as the stars of that show, CEOs were worth however many millions of dollars they wanted. Perhaps that’s why that lie was so easy to sell from the top down.

    Of course following that advice through a significant market upheaval led over a few decades to nobody serving anybody, though a few Chiefs and a couple of consultants retired lavishly at the expense of all of those customers, employees, our communities and shareholders. That makes it one of the largest single robberies the world had seen.

    Of course the handful who ended up with all of the wealth created by and shared with millions of humans around the world talked it up among their yacht club fellows and it became a new culture. The present culture. The sinking of that ship now threatens to sink all ships.

  15. Have you read about what happened to Professor Bret Bernstein at Evergreen State? There was a tradition there where once a year, people of color stayed away from campus as a silent protest of injustice. Fair enough on that, right? An evolutionary biologist, Prof. Bernstein was verbally attacked, vilified on campus, and essentially run off by social justice-oriented students who had decided to turn the traditional protest day into an enforced no-whites-on-campus day, clearly no longer a voluntary protest but instead an ominous forced segregation. His crime was openly speaking out against them. The university president SIDED WITH THE SEGREGATIONISTS. If you want to see something chilling watch a video of the professor being cornered in a university hallway and shouted down by students.

    This sort of university is not that isolated. There are large numbers of college campuses infected with an extreme form of activism that calls for a leftist form of authoritarianism. This thinking does make it out of the universities into the “real world,” places like Indianapolis. Within the last year I have lost two younger friends who observed me making what they considered to be insensitive remarks. In both cases I did not use slurs or anything like that, I was just discussing matters like we discuss here, but as always I felt free to question any convention or thought, and this was unacceptable to these people, who were very devoted to rigid ideology they thought beyond discussion.

    I think the important thing to recognize is that the guys in Charlottesville and these campus (but increasing not only campus) activists feed off of one another. Arguably one of the reasons Adolf Hitler was able to ascend as he did was the violent extremist activity in Germany from the right and the left at a time of privation for the German people, who were desperate for a return to normal life. This sort of situation INEVITABLY PLAYS INTO THE HANDS OF THE RIGHT WING, WHO WILL PROMISE LAW AND ORDER. We have already seen this begin as many of the Trump voters were clearly motivated by the attacks on their traditions by leftist extremists, like my personal friends who “just can’t vote for a democrat” because of political correctness and all the other campus-style leftism they consider to be ridiculous.

    This cannot be dismissed as a minor issue. It is definitely a contributor to our current polarization, and it WILL elect another authoritarian, perhaps next time a competent one.

  16. Marv,

    Thanks much for the recommendations and the encouragement. I received over 100 rejections from agents and publishers with nobody even offering to read the manuscript. You may be right in that publishers tell the agents that they won’t even look at something that they think won’t sell 10,000 copies. Moreover, they want the author to do book tours and sell their books for them.

    It is satisfying to have sold a few hundred copies of my books to those, like you, who aren’t afraid to grapple with facts, the truth and the distillation of forces designed to destroy true democracy for the sake of capitalism run amok.

  17. Hey, Over It. If you’re going to vilify The Left and persons of color,at least get the name correct,It’s Professor Weinstein.

  18. Pete, you are correct: >>>There are few advantages to being old but a clear one is that your experience covers a significant enough time span to see the consequences that aren’t that noticeable at the pace that culture changes. <<<

    I had an young Econ Professor back in my first year in College in 1971, who said the system was rigged. He mentioned corporations could have two separate "books", one for the government and stockholders and the other kept in safe, which was reality.

    I do not remember the whole title of the book we used but a part of the title was "Radical Critiques", the book documented the fact of interlocking directorates among the boards at corporate America. This was especially dangerous when the big accounting firms had directors from the other companies in corporate America on their board of directors. There was also a section on the influence of American Corporations on our political system and foreign policy.

    At some point in the 1980's maybe even before, the price of a company's stock became a determinant of success. The CEO's bonuses were pegged to the stock price. Even if the company was struggling the chiefs seemed to receive a bonus.

    The stock analysts were more than eager to give a "high five" to those companies that downsized to drive the share price up. Mergers and junk bonds completed the picture, a CEO and his senior directors could bail out with the "Golden Parachute".

    Enron among others was the poster child for the two books my professor discussed that companies kept.

    I suppose Lewis Powell had in mind my Econ Professor and the book we used as dangerous. Decades later Mitch Daniels thought Howard Zinn, and his People's History was a clear and present danger that young Hoosier Minds should be protected from.

    Vampires hate the light.

  19. Was there ever a time in America’s eccentric implementation of capitalism that markets were intended to work, in the sense of meting out some level of fairness to all of the participants? If so, that time is long gone. The sole mission of the nearly 10,000 lobbyists at work in the nation’s capital (and frequently in the nation’s capitol) is to assure that the “free” market, assisted by legislators in search of campaign donations, tilt in favor of the lobbyists’ employers.

    Some lobbyists are former legislators and, thus, extremely well connected. They and others are often highly compensated, thus extremely well motivated. Some have kept their jobs for years, thus indicating they enjoy extreme success. Labor and consumers, if they hold any place at the table, serve as the waiters and bus boys. That’s why workers purchasing power remains at levels roughly equal to where it stood in the 1980s. That why markets go ballistic when rumors of wage increases begin to circulate. That’s why Sherrod Brown votes to build tanks that are sent to rust in the desert, and why Lockheed Martin can plan on receiving $406 billion for producing the F-35, a plane the Pentagon has no use for.

    Aspects of capitalism remain useful, but for the most part it has become a system that responds only to its masters.

  20. JoAnn,

    Recall what happened to Hillary after her “basket of deplorables” comment. She was wrong in stating that half of his supporters could be put in that basket, when it seems more like 90%. Nevertheless, she was villified for the comment.

  21. Peggy; also, Hillary should never have been forced into a position to apologize for that comment. No one should ever apologize for telling the truth; her underestimate of “a basket” was the only error. The following night at that dinner, her comment regarding Democrats being “a basket full of Adorables” cracked me up.

  22. From the Powell Memo:

    “While neither responsible business interests, nor the United States Chamber of Commerce, would engage in the irresponsible tactics of some pressure groups, it is essential that spokesmen for the enterprise system — at all levels and at every opportunity — be far more aggressive than in the past”.

    “There should not be the slightest hesitation to press vigorously in all political arenas for support of the enterprise system. Nor should there be reluctance to penalize politically those who oppose it”.

    I guess this maybe the vigorously aggressive approach, see below>>

    Novartis confirms it paid Trump’s lawyer’s company nearly $400,000 and was questioned by officials from special counsel’s office last year. The company confirmed that for a year, starting in February 2017, it had paid Essential Consultants, a shell company set up by Cohen in Delaware. The arrangement related to “US healthcare policy matters”, the company said.

    Novartis was one of several companies revealed to have paid Cohen in a document published on Tuesday by an attorney for Stephanie Clifford, the pornographic actor known as Stormy Daniels, who is engaged in a legal dispute with Cohen and Trump.

    Cohen was also paid by Columbus Nova, the US affiliate of a corporate empire belonging to Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian oligarch closely linked to Vladimir Putin. Avenatti’s document said the payments totalled about half a million dollars.

    AT&T, the telecoms and media corporation, also confirmed on Wednesday it had paid Cohen. A company spokesperson said it had contracted Trump’s attorney to “provide insights into understanding the new administration”.

    Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), one of the biggest defence companies in South Korea, also confirmed it had paid Cohen. Avenatti’s document said it had paid Essential Consultants $150,000 in November last year.

    A spokesman for the company told Reuters that it had contracted Cohen for “legal consulting concerning accounting standards”. KAI is currently competing for a lucrative contract from the US defense department and hopes to produce about 350 trainer jets in partnership with the US contractor Lockheed Martin.

    While the Mueller investigation silently moves on, Stormy Daniels and her attorney continues to expose (pun intended) the rot that is The Trumpet and all those close to him.

  23. I actually, would put the date of that realization back a-ways say maybe 1958 or so.., with the dating of the ‘realization’ of the Military Industrial Complex we must realize it was insidious: and therefore well in place by the time it was called out. We have been in the doo-doo for a long while. Just depends on how you care to judge the stench.

  24. Monotonous; notice how the Mueller investigation continues to expand, reaching in all directions with new sources to investigate from each past and current investigation. It is like a multi-tentacled sea creature; seeking new feeding ground and never failing to find it. Did Robert Mueller have any idea what he agreed to research before he began? Each new source appears dirtier than the one before and the total amount of millions of dollars involved so far is unimaginable. Maybe this is a witch hunt; it continues to uncover evilness practiced by witches in fiction and it is somewhat unbelievable at this stage with no end in sight.

    Rereading my Stephen King books continues to cheer me up. I will put them away when my copy of “Why Angels Weep…” arrives, Vernon.

  25. JoAnn, As the British would say I always thought The Trumpet (Agent Orange) was “bent”, i.e., a crook. He must regret the day he descended in royal fashion to announce he was running for president. He and his disgusting family could have remained private citizens operating various scams but remaining under the judicial radar.

    Now, The Trumpet is lighting up the judicial radar screens and the weapons are locked on. No matter how much he bobbing, weaving, twists, turns, lies and bluffs he is a huge target.

  26. I think that a lot of the business community has a bully attitude that is endorsed by local government. Blocking off pedestrian right of ways to ease private enterprise’s endeavors is evident all over Indpls.! Look how CSX railroad stops their trains blocking local traffic for long periods of times. Observe how multiple delivery companies block local traffic by stopping their trucks on streets blocking pedestrian traffic! Look at a private company blocking off traffic on Penn. Downtown Indpls to take over traffic lanes for their construction equipment! A lot of businesses get tax breaks and seem to count more than individual families. Seems like encroachment to me! Why don’t our elected officials stand up for their everyday constituents?

  27. Kathy; they seem to have forgotten that those everyday constituents are who elected them and whose tax dollars pay their salaries. Those everyday constituents also need to remember that on election days.

  28. Jan,

    The Democrats are losers.

    They’re scared to PITCH against the likes of the TRAITOR, Charles Koch who controls the Republican Party. Let’s face it. Should we give them a break? They aren’t the first to have SOLD OUT to POWER.

Comments are closed.