My Class, right or wrong: the Powell Memorandum’s 40th Anniversary

By William K. Black

August 23, 2011 will bring the 40th anniversary of one of the most successful efforts to transform America. Forty years ago the most influential representatives of our largest corporations despaired. They saw themselves on the losing side of history. They did not, however, give in to that despair, but rather sought advice from the man they viewed as their best and brightest about how to reverse their losses. That man advanced a comprehensive, sophisticated strategy, but it was also a strategy that embraced a consistent tactic – attack the critics and valorize corporations! He issued a clarion call for corporations to mobilize their economic power to further their economic interests by ensuring that corporations dominated every influential and powerful American institution. Lewis Powell’s call was answered by the CEOs who funded the creation of Cato, Heritage, and hundreds of other movement centers.

Confidential Memorandum:
Attack on the American Free Enterprise System

DATE: August 23, 1971
TO: Mr. Eugene B. Sydnor, Jr., Chairman, Education Committee, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
FROM: Lewis F. Powell, Jr.

Lewis Powell was one of America’s top corporate lawyers and President Nixon had already sought to convince him to accept nomination to the Supreme Court before he wrote his memorandum. Powell was famous for his successful efforts on behalf of the Tobacco Institute. The Institute was desperately seeking to prevent the government from alerting consumers to the lethal effects of tobacco and to prevent its customers from holding the tobacco corporations legally responsible for their premature deaths. The Institute played the critical role in covering up the lethality and paying for junk science designed to mislead consumers about the lethal effects of tobacco products. They were literal merchants of death, selling a product that when used as intended was likely to kill the customer.

“For the past 45 years,” Attorney General Janet Reno said at a news conference, “the companies that manufacture and sell tobacco have waged an intentional, coordinated campaign of fraud and deceit. As we allege in the complaint, it has been a campaign designed to preserve their enormous profits whatever the cost in human lives, human suffering and medical resources. The consequences have been staggering.”

Powell’s confidential memorandum begins by explaining that he wrote it at the request of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Powell’s first substantive sentence is that business is under assault – and anyone who disagrees with him on that point is incompetent. “No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack.”

Powell then explained why business was losing the public debate.

“The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. In most of these groups the movement against the system is participated in only by minorities. Yet, these often are the most articulate, the most vocal, the most prolific in their writing and speaking.”

Ralph Nader’s Nadir: The Outrage of Calling for Criminal CEOs to be Jailed

Among these articulate voices, the person that Powell most feared was Ralph Nader, who he described as “the single most effective antagonist of American business.” Powell cited a Fortune article to explain why Nader was the great danger.

“The passion that rules in him — and he is a passionate man — is aimed at smashing utterly the target of his hatred, which is corporate power. He thinks, and says quite bluntly, that a great many corporate executives belong in prison — for defrauding the consumer with shoddy merchandise, poisoning the food supply with chemical additives, and willfully manufacturing unsafe products that will maim or kill the buyer. He emphasizes that he is not talking just about ‘fly-by-night hucksters’ but the top management of blue chip business.”

One can understand why Powell felt so personally threatened by Nader. “Willfully manufacturing unsafe products that will maim or kill the buyer” describes the tobacco industry and Powell was that industry’s most prestigious apologist.

The issue I wish to emphasize, however, is why Powell and Fortune viewed Nader’s statements as evincing “hatred” of the enterprise system. Focus on what Fortune (a virulent opponent of Nader) says that Nader argued. Nader believed that the CEOs leading anti-consumer control frauds should be imprisoned where they (1) defrauded the consumer with shoddy merchandise, (2) poisoned the food supply, or (3) willfully manufactured unsafe products that will maim or kill the buyer. Powell and Fortune view these beliefs as radical, dangerous, and hostile to what Powell refers to in his memorandum as the “enterprise system.”

I submit that Powell and Fortune are not simply incorrect, but as wrong as it is possible to be wrong – and that Powell was blind to reality despite his intellectual brilliance in corporate law. First, is Nader the only one who believes that CEOs who commit control frauds are criminals? Anti-customer control frauds have defrauded, maimed, and killed hundreds of millions of people. In my prior columns I have focused on accounting control frauds because they are the “weapon of choice” in finance. One way of classifying variants of control frauds is by their principal intended victims. Accounting control frauds target creditors and shareholders. Anti-public control frauds target the general public, e.g., tax fraud, the illegal dumping of toxic waste, or illegal trading in endangered plants and animals. Anti-employee control frauds target employees, e.g., by not paying workers wages they are due or exposing them unlawfully to unsafe working conditions.

Anti-customer control frauds target customers. The seller may deceive the customer as to the quality, quantity, or safety of the good or service or the legal authority of the seller to convey the good and/or the promised security interest in the good. Cartels are another variant of anti-customer control fraud. The fraud is that the firms purport to be competitive rivals when they are secretly co-conspirators acting against the customers. Examples of recent anti-customer control frauds that maim and kill include the recurrent counterfeit infant formula scandals (which killed six infants and hospitalized 300,000), various lead toy scandals, counterfeit cough syrup (made with toxic anti-freeze), defective body armor for U.S. soldiers, unsafe water for U.S. troops, unsafe showers for U.S. soldiers (electrocution), counterfeit medicines including anti-malarial drugs, dwellings falsely certified to comply with seismic codes that pancake in earthquakes and kill tens of thousands. Then there are cigarettes, which were actually sold via fraud, are addictive, and lethal if used as intended. This form of fraud, addiction, and lethality was so effectively marketed that it became immune from normal laws and legal restrictions for centuries. Cigarettes have killed millions of customers and others subjected to second hand smoke.

Many anti-customer frauds do not routinely maim and kill. Misrepresenting the quality of a car to a customer can cause him a serious financial loss, but most of the hidden defects will not cause him or others physical injury. (Defects involving the brakes or safety equipment can imperil the customer, passengers, and the general public.) We call a terrible quality car a “lemon” and George Akerlof’s famous article on “lemon’s” markets was published one year before the Powell memorandum. It was this article that led to the award of the Nobel Prize in economics to Akerlof in 2001.

The Market for “Lemons”: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism. Akerlof, George A., The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 84, No. 3. (Aug., 1970), pp. 488-500.

Economists have a Pavlovian response to any mention of Akerlof’s seminal article on lemon’s markets – “asymmetric information.” The committee that awards the prize in economics in honor of Nobel cited Akerlof and his co-awardees’ work in developing the economic implications of asymmetric information. Economists have tended to ignore, however, the context of Akerlof’s famous article. The specific examples of the sale of goods that Akerlof discusses are frauds. More particularly, each is an anti-customer control fraud – a fraud instigated by the person(s) controlling a seemingly legitimate entity where the primary intended victims were the customers. Akerlof did not discuss the variants of anti-customer control fraud that maim or kill – he focused solely on examples of economic injury due to fraudulent misrepresentations by the seller of the quality or quantity of the goods sold. More precisely, two of Akerlof’s examples – the fraudulent sale of defective cars and rice deliberately intermixed with stones – do maim and kill some customers, but Akerlof did not discuss this aspect. (Biting down on a stone can easily shatter a tooth. That causes excruciating pain, but it also exposes an Indian peasant – the fraud victims Akerlof was discussing – to a greatly increased risk of dental infection, which causes an increased risk of severe cardiac illness.) Akerlof had appropriately large ambitions in his article. He sought to provide a “structure … for determining the economic costs of dishonesty” (p. 488). Goods that maim and kill the customer impose the primary economic costs of dishonesty.

So, the first problem with Powell and Fortune’s horror that Nader believed we should prosecute those CEOs who caused the sale of the goods they knew would maim and kill their customers (and others) is that Nader was obviously correct – prosecuting those CEOs should be a top priority – globally. Prosecuting the fraudulent CEOs who “merely” cause their customers financial losses by deceptive sales of defective goods and services should be a significant priority.

Second, Powell and Fortune believe that prosecuting criminal CEOs is terrible for businesses, terrible for CEOs, and terrible for “free enterprise.” They conflate support for prosecuting criminal CEOs with “hatred” for “corporate power” and they conflate “corporate power” with “free enterprise.” Recall that this is their conclusion about Nader:

“The passion that rules in him — and he is a passionate man — is aimed at smashing utterly the target of his hatred, which is corporate power.

Powell and Fortune cite Nader’s call for criminal CEOs to be prosecuted as their proof of this conclusion. But why would prosecuting criminal CEOs be bad for “free enterprise?” Powell and Fortune don’t even attempt to explain why this would be true. It is self-evident to them that a world in which criminal CEOs do not enjoy impunity from the law is a world in which “corporate power” will have been ”smash[ed]” and that absent hegemonic “corporate power” “free enterprise” is impossible. Their “logic” and rhetoric are revealing, but absurd. Wanting to prosecute criminal CEOs is not hostile to “free enterprise,” but rather essential to the success and continued existence of “free enterprise.” Akerlof explained why in his 1970 article.

“Gresham’s law has made a modified reappearance. For most cars traded will be the “lemons,” and good cars may not be traded at all. The “bad” cars tend to drive out the good” (p. 489).

“[D]ishonest dealings tend to drive honest dealings out of the market. There may be potential buyers of good quality products and there may be potential sellers of such products in the appropriate price range; however, the presence of people who wish to pawn bad wares as good wares tends to drive out the legitimate business. The cost of dishonesty, therefore, lies not only in the amount by which the purchaser is cheated; the cost also must include the loss incurred from driving legitimate business out of existence” (p. 495).

When cheaters prosper, market mechanisms become perverse and can drive the honest from the marketplace. The market becomes dominated by cheats because they obtain a competitive advantage. The most common reason that firms can cheat with impunity is that their CEOs are cronies of powerful politicians. The defining characteristics of crony capitalism are that the cronies receive subsidies, favors, and immunity from normal rules and laws. The cronies dominate the big corporations and provide reciprocal benefits to controlling politicians. Managerial incompetence and wealth flourishes under crony capitalism. Merit and efficiency suffer, income inequality surges, and class and who one knows become the primary determinants of economic and political success and power. The elites become pervasively corrupt.

Crony capitalism is the antithesis of “free enterprise.” The best way to destroy free enterprise is to allow CEOs to commit control fraud with impunity because that maximizes the perverse Gresham’s dynamic. Only big business had the power to destroy “free enterprise” in America – and Powell’s strategic plan was the best way to destroy free enterprise. As the left had long argued, it was the purported capitalists who would destroy capitalism.

“When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.” (Frederic Bastiat)

Powell’s memorandum sought to glorify plunder with impunity, but he went beyond Bastiat’s warnings. Powell glorified CEOs who killed and maimed customers.

Third, and Powell is rolling over in his grave as I write this, Nader was one of the leading defenders of “free enterprise” when Powell wrote his memorandum in 1971. That was not Nader’s intent, but it was Nader’s efforts against control fraud that helped stave off for a time Powell’s embrace of a system in which elite frauds go free. That system, crony capitalism, destroys “free enterprise.” The regulators and the prosecutors are the “cops on the beat” who are essential to preventing the cheats from gaining a competitive advantage over honest businesses.

Powell could have, far more logically, characterized Nader’s position as “crusader against criminal CEOs” or “crusader on behalf of honest businesses.” Powell would never have referred to an individual calling for blue collar criminals to be prosecuted as a man determined to destroy liberty. He would have said that such an individual was increasing liberty – for criminals and crimes impair our liberty. President Nixon personally convinced Powell to accept the nomination to the Supreme Court to counter the decisions of the Warren Court, particularly the decisions adding to the constitutional protections of blue collar criminal defendants. Powell, particularly as head of the American Bar Association (ABA), was famous for his campaign against street crime. Powell’s biographer, John Calvin Jeffries, wrote that:

“Powell argued that “a root crisis of the crime crisis which grips our country is excessive tolerance by the public generally – a tolerance of substandard, marginal and even immoral and unlawful conduct.” It had reached the point of “moral sickness.”

He worried that the pendulum may have swung too far in favor of the rights of criminals. Even Little Orphan Annie quoted the ABA chief: “There are valid reasons for criminals to believe that crime does pay, and that slow and fumbling justice can be evaded.” Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr.,(2001: p. 210.

Powell, in his address to the ABA at the end of his term as President, argued that making Americans free from crime should be the nation’s “first priority” (Jeffries & Jeffries, p. 211). (Note the phrase “the rights of criminals” instead of “the rights of those accused.”) Powell conflated criminal CEOs with honest businesses – and was blind to the fact that he did so. Had he shown any logical consistency in how he dealt with criminals, Powell would have praised Nader’s efforts to have criminal CEOs prosecuted. But Powell could not see beyond class and his own experience in aiding CEOs who were “willfully manufacturing unsafe products that will maim or kill the buyer” do so with impunity. Can there be any greater betrayal by a CEO than using deceit to willfully manufacture cigarettes that maimed and killed his customers and those exposed to their customers’ smoke – for the sole purpose of making the CEO wealthy through such sales? Powell did not normally smoke, but according to his biography he posed with fellow members of the board of directors of one of the world’s largest cigarette companies in the firm’s publicity photographs with a cigarette to demonstrate his support for smoking. He showed more than “tolerance” for “immoral and unlawful conduct” – he provided them with aid and comfort. Through his famous memorandum he created a criminogenic environment in which control fraud “does pay” because he helped remove the regulatory cops from their beat and claimed that those who wanted to prosecute criminal CEOs posed such a threat to “free enterprise” that business must show “no hesitation” in marshalling its unmatched economic and political power to “attack” them and ensure that they were “penalized politically.”

Powell: Firms that Fail to Use their full Power v. Foes are Appeasers

Powell derided corporations that gave aid and comfort to the enemy by failing to use their dominant economic power against those who wanted to hold corporations and their senior officials accountable for “defraud[ing],” “poison[ing],” and willfully manufactur[ing] unsafe products that will maim or kill the buyer.”

“One of the bewildering paradoxes of our time is the extent to which the enterprise system tolerates, if not participates in, its own destruction.

The campuses from which much of the criticism emanates are supported by (i) tax funds generated largely from American business, and (ii) contributions from capital funds controlled or generated by American business. The boards of trustees of our universities overwhelmingly are composed of men and women who are leaders in the system.

Most of the media, including the national TV systems, are owned and theoretically controlled by corporations which depend upon profits, and the enterprise system to survive.”

Powell: the Business Class are Paragons of Civic Virtue

In Powell’s telling, business interests were the political naïf in politics. Other lobbyists were “special interests” while business was dedicated to the public interest. Special interests made self-interested demands on politicians, business did not.

“Business, quite understandably, has been repelled by the multiplicity of non-negotiable “demands” made constantly by self-interest groups of all kinds.

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.”

Corporations and the Chamber of Commerce did not make demands on legislators and did not act as special interests. Powell was not naïve enough to believe his own propaganda, but he knew that the Chamber of Commerce and its members CEOs would delight in even the most oleaginous praise. A corporate lawyer becomes expert in pandering to power.

Powell: Use Economic Power to “Punish” Foes

Powell’s solution was for corporations to act like real corporations by using their wealth and ownership to take control of the universities and media and use that control to further corporate interests by causing the universities and media to extol the virtue of corporate dominance and by influencing the law to support corporate interests. But his central theme was that business must cease its “appeasement.” CEOs should show:

“no hesitation to attack the Naders … who openly seek destruction of the system. 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.”

Powell: Do what we do Best – “Produce and Influence Consumer Decisions”

Powell’s specific prescriptions for how corporations should use their economic power to achieve dominance are filled with hortatory expressions about quality.

“Essential ingredients of the entire program must be responsibility and “quality control.” The publications, the articles, the speeches, the media programs, the advertising, the briefs filed in courts, and the appearances before legislative committees — all must meet the most exacting standards of accuracy and professional excellence.”

But Powell knew corporations’ real strength – manipulating the public through advertising and marketing.

“It is time for American business — which has demonstrated the greatest capacity in all history to produce and to influence consumer decisions — to apply their great talents vigorously to the preservation of the system itself.”

American corporations didn’t demonstrate “the greatest capacity in all history to produce and to influence consumer decisions” through advertising that was limited to “the most exacting standards of accuracy.” Remember, Powell’s most important experience was representing the interests of tobacco companies. Tobacco marketing had four dominant motifs – smoking was cool, smoking was adult, smoking made you sexy, and even more dishonest efforts to minimize smoking’s health risks. The advertising, marketing, and lobbying efforts on behalf of smoking were based on deception, and they did succeed in “produc[ing] and influenc[ing] consumer decisions” that were literally suicidal and potentially fatal to their loved ones.

Again, Powell’s apparent naiveté about the propaganda campaign that he was proposing that the Chamber of Commerce unleash was pure sham. He knew that businesses frequently created demand for their products through deception and he knew that if business followed his recommendation to unleash its marketing gurus on attacking those who wanted to prosecute criminal CEOs they would do so with as much regard for accuracy as they found useful for the particular attack. If misleading voters and demonizing opponents through deceptive statements worked better as a means of attack, then Powell knew that marketing specialists would have no more scruples lying about Nader than they had against lying about smoking – but he also knew that the memorandum would eventually become public and that it should be written in as self-serving and self-glorifying a manner as possible. Advertising specialists are a cynical lot, so I’m sure they got a great laugh reading the portion of Powell’s memorandum where he conflates of “the most exacting standards of accuracy” in advertising with “professional excellence” in advertising.

Freedom is the Ability of CEOs to Commit Crimes with Impunity

Powell ended his substantive arguments with the claim that regulating business destroyed freedom.

“The threat to the enterprise system is not merely a matter of economics. It also is a threat to individual freedom.

It is this great truth — now so submerged by the rhetoric of the New Left and of many liberals — that must be re-affirmed if this program is to be meaningful.

There seems to be little awareness that the only alternatives to free enterprise are varying degrees of bureaucratic regulation of individual freedom — ranging from that under moderate socialism to the iron heel of the leftist or rightist dictatorship.

We in America already have moved very far indeed toward some aspects of state socialism, as the needs and complexities of a vast urban society require types of regulation and control that were quite unnecessary in earlier times. In some areas, such regulation and control already have seriously impaired the freedom of both business and labor, and indeed of the public generally.”

It is a measure of how successful Powell’s strategy was in spreading the ideology of corporate dominance and impunity that some of his statements would now be anathema to business. He concedes in his conclusion that: “most of the essential freedoms remain: private ownership, private profit, labor unions, collective bargaining….” In 1971, even prominent Republicans hostile to unions considered the rights to join a union and engage in collective bargaining to be “essential freedoms.” As a Supreme Court Justice, Powell proved to be a disappointment to President Nixon and movement conservatives because he remained a moderate conservative.

Powell exemplifies the limits of even exceptional intellect and great courtesy. He did not set out to harm the public. He felt he epitomized intellectual consistency, but he was blind to how his class bias on behalf of CEOs made him totally inconsistent in his view of crimes of the street and the suite.

The “areas” in which Powell warned that regulation had already “seriously impaired the freedom of both business and labor” – that language is code for rules restricting discrimination in employment based on race, gender, etc. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the EEOC were anathema to Powell and the CEOs of many members of the Chamber of Commerce. The anti-discrimination laws applied to unions as well as employers. Powell, careful lawyer that he was, knew not to make that nostalgia for bigotry explicit in his memorandum.

(Excerpts from this article were posted originally in Benzinga.  This article was posted originally in the UMKC-economics blog:  NewEconomicPerspectives.)

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