Thom Hartmann: The Memo That Started a Corporate Heist of Our Government
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Narrated by Thom Hartmann, and produced and directed by Donald Goldmacher and Frances Causey, Heist: Who Stole the American Dream in Broad Daylight? is a comprehensive dissection of the evolution of corporate control over the federal government. Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote that Heist "has the virtue of taking the long view of a crisis that recent films like Inside Job and Too Big to Fail have only sketchily explored. It makes a strong case that government regulation of business is essential for democracy to flourish."
Mark Karlin: What attracted you to narrating the documentary, Heist, which details the increasing corporate control of our national governance over the past half century?
Thom Hartmann: It was such an extraordinary summary of how bad things are and how we got here, that I was very excited to do it.
Mark Karlin: To me there's an interesting irony to the title of the film:Heist: Who Stole the American Dream in Broad Daylight? Progressives come from a position of assuming that oligarchs and white-firsters have stolen the American dream of a Constitution that guarantees (with its amendments) equality and equality of opportunity to all citizens. The likes of Pat Buchanan and the majority of the Republican Party believe that pluralism has stolen the American Dream from the original white patriarchal founding fathers, with the notion of this being a Christian nation to boot. Aren't these two irreconcilable notions of what the American Dream is?
Thom Hartmann: I think one of the big starting points for that conversation is defining the phrase "the American dream" itself. Ever since the Reagan revolution of the 1980s, a large number of Americans - particularly conservatives - have defined the American dream as "the opportunity to get really, really rich." But from the early days of the dirt farmers, through the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the assembly-line working class, the American dream instead has meant making a decent enough living to raise a family, buy a house, take an annual vacation and have a reasonable bit left over for retirement. Conservatives don't like to talk about this because essentially it's a description of a union job. But it really astounds me the number of conservatives who will call into my radio show and in a very casual, almost unconscious way refer to a vision of the American dream that is symbolized by Mitt Romney. It's like we've become a lottery mentality society, and it's really tragic.
Mark Karlin: You're an expert on what the framers of the Constitution thought about entrenched wealth and corporate power. Can you speak a bit to that?
Thom Hartmann: Many of the framers were not what we would call really wealthy people; some may have had a lot of land, but back in those days that didn't mean you were rich. There were conspicuously, mind bogglingly rich people living here at the time of the American Revolution; mansions and castles - literally castles - and local lands that operated in a feudal economy reminiscent of the Middle Ages in Europe. But none of those people were among the authors of the Constitution, and after the Revolutionary War, most of them either returned to England or fled to Canada.
So the framers were pretty wary, by and large, of the danger of aggregated political power that could derive from massive accumulations of wealth. And that's why you don't see any dynasties today left over from that era. The Rockefellers, Morgans, Carnegies and other great fortunes that have spanned centuries were almost, without exception, products of the Gilded Age when government was not so involved in economic and taxation systems that served to promote the interests of average people over those of the very, very wealthy.
Mark Karlin: Heist makes much of the infamous Lewis Powell memo as the founding document, the call to arms and strategic inspiration for the modern corporate dominance of the political debate in the US. We asked Donald Goldmacher about Powell's crucial memo. He responded:
Lewis Powell was a corporate attorney from Virginia who was asked by his friend at the US Chamber of Commerce to write a secret strategy memorandum for the chamber in 1971. Two months later, Richard Nixon nominated him to the Supreme Court of the United States, where he served a number of years. The memo became a rallying cry among corporate executives for how to reassert corporate dominance over the American economy and its government, which it had lost during the era of the New Deal. The memo openly stated that corporations should punish their political enemies and should seek political power through both the law and politics. It encouraged challenges to what it saw as left-wing activities by people such as Ralph Nader and US academics. By 1978, the US Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable defeated pro-labor law reforms through a filibuster by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, which signaled the demise of organized labor as a significant opponent of organized money.
Do you have anything to add to that?
Thom Hartmann: Donald really knows his stuff, and this documentary is a testimonial to that. His response is a perfect summary of the uprising by the corporate oligarchs against our government and the middle class it helped create.
Mark Karlin: Playing the role of devil's advocate, despite the planned evolution of a pro-corporate majority on the Supreme Court, one of their most significant rulings in the past few years, Citizens United, was not able to buy them the 2012 presidential election. Was this a fluke, or are changing demographics starting to counterbalance, at least on some key occasions, the insidious influence of big money?
Thom Hartmann: I think it's both. First, the selection allowed them to calibrate their systems for future elections. I mean, when you think of what an incredibly bad candidate Mitt Romney was - a predatory banker who was born a millionaire and couldn't even pull decent approval ratings numbers in the state where he had been governor - what should shock and horrify all of us is that he was able to get, ironically, 47 percent of the vote. You have virtually every Republican member of the House of Representatives who voted for Paul Ryan's budget - which would have decimated the middle class, voucherized Medicare and dropped Mitt Romney's tax rate to zero - and enough of them, with billionaire support, were able to get elected but they held the House. I see these as very dangerous and, frankly, frightening trends. And not only will they be back, but it's already begun.
Look at this group of multi-millionaire and billionaire CEOs who, along with a few shill former politicians, have started this multi-million-dollar AstroTurf "fix the debt" group. We didn't see the end; we just saw the very beginning. Unless we amend the Constitution to say that corporations are not people and that money is not speech, America will soon become a full-blown oligarchy.
Mark Karlin: In much of Europe, there is a long tradition of an activist leftist working class. In the United States, it has long been more complicated with the working class split into two political camps in the last few decades. Do you take heart from the recent efforts of some workers to strike at Walmart, the walkout of some fast-food workers in New York and the uprising in Wisconsin (as just three examples)? The Powell memo has led to a corporate strategy to divide the working class. Is this division beginning to crumble?
Thom Hartmann: To some extent, yes. But I don't see that as a result of any failure of their plan or their efforts. If anything, this is coming out of the success of their plan and their efforts. They've stolen so much of the wealth of the American middle class that the people are starting to freak out and fight back. And when you look at the web site of that CEO group I mentioned, with its big donate button and grassroots look and feel, you can see that they are not giving up. Instead, they're taking one of their most successful recent strategies - the tea party - and moving forward with efforts to convince middle-class Americans that their peers support these CEO and billionaire efforts.
Mark Karlin: Given the growth in global corporations, reinforced by international trade agreements favorable to businesses and not workers, isn't the pressure on national governments such as the US coming from, in some ways, a shadow corporate power base that transcends international boundaries?
Thom Hartmann: Yes, absolutely. For four generations conservatives have been hysterical about the loss of American sovereignty because of first the League of Nations and then the United Nations. But the real threat to American sovereignty comes from transnational corporations who have assembled themselves into transnational institutions like the World Trade Organization, and can now overturn laws passed by federal and state legislatures.
This is one of those areas where even the conservative base, the middle-American "Joe six-packs," know that transnational corporations and unfettered free trade are destructive to the interests of the United States. But you'll never hear a word of it in our corporate media, which is largely owned by those same transnational corporations.
Mark Karlin: Isn't this also true of Wall Street financial speculation? If Wall Street crashes due to its reckless speculation, than financial institutions around the world are impacted. Sovereignty over economic interests is in rapid decline, it would appear.
Thom Hartmann: Yes. And bank revenues and risks are now pretty much back to where they were in 2007. If something isn't done to reign these people in, get ready for a real national and international disaster, most likely followed by a world war.
Mark Karlin: Much of Heist focuses on Wall Street's "Get Out of Jail Free Card" in the collapse of the US and international economy a few years back. Recently, BP was assessed a record fine, but no executives will be charged or prosecuted. Is it safe to say that there are people who are "too big" to go to jail?
Thom Hartmann: Yes. While white America is just waking up to this, people of color have known for centuries that America has two criminal justice systems: one for the very, very rich, and another for everybody else. Increasingly, our stratification is breaking along the lines of class rather than color. And the bankster class is, for the moment, untouchable.
Mark Karlin: What is your reaction to the notion that the Heist of democracy for corporate and personal enrichment could not be carried out with a two-party duopoly. Even if one concedes differences between Democrats and Republicans on social issues, the social safety net and taxing the rich, the corporate dominance of the government appears firmly intact, doesn't it?
Thom Hartmann: Yes, but that's pretty much what Herbert Hoover thought when he was elected in 1928, and what The British East India Company thought in 1773. I don't think we've reached the point of no return; if anything, it looks to me like we are on the verge of a new great awakening. The possible tragedy is that it may - probably - will take a horrific crash to fully bring it about.