HEIST: Who Stole the American Dream?

The new award-winning documentary “HEIST: Who Stole the American Dream?” traces the origins of the worldwide economic collapse of 2008 to a series of bi-partisan, corporate-fueled policy decisions dating back to the early 1970s. Stephen Holden, in a review of the film for the New York Times writes:

. . . produced and directed by Frances Causey and Donald Goldmacher, [“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. One of many pertinent observations from a host of experts is that the rich really don’t need the government as much as everybody else.

Following is the extended trailer for the documentary “HEIST.” The DVD is available for purchase for individual and group showings at www.heist-themovie.com.

The Powell Memo

In its effort to trace the origins of the 2008 meltdown, HEIST explores a long forgotten 1971 memo penned by Lewis F. Powell at the request of Eugene B. Sydnor, chairmen of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce education committee. The 6,400-word document, “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System,” reads today as a blueprint for the conservative agenda as it has unfolded over the past 40 years. Powell—a corporate lawyer and conservative Democrat—sat on the boards of eleven corporations. Two months after writing his memo, Richard Nixon appointed him to the Supreme Court. Nixon had tried to appoint him earlier but he declined, not wanting to give up his lucrative law career. But Nixon appealed to his sense of patriotism and Powell finally accepted.

Bill Black, a former bank regulator and author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One has a very interesting and lengthy analysis of the Powell memo at Naked Capitalism. He says of Powell:

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.

In his decidedly undemocratic memo, Powell argued for a big business takeover of government, media, academia, churches, arts and sciences, and the destruction of organized labor and consumer protection groups. All this was to preserve “the American Free Enterprise System” which he worshipped as the driving force that made the American way of life superior to all others. Because he believed free market capitalism was under threat, he advocated “constant surveillance” of textbook and television content and a purge of left wing elements in all aspects of society. In order to accomplish these goals, he recommended a “scale of financing only available through a joint effort.” His aim was none other than total corporate control of law and politics. Through the efforts of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, his memo was widely distributed among bankers, corporate board members, CEOs, and lobbying groups.

The movie “HEIST” explores the systematic implementation of the corporatist ideas expressed in Powell’s memo by both Democrats and Republicans over the last forty years including the deregulation of industry (the gutting of the Glass-Steagall Act), outsourcing of jobs (NAFTA), and regressive taxation (Bush tax cuts). All of which led us to the global financial crisis of 2008, an increase in poverty, and the dismantling of the American middle class.

It’s a leap to say that the memo was the seminal document that galvanized the right into action. At the time Powell wrote it, there were many who shared his views. His memo served more to collect those ideas into a working document that the business world could use. Decades later, the Citizens United Supreme Court decision is the grotesque culmination of the undemocratic, oligarchic ideas of Powell and his profit worshiping friends.

Powell believed that bankers and corporate CEOs were responsible, moral human beings—superior and trustworthy citizens—who, if freed from regulation and supported by government, would lead themselves and therefore the rest of the country to prosperity. He assumed these upright citizens would police themselves. He may not have known (or allowed himself to know) how extreme, and even sociopathic, the right would become in the ensuing years.

Powell served as Associate Supreme Court Justice from 1972 until 1987 and throughout his tenure, had a reputation for being moderate, a “master of compromise and consensus building.” If he had witnessed the criminal behavior in the finance industry first hand, and the growing, bi-partisan, revolving door corruption in Washington DC that led to the 2008 meltdown, given that he identified himself as a moral man, would he have questioned his admiration the corporate world?

The new documentary “HEIST” is a must see for progressives, or anyone else, who want to understand how we got to where we are today.