TIMOTHY NOAH JULY 17, 2012
The Washington Post columnist William Raspberry, who died today at 76, is remembered as being relentlessly moderate, but Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell didn't view him that way. In his famous "Powell memorandum," a 1971 memo Powell wrote, shortly before his 1971 Court appointment, to a friend working at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Powell urged American business to unite in political opposition to what Powell perceived as the growing influence of "Communists, New Leftists, and other revolutionaries" on mainstream political discourse. Reading the memo four decades later, it's no surprise to find Powell citing the radical lawyer William Kunstler; the consumer advocate Ralph Nader; and the (now-forgotten) Yale Law School Professor Charles Reich, author of a best-selling utopian tract called The Greening Of America. Kunstler had successfully defended the Chicago Seven in a conspiracy trial today remembered mainly for the outlandish behavior of the accused (especially Abbie Hoffman). Nader was challenging corporate power in all sorts of practical and surprisingly effective ways. And Reich, whose flaky tome had been excerpted in theNew Yorker, had become the New Left's most respectable cheerleader (albeit one savagely lampooned by the very youth he was courting in the person of Michael Kinsley, then an undergraduate on the Harvard Crimson).
And, then, of course, there's ... William Raspberry?
There are countless examples of rifle shots which undermine confidence and confuse the public. Favorite current targets are proposals for tax incentives through changes in depreciation rates and investment credits. These are usually described in the media as "tax breaks," "loop holes," or "tax benefits" for the benefit of business. As viewed by a columnist in thePost, such tax measures would benefit "only the rich, the owners of big companies."
It is dismaying that many politicians make the same argument that tax measures of this kind benefit only "business," without benefit to "the poor." The fact that this is either political demagoguery, or economic illiteracy, is of slight comfort. This setting of the "rich" against the "poor," of business against the people, is the cheapest and most dangerous kind of politics.
This passage is interesting in all sorts of ways. The idea that any discussion of the interests of the poor (or middle class) as against those of the rich is totally beyond the pale remains a Republican talking point today. On the other hand, Republicans today cast themselves as the enemies of "tax breaks" and "loop holes," and willingly concede that many of these provide unfair advantages to business. (Though the practical benefit is minimal, since the Paul Ryans and Mitt Romneys never want to identify which loopholes they'd eliminate.) One contextual point worth keeping in mind is that tax loopholes were of much greater value to businesses and rich people in 1971 than they are today because the top marginal tax rate was double the current rate.
But perhaps most interesting of all is the Post columnist who drew Raspberry's ire. It was Bill Raspberry! Washington and Lee's law school, which maintains Lewis Powell's papers, has been good enough to put online the clip file Powell used in writing the memo. The Raspberry column is, in fact, characteristically reasonable. Raspberry ponders the justification for President Richard Nixon's (proposed!) $3 billion tax breaks ("encouraging manufacturers to replace aging equipment and thereby increase capital outlaws and, quite possibly, jobs") and finds it wanting ("The rest of us would have to have faith that the big businessmen would reinvest the savings and 'trickle down' to us such benefits as increased employment"). Maybe business would reinvest the savings, Raspberry reasons, but maybe they would instead "increase dividends to stockholders." Better to provide tax breaks to lower-income people and see the benefit "trickle up" as these families spend the money they save. Raspberry can perhaps be faulted for overstating the stimulative effect of tax breaks given to the poor (as opposed to the poor combined with the middle class). But his suggestion wasn't remotely radical. Indeed, a decade later the prevailing doctrine among conservatives was that tax loopholes were bad (at least in theory) and that rewarding the working poor with tax breaks and benefits was good. This last part, of course, has now fallen out of fashion among conservatives, who long to put poor people back on the tax rolls so they can lower tax rates on the rich. Even so, the column that excited Powell's fears--in a political climate far more liberal than the one we live in today--might today provoke political argument from the right, but it would never provoke a plausible accusation that mainstream political discourse has gotten too left-wing.