Republicans are very good at distilling their beliefs down to simple ideas and repeatable catchphrases. They like “small government” and “strong defense” and “traditional values.” There may be no more common Republican ideological identifier than “pro-business.” After all, businesses create jobs, they innovate, they anchor communities! Every Republican is pro-business.
But let’s consider this:
The Justice Department has launched an antitrust investigation of four leading automakers over an agreement they forged with the state of California to maintain higher fuel efficiency standards than those sought by the Trump administration, according to one of the companies.
Separately, the Environmental Protection Agency and Transportation Department notified California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols that the state’s deal with Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW of North America on future mileage targets “appears to be inconsistent with federal law.”
I’m not an antitrust lawyer, but it seems a little far-fetched to think there is something anti-competitive about companies agreeing to abide by a state’s fuel-economy standards. Perhaps the automakers could have avoided this by booking some rooms at one of President Trump’s hotels.
The Justice Department isn’t talking about this investigation, but the fact that their investigation happening at the same time as action from other agencies suggests the possibility of some kind of coordinated effort across the administration. Democrats and California officials seem convinced that the antitrust investigation is about retaliation: “This investigation is nothing but an attempt by the Trump Administration to retaliate against these companies and stoke fear in others,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) said in a statement.
The background is that the companies went to the state of California after the Trump administration attempted to roll back standards imposed during the Obama administration — standards the companies had already incorporated into their long-term planning. So what you had was a strange case of the administration literally telling industry that it wanted them to pollute more, and industry saying, “No thanks, we’d rather not.” It looks to many people as though they’re being punished for defying the president.
When we think about “corruption,” what often comes to mind is the president or other officials using their offices to personally enrich themselves, which is almost certainly something Trump is doing. But there are other kinds of corruption, too, such as using government power to settle a vendetta. And it gives the lie to the idea that being “pro-business,” especially in any rational way, is a fundamental principle of this administration.
That isn’t to say Trump hasn’t done many things that many corporations have loved. He signed a giant corporate tax cut, and if you’re, say, a coal company looking to pollute more, or a slaughterhouse hoping to do your work without a bunch of pesky federal food-safety inspectors slowing down the line, he’s given you what you wanted.
But Trump is “pro-business” only to the extent that businesses commit themselves to the greater aggrandizement of Donald Trump. In the face of mounting evidence that his trade war is hurting the economy, Trump tweeted, “Badly run and weak companies are smartly blaming these small Tariffs instead of themselves for bad management.” It’s your own fault, losers.
More than that, Trump is creating all kinds of uncertainty — which businesses hate — not only with his policies but with his own erratic decision-making. The New York Times’s Paul Krugman describes the problem:
The big complaint business has about Trump’s trade war isn’t just that tariffs raise costs and prices, while foreign retaliation is cutting off access to important markets. It is that businesses can’t make plans when policy zigzags in response to the president’s whims. They don’t want to invest in anything that relies on a global supply chain, because that supply chain might unravel with Trump’s next tweet. But they can’t invest on the assumption that Trump’s tariffs will be permanent, either; you never know when or whether he’ll declare victory and surrender.
Not long ago, I asked an economist friend whether he thought a recession was on the way. He said we couldn’t know for sure, but then added, “If you were running a company, would you be investing right now?”
Everybody is learning that whatever policy area we’re talking about — foreign policy, domestic policy, economic policy — Trump’s decisions are intensely personal. A brutal dictator developing nuclear weapons gets favorable treatment because he writes Trump “beautiful letters.” The Federal Reserve won’t lower interest rates to juice the economy for his reelection effort, so the chair he appointed is an “enemy.” He expects literal payments from everyone, including his own aides.
And corporations come in two types: Those that please him and, therefore, deserve favors, and those that defy him and feel the weight of government power come down on them. That’s what “pro-business” apparently means these days.
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