In the deepest, darkest years of grad school, when it felt like my inevitable fate was to be an adjunct professor of political science at some wind-swept campus 500 miles from my nearest friend, I did something that is still seen as anathema among many followers of the academic cult: I looked around for other options and secretly signed up for an internship with a management consultancy.
All in all, it was a very positive experience. The companies we advised were doing interesting work. My colleagues were smart and personable. Most surprisingly, they seemed to think that I actually had something valuable to offer. Though I ultimately decided not to join, I learned a lot from the months I spent at “the firm,” as its employees ominously called it.
But for all that was positive about the experience, I did also find it to be genuinely surprising—not to say concerning—in one key respect. High-end shops like Bain, the Boston Consulting Group, or McKinsey pride themselves in being “strategy consultancies,” the idea being that they mostly abstain from helping corporations to solve short-term tactical or operative challenges. What makes them special, and justifies their steep fees, is that they make big corporations thrive over the long run.
So I was surprised to learn what senior partners at the firm actually meant by “long-term” strategy. When I first asked them about the time frame they had in mind, I expected them to say 10, 20, perhaps even 30 years; instead, everyone I asked gave an answer that ranged somewhere from one to five years. A lot has been written about the fact that most people actually running big corporations day to day have trouble thinking beyond the end of the next quarter. What I find even more striking, in some ways, is that the people who are hired to remedy this shortcoming have a time horizon of, at best, half a decade.
I’ve been thinking about this curious fact a lot since Donald Trump took office. The short time frame on which most business leaders concentrate explains why Trump’s tax reform has proven so popular on Wall Street. Though virtually all economists doubt that these measures will help America’s economy grow over the next 10 or 20 years, most of them do think that they will increase the short-term profitability of the country’s biggest corporations. And for a lot of the people making decisions in C-suites around the country, or deciding whether to buy more stock, that’s what matters most.
I’ve been thinking about it even more over the past few days, as Trump has mounted a series of attacks on Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post.* “I have stated my concerns with Amazon long before the Election,” he tweeted last Thursday. “Unlike others, they pay little or no taxes to state & local governments, use our Postal System as their Delivery Boy (causing tremendous loss to the U.S.), and are putting many thousands of retailers out of business!”
A lot of commentators have been tempted to get drawn into a debate about whether or not Amazon really does need to be regulated more strictly and taxed more heavily. Damon Linker, a columnist for the Week who is usually one of the most perceptive chroniclers of Trump’s America, for example, panned the left for being outraged by Trump’s tweets. Pointing out the many ways in which Amazon really does profit from tax evasion, and really is too big to allow real competition, he asked whether it “makes sense for liberals to rally around Bezos in response? Not at all—at least not if the left in this country wants to stand for more than reflexive opposition to whatever Trump says or does.”
This completely misses the point. There are thousands of companies in America whose profits depend in good part on their ability to win favorable rules and regulations by wielding their political influence. Liberals do need to make the fight against this kind of crony capitalism a central rallying cry. And, yes, when they do that, they need to be no less sparing in their criticism of Amazon as in that of ExxonMobil or Goldman Sachs. But when the president is busy handing out large presents to businesses around the country and stuffing his tax reform full of loopholes demanded by lobbyists, it is naïve to pretend that his hostility to Amazon is motivated by anything other than an attempt to curb the critical coverage of Bezos’s Washington Post.
Linker concedes that “it’s entirely possible that this is what’s motivating Trump,” but the president’s intentions have been transparent all along. As Trump wrote in a subsequent tweet, he is keen to punish “the Fake Washington Post, which is used as a ‘lobbyist’ and should so REGISTER.” In other words, Trump’s criticisms of Amazon are not meant to fight crony capitalism; they are meant to deepen crony capitalism—and stifle freedom of speech—by punishing a major media institution for the crime of criticizing the administration.
It is perfectly plausible that Trump may allow his dislike of the Washington Post to drive decisions that will negatively affect Amazon. (In fact, it is quite plausible that he has already allowed his dislike of CNN to drive a decision that has negatively affected its parent company, Time Warner.) But even if the words of the president never actually influence the actions of the regulatory agencies he controls, it could have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech these crucial outlets enjoy. After all, their owners have no better way of knowing whether they might soon be punished for criticizing the president than we do. If they care about their bottom line, they may therefore tell their journalists to refrain from being too critical of Trump—or decide that it’s safer to sell outlets that, after all, only make up a small part of their portfolio to owners who are more willing to do Trump’s bidding. What Germans call vorauseilender Gehorsam, or anticipatory obedience, is a powerful force.
In many countries around the world, authoritarian populists have managed to concentrate power in their own hands while retaining regular elections and pretending to preserve a modicum of free speech. In every case, informal influence over the owners of the country’s biggest private media outlets has been a key tool: Rather than openly shutting down critical newspapers or television stations, leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán have used government regulations to create incentives for favorable coverage or to give critical owners a reason to sell to more friendly ones.
That’s why it’s a huge mistake to say that the president’s attempt to use his political power to retaliate against a key critic should be written off as just another mindless tweet. Make no mistake: Trump’s attacks on Amazon and the Washington Post are a political scandal of the first order. Anybody who downplays it because Amazon should be regulated more strongly is making the same mistake as somebody who refuses to defend the FBI or the Department of Justice against the Trump administration because of the—undoubtedly serious—problem of police violence.
Another aspect of Trump’s attack on Amazon has received even less serious attention: the potential economic impact of an administration that is willing to wield the tools of the regulatory state to punish its enemies. The markets don’t seem to be overly spooked by Trump’s decision to go on the attack against Bezos. Amazon’s stock price has barely been affected. Other CEOs seem to think that they have nothing much to fear from the beef between Trump and Bezos.
But that is far too short-term a way of viewing the matter. As historians, economists, and political scientists have shown over and over again, rule of law is arguably the most important predictor of economic growth. For an economy to grow at its maximum potential, investors need to know that their property is secure, economic rather than political facts need to determine which company thrives, and corruption needs to be minimal. As anybody who has done business in politically challenging environments knows, it’s impossible to have these conditions when a strongman leader can punish corporations at will: In such countries, you need to flatter the leader at every turn, your ability to turn a profit depends on the quality of your political patronage, and anybody who is close to power feels entitled to a sizable payoff.
To be sure, it would take a lot for the United States to suffer the kind of rampant corruption that is endemic in countries like Russia or Venezuela. On the whole, our legal system continues to be independent. Far from being cowed by politicians, American business leaders feel entitled to ignore requests to testify in front of Congress. Trump’s tweets aren’t an imminent threat to the American economy.
And yet it strikes me that America’s business community is vastly underestimating the disastrous consequences that populism—on the right, not just the left—has had on economic performance in countries around the world. If you are only looking at the next quarter, or even the next five years, the political threat to the economy is probably minimal. But if you want to predict how America’s economy (or your business!) will perform over the next couple of decades, you need to take the danger that political loyalty to a strongman leader will start to be necessary for economic success—and that corruption will become evermore rampant as the regulatory state does the president’s bidding—very seriously indeed.
Correction, April 3, 2018: This article originally misidentified Jeff Bezos as the owner of Amazon. He is the CEO of Amazon, a publicly traded company.
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