PETHOKOUKIS: Attacking corporations for their political views is bad for American business and the economy


It may seem merely silly, a GOP senator tweeting #GowokeGobroke over Major League Baseball’s decision to pull the All-Star Game from Georgia over the state’s new voting law. Despite the controversy, America’s Pastime seems to be doing just fine. MLB says its streaming service is being watched at record levels during the young season, including the seven most-watched days ever. And if angry Republicans somehow manage to strip the league of its nearly century-old antitrust exemption, it’s not going away anymore than the NFL or NBA, which don’t have the special protection.

But the attack on baseball, as well as the backlash against companies such as Coca-Cola and Delta for their position on the Georgia law, is still a worrisome development. This isn’t just a theatrical grievance exercise for a political base and pundit class in the thrall of the culture war. It also shows a disregard for the fundamental values that inform liberal democratic capitalism. And one of those important values and norms is that public officials shouldn’t wield the power of government against political enemies or in favor of political allies.

Donald Trump certainly helped set the stage for such attitudes and actions. Back in December 2016, the president-elect pressured the air-conditioner manufacturer Carrier to keep its manufacturing operation in Indianapolis rather than relocate them to Monterey, Mexico. In addition to the promise of state tax incentives, there was also the implicit threat that the new administration would pull federal defense contracts from Carrier’s parent, United Technologies. All a bit seemy, perhaps. At least it would supposedly preserve American jobs — if CEOs or free-market Republicans wanted to tell themselves a comforting story, that was it.

But Trump’s continuing and escalating attacks on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos throughout his presidency should have been an unmistakable warning sign of where the party was headed. While the president charged that Amazon deliveries were costing the US Post Office money, it was just a proxy war against Bezos — who once offered to launch Trump into space — and The Washington Post. Trump seemed to think Bezos had weaponized the newspaper against him. And this wasn’t just a Twitter thing. Trump followed up his online attacks with an executive order to set up a task force to study the USPS and recommend reforms. And Amazon blamed an “extraordinary environment of corruption, interference, and retribution” by Trump in a Defense Department decision to award a $10 billion cloud computing project to its rival Microsoft.

Of course, Trump’s animus against Big Tech wasn’t limited to the online retailer. Trump was a firm believer in the conspiracy theory that Big Tech companies are biased against the right and actively work to suppress conservative speech. In his final months in office, he ripped the tech industry for operating at “the urging of the radical left.” In the final months of the Trump administration, the Justice Department sued Alphabet’s Google and the Federal Trade Commission sued Facebook over allegations that they violated antitrust laws.

What this all adds up to is Trump having created a permission structure for Republicans to abandon a limited-government, free-market approach to capitalism for something reminiscent of crony or state-directed capitalism, something more like what you see in China and Russia. And even if threats don’t turn into policy action, such as antitrust or new regulations on the tech sector, they risk making Corporate America more reluctant to state an opinion on policy matters or making it feel compelled to appease Washington in some fashion. But we should want businesses making decisions for business reasons, not at the whim of government. Doing otherwise risks bad, anti-competitive decisions in a toxic atmosphere of political uncertainty.

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