ZEROS

KUSH­NER, BE­ZOS & THE BAD IN­FLU­ENCE MONEY CAN BUY.

National Post (Latest Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - WIL­LIAM WAT­SON

Jared Kush­ner, President Don­ald Trump’s sonin- law, is now in trou­ble with a press that once con­sid­ered him and his wife, Ivanka, the only two rea­son­able peo­ple in the White House in­ner cir­cle. But he has re­port­edly dis­cussed pol­icy mat­ters with bankers who were in the process of lend­ing his fam­ily com­pany US$500 mil­lion. At least the quid in his quid pro quo is hefty. And we know about it, so it can count against his fa­ther-in-law in fu­ture elec­tions, as­sum­ing Trump isn’t be­ing held for ran­som in North Korea.

The Economist’s “Lex­ing­ton” col­umn, in which you can read about these go­ings- on, notes that al­most half of Amer­i­cans believe “cor­rup­tion is per­va­sive in the White House.” Which makes you won­der about the other half. Do they believe cor­rup­tion is just “com­mon” or “not un­usual” rather than “per­va­sive”?

I don’t want to be more cyn­i­cal than nec­es­sary: Young peo­ple may be read­ing. But you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours is what pol­i­tics is pretty much built on, isn’t it? A cou­ple of sto­ries be­fore the Lex­ing­ton col­umn the Economist writes about Ama­zon CEO Jeff Be­zos mulling over whether to build his com­pany’s 50,000-per­son HQ2 near Washington, D.C. ( Toronto is one of 20 fi­nal­ists but, apart from Mayor John Tory, whose job is to be op­ti­mistic, does any­one se­ri­ously think Ama­zon will choose a for­eign coun­try whose bor­der is about to thicken?)

The gist of the Be­zos story is that Washington, D.C., is both a reg­u­la­tor of in­dus­tries in which Ama­zon com­petes and a ma­jor buyer of cloud ser­vices, of which Ama­zon is an im­por­tant provider. If Be­zos is nice to Washington, maybe Washington will be nice to Be­zos. And it won’t hurt to have 50,000 Ama­zo­ni­ans “go­ing to the same coun­try clubs and putting chil­dren in the same schools as govern­ment of­fi­cials,” thus con­sti­tut­ing a per­ma­nent army in the never- end­ing soft- power strug­gle for in­flu­ence and ap­proval. ( It would be an in­ter­est­ing re­search pro­ject to in­ves­ti­gate whether the typ­i­cal Ama­zon em­ployee or govern­ment of­fi­cial with de­ci­sion- mak­ing au­thor­ity is more likely to be­long to a coun­try club, or have his or her chil­dren in posh schools.)

Govern­ment of­fi­cials with ten­ure may be im­mune to pol­icy re­quests from coun­try club or PTA friends — un­less they fancy a good job in the pri­vate sec­tor af­ter their govern­ment days are over. But elected of­fi­cials, sen­a­tors and congress- peo­ple ( as Justin Trudeau would call them) won’t be so stand­off­ish. When Ama­zon comes call­ing they’re very likely to know, and Be­zos and his staff will be keen to re­mind them, just what Ama­zon has done for their con­stituents lately. No doubt they’ll also talk about what Ama­zon can do for the coun­try. But it would be naive to deny, not cyn­i­cal to as­sume, that the ca­reer in­ter­ests of the elected of­fi­cials in ques­tion will weigh in what­ever de­ci­sion they’re called to make.

In the 1960s and 1970s Sen­a­tor Henry “Scoop” Jack­son of Washington state (where Ama­zon’s HQ1 now is) was known, to his great ir­ri­ta­tion, as the “sen­a­tor from Boe­ing.” ( The phrase made it into his New York Times obit­u­ary, though only at para­graph 30.) Con­ve­niently, he favoured a strong na­tional de­fence, as did Boe­ing, a ma­jor de­fence sup­plier and his state’s largest em­ployer. At one stage, he got into trou­ble for let­ting a Boe­ing lob­by­ist work out of his of­fice. Would Sen­a­tor Jack­son, who won a cou­ple of im­por­tant pri­maries be­fore los­ing the 1976 Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion to Jimmy Carter, have been so strong on de­fence had he come from a state where arm­ing the nation was less im­por­tant to the econ­omy? We’ll never know.

To be com­pletely cyn­i­cal for just a mo­ment, back-scratch­ing is a form of barter and there­fore an in­ef­fi­cient way of do­ing business. Cash pay­ments would be best. If Ama­zon could sim­ply buy po­lit­i­cal and reg­u­la­tory sup­port, it could then put HQ2 where it made the most eco­nomic sense to do so. Do you ever won­der why we have so many ship­yards across the coun­try and why none has the full or­der book that would help it achieve com­pet­i­tive pro­duc­tiv­ity? The politi­cians who have or­dained it to be this way seem not to have the na­tional in­ter­est top of mind. More likely, their con­cern is with the elec­toral sys­tem. Putting the lo­cal ship­yard out of business wouldn’t sit well with vot­ers.

Amer­i­cans don’t want Kush­ner sell­ing his in­flu­ence in ex­change for half- bil­lion dol­lar loans or any­thing else that ben­e­fits him per­son­ally. But they also don’t want Be­zos buy­ing friends with a 50,000-job head­quar­ters. In the end, the only way to pre­vent govern­ment in­flu­ence from be­ing sold is to re­duce it. Get the govern­ment out of more things and more things will be de­cided by com­pe­ti­tion, not cor­rup­tion.

AMER­I­CANS DON’T WANT KUSH­NER SELL­ING HIS IN­FLU­ENCE. BUT THEY ALSO DON’T WANT BE­ZOS BUY­ING IT.

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