President-elect Donald Trump reportedly worked through Thanksgiving, spending the holiday sifting through cabinet choices and personally trying to convince an air conditioning company to keep its factories in America. That last bit caught my eye because — to my knowledge, anyway — this is not a normal presidential activity, and it could offer a big clue as to what the new administration will be like.
Trump talked of saving jobs on Thanksgiving in his own tweet.
During the presidential campaign he often cited Carrier’s decision last February to relocate some 1,400 jobs to its plant in Mexico as an example of jobs leaving the country — and how he as president would slap a tax on any units manufactured in Mexico and sold in the U.S.
“I am working hard, even on Thanksgiving, trying to get Carrier A.C. Company to stay in the U.S.,” Trump tweeted on Thursday. “MAKING PROGRESS – Will know soon!”
The company confirmed Thursday that it had discussed the move with the incoming administration but that there was nothing to announce.
Now, in some ways, this seems like an admirable move. After all, a significant portion of Trump’s support came from his promise to restore blue-collar jobs to their mid-century glory days. Millions of people in dying rural towns and blighted rustbelt cities voted for Trump out of a desperate hope that he can make good on his pledge to bring back their livelihoods.
These negotiations with Carrier, the air conditioning manufacturer, may be a first step in that direction. But though Trump’s motivations may be good (though, frankly, he’s hypocritical on this subject), the precedent it sets is troubling.
Think about it: Suppose you’re a business owner considering outsourcing. Maybe you’re doing it because you’re greedy and want a larger salary for yourself, but maybe you legitimately can’t stay above water while paying American salaries. Either you outsource or go out of business entirely (this is, of course, a very simplistic scenario).
As you’re mulling over what to do, President Trump gets wind of your plans. He gives you a call. ‘You have such a terrific business,’ he’ll probably say, ‘such a great, terrific, American business. But I hear you’re thinking of taking jobs away from good, hardworking Americans. I don’t like that. I want you to stay here, build a big, beautiful factory here and employ even more Americans.’
What could you do? Could you really say no? If your outsourcing plan was just about making more money for yourself, you might be able to agree to the president’s demand without too much trouble. But what if you’re in the second position — if you really can’t afford to keep production here, let alone build a whole new factory? (If the new factory point seems fantastic, it isn’t: Trump said this week he’s pushing Apple to do exactly that.)
It isn’t difficult to imagine companies bending to personal pressure from the president of the United States even when it’s a bad idea economically.
And that’s dangerous. This sort of direct manipulation of companies’ choices by the president has no place in a free market. It’s better suited perhaps to something like mercantilism, the restrictive, oppressive, and ultimately unsuccessful economic system that was a major source of the America’s Founders’ discontent with Britain.
If this Thanksgiving negotiation is a portent of things to come, the Trump administration may well change the U.S. economy for the worse in far more serious ways than his recent predecessors ever attempted.