In the battle between Big Business and the Big State, who will come out on top?
Global corporations are a sinister force that secretly rule much of the world. A few mega-rich tycoons bend political systems to their will, writing their own laws and deciding how much tax they will pay. Politicians are bought and sold at will, and ordinary people are powerless in the face of big money. In the mythology of the far left, and indeed the far right, as well as in countless movies and thrillers, private corporations are depicted as dominating the world, wielding more power than presidents and prime ministers.
But is this really true? Now it seems we will get a real-life test in the form of an increasingly bitter conflict between Donald Trump and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. As the two men go into battle, we should get an idea of which is more powerful Big Business or the Big State?
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In the red corner
On the surface, it looks like an evenly matched contest. In one corner there is the world's richest man, who presides over a company with an estimated 300 million customers, more than half a million staff, owns The Washington Post, one of the world's most influential newspapers, and controls vast amounts of data on just about anyone who ever bought anything over the web. It is hard to think of a more influential tycoon in all history.
In the other corner, there is the president of the US. Trump may well be the most chaotic occupant of that office in a long time. But he still holds the levers of the most powerful government in the world. He commands the world's largest armed forces, and presides over millions of staff.
The two men have now locked horns in what looks like a bitter fight. Angered by attacks on his presidency in The Washington Post, Trump has turned on the internet giant. "They pay little or no taxes to state and local governments, use our postal system as their delivery boy (causing tremendous loss to the US) and are putting many thousands of retailers out of business," said Trump in one typical tweet.
The conflict has wiped billions off Amazon's market value as investors grow nervous about a regulatory clampdown on its operations. So far it is mostly just hot air, of course. But if the US does decide to clamp down hard on Amazon, it has the power to cause some big problems.
And the winner is
The row highlights something more interesting than a clash of two egos. The left claims the power of corporate elites is growing as globalisation takes them beyond the reach of elected governments. Bezos surely exemplifies such power. Yet that may amount to nothing against the power of a determined politician.
Take taxes, for example. It is not hard for the government to collect anything that is owed, and it can impose new ones relatively simply. The EU is already planning a new turnover-based tax on internet companies, a move largely aimed at Amazon and the other US web giants. It would not be hard for Trump to propose something similar for the US. Nor would it be hard to tighten up on delivery laws. Governments introduce new health and safety rules all the time.
A few of those on home deliveries, plus some restrictions on working hours, could send Amazon's costs soaring. Anti-trust laws provide a huge range of penalties against any business that becomes too powerful. It wouldn't be hard to argue that Amazon was too dominant in e-books, for example, and to start demanding that unit be sold off.
Of course, Bezos could fight back, and he would have tools at his disposal. Some Wall Street analysts have already worked out that there are as many members of Amazon Prime as there were Trump voters at the last election. Yet, at the end of the day, the law is the law and Amazon has to obey it just like everyone else.
The truth is that Big Business is far less powerful than most people imagine, and a lot less powerful than the Big State. The Trump versus Bezos battle is about to make that clear because if it does turn into a full-scale war, Amazon will almost certainly be the loser.
Matthew Lynn is a columnist for Bloomberg, and writes weekly commentary syndicated in papers such as the Daily Telegraph, Die Welt, the Sydney Morning Herald, the South China Morning Post and the Miami Herald. He is also an associate editor of Spectator Business, and a regular contributor to The Spectator. Before that, he worked for the business section of the Sunday Times for ten years.
He has written books on finance and financial topics, including Bust: Greece, The Euro and The Sovereign Debt Crisis and The Long Depression: The Slump of 2008 to 2031. Matthew is also the author of the Death Force series of military thrillers and the founder of Lume Books, an independent publisher.
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