Kirk Landers, Editor Emeritus

Currying Corporate Support

By Kirk Landers

In its January forecast essay “What’s Ahead for Transportation in 2012?” the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) writes hopefully of the business community increasing its support for a more reliable transportation system.

Noting that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is already a strong advocate for transportation investment, AASHTO writes: “Watch for companies to become more vocal in the year ahead about the linkage between transportation and staying competitive in a global economy.”

This isn’t an earthshaking prediction, but the fact that business has connected transportation infrastructure to international competitiveness is interesting to contemplate, especially as the Republican presidential primary brings anti-government and small government exhortations to a national brain-numbing crescendo.

The potential influence of business and industry on public policy in these difficult times can’t be overstated. We have seen one cash-strapped state after another rush to placate large resident companies threatening to relocate and take their jobs with them. And we have seen many states and municipalities create special deals to attract companies and jobs from other areas.

As much as the business community scorns and distrusts government, our great corporations graciously accept public largesse that subsidizes training programs, eliminates corporate taxes, and expands infrastructure to accommodate new operations, among other things. We haven’t yet seen an agreement by which a governor and state legislature actually wash the feet of corporate moguls, but perhaps only because the service hasn’t yet been requested.

Politicians are wise to heed the voices of business leaders. Not only have today’s captains of industry ascended to the exalted status of “job creators” — never mind if the jobs they create are on another continent — they have been empowered by the U.S. Supreme Court to have a powerful voice, perhaps a dominant one, in who gets jobs in federal-, state- and local-elected bodies. They can invest all the corporate resources they want to elect representatives who are sympathetic to their issues.

It’s fun to imagine the CEOs of the Fortune 500 gathering the leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties, and demanding that they support a 25-cent-per-gallon increase in the federal fuel tax — or face a blizzard of attack ads in every political campaign in the country. For a decade.

It’s less fun to imagine the same group demanding that the entire Interstate system be converted to tolls, and that their company’s commercial vehicles be excused from the tolls.

If they have the power to do one, they probably have the power to do the other. And the one thing history teaches us about politics is that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Unfortunately for the Highway Trust Fund — but perhaps fortunately for our Republic — corporate thinking is necessarily short term and focused on rapid, direct paybacks. A ten-year plan to own the U.S. Senate probably wouldn’t satisfy shareholder demands today, and might not pay off in the long run anyway.

So let’s be glad that commerce and industry are on our side, and let’s be glad their advocacy remains in the traditional realm of educating and urging. As slow and maddening as the system is, it could be worse.