Government Electric

The recession has given the government an excuse for major interventions into markets, and the word “bailout” is found in business section almost daily. While there are justified concerns over government bailouts of large corporations, big businesses cashing in on the economic stimulus plan have flown below the radar.

In an essay for Cato Unbound on the issue of corporations and markets, libertarian theorist Roderick Long states: “Corporate power depends crucially on government intervention in the marketplace.” This dependency is on full display in an insightful Wall Street Journal story on General Electric’s overt efforts to hitch its future to billions of stimulus dollars.

The article is worth reading from start to finish, but here are some snippets:

The government has taken on a giant role in the U.S. economy over the past year, penetrating further into the private sector than anytime since the 1930s. Some companies are treating the government’s growing reach – and ample purse – as a giant opportunity, and are tailoring their strategies accordingly. For GE, once a symbol of boom-time capitalism, the changed landscape has left it trawling for government dollars on four continents.

‘The government has moved in next door, and it ain’t leaving,’ Mr. [GE CEO Jeffrey] Immelt said at the International Economic Forum of the Americas in Montreal in June. “You could fight it if you want, but society wants change. And government is not going away.’

A close look at GE’s campaign to harvest stimulus money shows Mr. Immelt to be its driving force… Inside GE, he pushed his managers hard to devise plans for capturing government money.

By January, Mr. Immelt had become a leading corporate voice in favor of the $787 billion stimulus bill, supporting it in op-ed pieces and speeches. Reporters who called the Obama administration for information on renewable-energy provisions in the legislation were directed to GE.

When the stimulus package was rolled out, Mr. Immelt instructed executives leading the company’s major business units “to put together swat teams to get stimulus money, and [identify] who to fire if they don’t get the money,” says a person who heard him issue the instructions.

In February, a few days after President Obama signed the stimulus plan, GE lawyers, lobbyists and executives crowded into a conference room at GE’s Washington office to figure out how to parlay billions of dollars in spending provisions into GE contracts. Staffers from coal, renewable-energy, health-care and other business units broke into small groups to figure out “how to help companies” – its customers, in particular – “get those funds,” according to one person who attended.

It speaks poorly for American capitalism when one of the nation’s biggest economic engines is assembling “swat teams” to go after taxpayer money. Instead of corporate America trying to figure out what products and services to bring to the marketplace, big business is taking its cue from politicians and bureaucrats in Washington. This isn’t socialism; it’s state corporatism and it bodes ill for long-term economic growth.

See this essay for more on the problems with special-interest spending. Also see this essay on why the excuses for government interventions in energy markets fall short.