Late in October 2015, shortly before he would become speaker of the House, Paul Ryan delivered a sermon on the subject of crony capitalism.
“This is a profound debate we are having,” he told his colleagues, in a floor argument over the federal Export-Import Bank, which has long been criticized by conservatives for helping American companies sell their products overseas by subsidizing loans. “It is about what kind of economy we are going to have. Are we going to reward good work or good connections?”
That question is suddenly much bigger, and much thornier, for Republicans, thanks to President-elect Donald Trump.
Trump is the head of a business empire that includes real estate developments and luxury resorts around the world. He has repeatedly said that he would turn the operations of that empire over to his children once he takes office. But in the days since his election, Trump and his associates have taken steps that either mesh or risk meshing his business interests with his new position of power.
He has urged British politicians to fight wind farms that could threaten the views from one of his golf courses, according to the New York Times, and included his daughter Ivanka in diplomatic discussions with the leaders of Japan and Argentina. His new Washington hotel is courting business from foreign diplomats. (The Post's Philip Bump is compiling a full list here.)
It's easy to imagine much larger — and more economically consequential — issues arising once Trump takes office. Some of America's biggest crusaders against crony capitalism warn Trump could use his position to pressure foreign leaders to accommodate his company, or to bend U.S. regulations to favor his interests over competitors. He might not even need to ask for those favors; they might just appear.
“There’s no way that someone dealing with a Trump business doesn’t think, the guy behind the name is sitting in the White House,” said Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, who has long fought the Ex-Im Bank and the general issue of crony capitalism.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal's opinion pages this week, conservative columnist Holman W. Jenkins Jr. said Trump's administration could “swirl down a drain of cronyism.”
“Foreign and domestic business interests will be lining up to partner with the Trump children believing it buys favor with the Trump administration,” he wrote. “It can’t be otherwise on our human planet.”
Trump's policy initiatives pose a second threat, de Rugy says, including an infrastructure spending push that could be steered toward the president's friends or business associates. Ronald Klain, a former aide to President Obama, warned Democrats recently that Trump's funding plan for infrastructure, which relies heavily on tax credits for private industry, would amount to “a massive corporate welfare plan for contractors.”
Even Trump's much-celebrated-by-conservatives push for tax reform could, depending on the details, dramatically boost his companies.
Trump, whose campaign did not respond to a request for comment, has largely dismissed those concerns.
“The law's totally on my side, the president can't have a conflict of interest,” he told the New York Times in an interview Tuesday.
Skewed government interests can, however, dampen an economy. That has been the case in Italy and Greece, the economist Luigi Zingales and many others have argued, and to an even greater extent in Russia. The diversion of resources to a president's businesses or his friends can chill competition; saddle consumers with fewer choices and higher prices; and erode incentives to work, innovate and invest.
“What’s hard to see is the distortions in the capital markets, from government intervention,” de Rugy said, “or all the unseen victims of that intervention.”
Or as Ryan put it, on the House floor last year, under crony capitalism the “winner is the person with the connections, it is the company with power, and it is the company with clout. The loser is the person who is out there working hard, playing by the rules, not knowing anybody, not going to Washington, and hoping and thinking that the merit of their idea and the quality of their work is what will win the day.”
Thus far, Ryan has stayed mum on the potential for Trump to usher in a new era of those winners and losers. His office declined to comment this week.
At least one cronyism crusader has been raising alarms about Trump all year. Zingales, a University of Chicago business-school economist, wrote in February that Trump is “in short, the essence of that commingling of big business and government that goes under the name of crony capitalism.”
Zingales said in the piece that he had initially devoted a section of his 2014 book, “A Capitalism for the People,” to the “worrisome” prospect of a Trump presidential run.
He cut the section, he wrote, because he was told “In America, there was no chance that a character like Mr. Trump would ever be seriously considered.”