Did I just see a United States senator commit extortion? Two senators, even?
At the Google antitrust hearing, after praising the contributions Google has made to New York’s economy, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) noted that a location elsewhere had been chosen as a test site for a Google networking project.
And then he asked Google executive Eric Schmidt: Would you consider making the Hudson Valley such a site? He explained that that would be valuable to that region of his state.
Consider the context: Google is under investigation for possible violations of the antitrust laws. This was a hearing before the Senate committee overseeing antitrust law, a hearing, moreover, focusing on Google. Antitrust actions can lead to all sorts of trouble for a big business: Google is in danger of having its ability to expand into providing new and richer services sharply curtailed.
And here was one of the senators on the committee looking into the matter, suggesting that it would be nice if Google did something nice for his state.
This ought to have been shocking.
Certainly this was not an explicit demand for a quid-pro-quo. Senator Schumer did not threaten to introduce legislation that would make Google’s antitrust case harder if it did not shower more benefits on New York. Still, given the context, Schumer has to be understood as saying more than that the Hudson Valley would make a good test site—he has to be understood as saying that one of the advantages of using the Hudson Valley would be pleasing Chuck Schumer.
This ought to have been shocking. Surely Americans should not be asked to make their business decisions on the basis of powerful politicians’ local interests! Yet neither in the overflow room where I sat, nor, from what I could hear over the video, in the hearing room, was there much expression of shock. Quite the contrary. When another senator mentioned an interest in a locale where Google might do something valuable, this was met with light laughter—as if most people present believed and accepted that it wasn’t the noblest way to proceed, but it was how things really work. You scratch my back, and my colleagues won’t flog yours.
If that is indeed how politics really works, then the security of a citizen’s business rests not on respect for his rights, but on his willingness and ability to trade favors with the powerful. Then success makes you prey for predatory politicians. And as for the little guy, whom defenders of government intervention in the economy like to say such intervention protects, since he has no favors to trade, he’s even less secure.