Boeing's travails show what's wrong with modern capitalism
The plight of Boeing shows the perils of modern capitalism. The corporation is a wounded giant. Much of its productive capacity has been mothballed following two crashes in six months of the 737 Max, the firm’s flagship product: the result of safety problems Boeing hid from regulators.
Just a year ago Boeing appeared unstoppable. In 2018, the company delivered more aircraft than its rival Airbus, with revenue hitting $100bn. It was also a cash machine, shedding 20% of its workforce since 2012 while funneling $43bn into stock buybacks in roughly the same period. Boeing’s board rewarded its CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, lavishly, paying him $23m in 2018, up 27% from the year before.
There was only one problem. The company was losing its ability to make safe airplanes. As Scott Hamilton, an aerospace analyst and editor of Leeham News and Analysis, puts it: “Boeing Commercial Airplanes clearly has a systemic problem in designing, producing and delivering airplanes.”
Something is wrong with today’s version of capitalism. It’s not just that it’s unfair. It’s that it’s no longer capable of delivering products that work. The root cause is the generation of high and persistent profits, to the exclusion of production. We have let financiers take over our corporations. They monopolize industries and then loot the corporations they run.
The executive team at Boeing is quite skilled – just at generating cash, rather than as engineers. Boeing’s competitive advantage centered on politics, not planes. The corporation is now a political machine with a side business making aerospace and defense products. Boeing’s general counsel, former judge Michael Luttig, is the former boss of the FBI director, Christopher Wray, whose agents are investigating potential criminal activity at the company. Luttig is so well connected in high-level legal circles he served as a groomsman for the supreme court chief justice, John Roberts.
The company’s board members also include Nikki Haley, until recently the United Nations ambassador, former Nato supreme allied commander Edmund PGiambastiani Jr, former AIG CEO Edward M Liddy, and a host of former political officials and private equity icons.
Boeing used its political connections to monopolize the American aerospace industry and corrupt its regulators. In the 1990s, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas merged, leaving America with just one major producer of civilian aircraft. Before this merger, when there was a competitive market, Boeing was a wonderful company. As journalist Jerry Useem put it just 20 years ago, “Boeing has always been less a business than an association of engineers devoted to building amazing flying machines.”
But after the merger, the engineers lost power to the financiers. Boeing could increase prices, lay off workers, reduce quality and spend its cash buying back stock.
And no one could do anything about it. Customers and suppliers no longer had any alternative to Boeing, and Boeing corrupted officials in both parties who were supposed to regulate it. High profits masked the collapse in productive skill until the crashes of the 737 Max.
Boeing’s inability to make good safe airplanes is a clear weakness. It is, after all, an airplane aerospace company. But because Boeing is America’s only commercial airplane company, the crisis is rippling across the economy. Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, which ordered 58 737 Max planes, says his company cannot grow as planned until Boeing, “gets its shit together”. Contractors and subcontractors slowed production of parts for the airplane, and airline customers scrambled to address shortages of airplanes.
Far from being an anomaly, Boeing is the norm in the corporate world across the west. In 2016 ...
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