The autopsies in the death of the Boeing way now are coming as fast as the lawsuits.
The legendary plane maker was tripped up by its own “corporate culture … of expediency of design-to-market and cost-cutting,” contended an internal company whistleblower.
“Boeing made a calculated decision to … prioritize its bottom line,” was how the Southwest Airlines pilots union put it in a recent lawsuit.
Even Forbes business magazine broached the taboo question: “Did Boeing Pay Too Much Attention to Wall Street?”
But the most revealing suggestion of how Boeing went astray came from a local aerospace engineer, Cynthia Cole, who led the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) until 2010.
“It was two camps of managers, the Boeing Boy Scouts and the ‘hunter killer assassins,’ ” she told The New Republic magazine. “How do you merge those two management philosophies? The hunter killer assassins will destroy the Boy Scouts. That’s what happens.”
Yes that sure can happen — and not just at this one company.
I don’t know anything about what went on inside Boeing’s executive suite, or whether the charge that Boeing was ultimately too cheap or greedy to build a safe plane is completely fair. I do know that no less than Sully Sullenberger on Sunday called the 737 MAX’s software system a “death trap,” — adding that the systemic problems could only be fixed with a full revamp of what he called “corporate governance.”
But all this talk of corner-cutting to boost the short-term bottom line reminds me of a zone I do know something about: Our political system, and specifically Boeing’s outsized role in going all hunter killer assassin on it.
You all know the story of how Boeing threatened to jilt our state if it didn’t get the biggest state tax-cut package in U.S. history back in 2013. Our governor, Jay Inslee, who definitely is more scout than assassin, cheered this at the time. But recently he revised his view: “If you’ve ever been mugged, you know what it feels like … These corporations put a gun to your ribs: ‘You’re going to lose 20,000 jobs unless you give us a tax break.’ ”
Of course we ended up giving Boeing all the money and also losing the jobs. If you’re a small business out there paying full freight and wondering why the state keeps hitting you up for more money, this is one reason why.
The last time I was up at Boeing, it was for an event on this same theme, when then-Speaker of the U.S. House Paul Ryan came to Everett in 2017 to push a mammoth corporate tax cut at the federal level.
He and Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg enthused about how cutting taxes would jump-start the economy (which was already roaring) as well as rescue Boeing (even though its profits were already soaring). Ryan also said he thought that because of supercharged economic growth the tax cuts would pay for themselves and not add to the federal budget deficit.
This is the political version of paying too much attention to Wall Street, of cutting corners for short-term gain, of the scouts getting rolled by the hunter killer assassins. Eventually the effects of the lost revenue on the federal government will be like Boeing shortchanging its engineering expertise. Only instead of skimping on an airliner, they’ll be going after Social Security or Medicare.
“The point of this business model is that the super-stakeholder (Boeing) extracts gains from the subordinate stakeholders (workers, state and national politicians) for the short-term benefit of investors … (This) is the opposite of a culture built on productivity, innovation, safety, or quality.”
As I said above, this isn’t just about Boeing — though when the bill came due in its case, it was especially catastrophic. The growing tendency to shortchange the long view or the broader good for instant, self-interested gains is also one of the most destructive bugs in our national politics, right up there with tribal partisanship. Something’s going to crash there too.
Remember when they used to say we should run government more like a business? I suspect that came from the hunter killer assassins too.