Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Planes of the South

OH NOES! Those Dirty Southerners are TAKIN' URR JOBS!

That explains, in one absurd op-ed, why so many people in this country have such a low opinion of unions. Here's a hint: if you are a pro-organized labor writer, and your purpose is to encourage sympathy for American workers, you don't do that by demonizing other American workers to make your case. And if you intend to make the company look like they're engaged in nefarious dealings, you don't make their free-market case for them in the most free-market major American news daily.

I know it might not seem this way to a big Chicago union lawyer, but we do a few things down South more complex than picking cotton. For example, Kyle Wingfield at the AJC picked apart this ridiculous screed of rhetorical sleight-of-hand, false choices, bald sectionalism, and inaccurate equivalencies. I don't always agree with real conservatives like Wingfield, but he makes some pretty good points in his takedown.

But let's be honest, he could go much, much further. And if he was so inclined, he could go at this from the left or the middle. Here's how:

Boeing is one of the most heavily subsidized corporations in the United States of America. They get billions in tax dollars and tax breaks. Hell, our government sends money overseas in loans so other countries and foreign companies will use those dollars to buy our Boeing products. Then there are the subsidies for the airlines they build these planes for.

I know it isn't helpful to the unions to say this, but the only reason these American workers have jobs at this particular plant doing this particular thing is because the industry they work in is heavily subsidized by tax dollars paid by other American workers - including workers from the South. It damn sure doesn't have anything to do with the skill, work ethic, pay grade, or experience of some American workers at the expense of others.

And that's before you start to consider the state and local subsidies that keep a manufacturing center running. There's a lot of local political connections involved in protecting the facility that currently exists, and there's a lot of local and political connections in developing the facility on the drawing board. The states and cities will be throwing taxpayer dollars at Boeing to keep them around.

Of course, that means every single one of these jobs is vulnerable to political conditions instead of market conditions. If we didn't have so much subsidy, we wouldn't need so many planes. If we don't need so many planes...

So right off the bat, we can see why this is such an important fight to special interests, and why that requires involvement of narratives from the right and the left. Some of the most vicious fights are the ones where localities are feuding over billions in government subsidies. And to protect those subsidies, they'll pull out all manner of completely empty partisan rhetoric. This ain't about "The American Worker" or "The Free Market" at all - and anyone who says so is just whistlin' Dixie.

Yes, I know that stings. Especially to those of you who may have bought in to one narrative or another. But government subsidy dollars find their way into high-priced union lawyers' bank accounts just as easily as they find their way into corporate profits. That's why that whole WSJ op-ed, or any of the pro-orgainzed-labor press on this issue never talked about just how heavily South Carolina will be subsidizing the Boeing plant in Charleston.

That really sticks in my craw, too. Do you know how useful that news would be in exposing a whole lot of Southern Republicans as fiscally fraudulent in their "conservative" rhetoric? But the organized labor interests demand we leave that arrow in the quiver, because bringing it to light may invite comparisons to how heavily Washington State subsidizes their Boeing plants. And Lord help us if anyone asks about national tax subsidies supporting airplane manufacturing and the airline industry! That just might start a conversation about why us taxpayers are subsidizing businesses in the billions while they keep declaring and delivering profits to their shareholders.

As for workers who can manufacture airplanes (no matter what state they call home), they'd be better off, with more secure jobs, working in an industry that is more sustainable economically and doesn't exist solely off the largesse of government subsidies.

I've never done anything as complicated as manufacturing an airplane, but I'm guessing that's a fairly specialized trade that requires some high level of skill. And while they've worked really hard and have earned their money and benefits within the system they had access to - I hate to be the one to bring up reality here - we won't be able to sustain the airplane manufacturing industry at current levels for much longer.

Petroleum costs are only going up. That means costs of jet fuel are only going up, which will make air travel much more expensive. You already see where this is going, but let's finish the trip. While the government will continue to subsidize the airline and airplane manufacturing industry robustly for a while, at some point that will become unsustainable economically and politically. Especially with one group of folks scaring the crap out of citizens about what a bad idea it is for the government to spend money.

Eventually, American culture, transportation, and tax priorities will shift, and it doesn't matter if you live in Washington State or South Carolina, there are going to be a whole lot less airplanes that need to be made, and a whole lot less subsidies to support their manufacture.

Alternately, what will need to be made, by highly skilled workers trained in manufacturing durable items with extremely high standards, are items to support alternative energy, green technology, high-speed rail, and mass transit. Who knows, there are some really nerdy types that want to get us back to dirigibles (and yes, I'm a nerdy type and I think that would be awesome). But all of those things are going to need to be built. The next generation of aircraft utilizing lighter but stronger materials to become as efficient as possible are going to need to be built. And whatever new technologies come along and require fabrication are going to need to be built.

That's a lot of stuff to be built. And the folks who are going to be needed to build it are the folks who are currently building high tech products like the Dreamliners. That's good news for the workers, but bad news for the status quo that unions want to protect. Maybe we could get to building that stuff sooner if we started turning off the subsidy tap that's keeping our economy from innovating.


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