Joe Kenehan Center

Thursday, May 29, 2003
On The Air

For years, I’ve faithfully listened to conservative talk radio.

Mostly it’s because I like listening to people talk about politics, even if I disagree with almost everything they say.

I’ve never called in. But driving home from work the other night, tuned to Seattle’s KVI-AM (“Rush in the mornings, Hannity in the afternoons”), I’d had enough.

I decided to challenge some assumptions.

For the umpteenth time, host Bryan Suits was predicting that Boeing is going to leave Wasington and was dragging out his usual straw men—unions, Washington state’s allegedly liberal government, and the state’s supposedly “anti-business” culture—as the reasons why.

I pulled over, called in, and told the screener that I wanted to say something about the unions. “Good. We’ll get you on,” he assured me.

I was the third caller of the segment. I pointed out that it doesn’t really make sense to blame Boeing’s union workers for making things tough for Boeing, because its main competitor, Airbus, builds planes in Western Europe, where taxes are higher and unions are much stronger. (I’ve blogged about this before.)

Suits seemed stunned for a second. But he quickly recovered and blurted out something about Airbus’s “unfair advantages” because it receives government subsides.

This is a lame argument for lots of reasons, which I started to spell out.

“Boeing is also subsidized,” I said. “What do you call the tanker deal?” (The U.S. Air Force recently agreed to lease some new 767s for use as tankers in a deal that includes terms that are, ahem, extremely favorable for Boeing.)

“Well, that’s corporate welfare,” Suits stammered.

“Which is a subsidy,” I reminded him. We went back and forth for awhile, Suits pouting that it’s not fair to compare Boeing to Airbus, me pointing out that Boeing has long benefited from direct and indirect government subsidies, including massive investment in military and space research and development. Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson practically made a career out of securing subsidies for Boeing, I said.

More than that, Boeing also gained advantages from the state and federal support of the University of Washington, which produced thousands of great engineers for the company. It’s not an accident that Boeing’s first wind tunnel was on the UW campus. Boeing also benefited from public investment in everything from highways to public power, with the Bonneville Power Administration providing reliable, inexpensive power for Boeing and other manufacturers in the Pacific Northwest.

All of this was a good thing for Washington State, I explained to Suits, because it created a lot of good jobs and allowed Boeing to grow and succeed.

I waited to hear Suits’s reply, but my cell phone fell silent. It took a moment to realize that he’d hung up me. By the time I got my radio back on, he’d moved on to another caller, so I’ll never know what his final word was.

But they weren’t done with me yet. The next caller was ready with what I hoped would be a more substantial counterpoint.

I was to be disappointed.

"That previous caller, the socialist," he sneered, "well, he must be French."

"Yeah," said Suits. "That guy can just move to Sweden and get his free health care or whatever."

I swear to God that was the best they could muster. It wasn't, obviously, one of finer moments the history of conservative political debate.

Which really was a letdown, because Suits often is a smart and funny guy.

And it’s even sadder because Boeing probably is going to leave Washington, partly because it’s greedy and it thinks that skimping on its workforce is one way to beat Airbus.

But also because our state’s transportation system is a mess and our political leaders are too timid to make needed changes to improve it. Those kinds of changes, after all, would involve taxes. And because of kneejerk anti-government sentiment that gets whipped up on a daily basis by folks like Tim Eyman and the hosts on KVI, Washington government is paralyzed when it comes to making any investments for jobs and growth.

Some good reading . . .

Looking ahead to 2004.The invaluable Harold Meyerson on a new effort by unions to encourage a broader movement of voters from working families—not necessarily just union members—and some of the obstacles that effort is facing.

Looking back at 1944. Cass Susstein remembers FDR’s attempt to expand economic freedom, not just political freedom. It’s a concept that certainly isn’t familiar to my friends at KVI-AM.

ULLICO. Republicans are getting ready to attack unions with hearings on ULLICO. BusinessWeek’s Aaron Bernstein explains why ULLICO is actually a model example of the right way to correct corporate misconduct.

Team Members of the World Unite. There’s got to be a special section in hell reserved for hypocritical liberals, especially the kind who run so-called “socially responsible” businesses. This article is a good rundown on the campaign by workers at Whole Food Markets to form a union and the company’s vicious attempt to stop them. (Most self-contradictory anti-union argument: Whole Foods says a union would hurt the company's flexibility and the character of individual stores. For example, a union might make it harder to impose an inflexible company-wide dress code.)