Boeing’s Subsidy Coercion

For many years Boeing has complained that its European rival Airbus unfairly benefited from government subsidies as it grew to become the world’s top jet builder. The U.S. company felt vindicated when the World Trade Organization ruled last June that Airbus had indeed received improper below-market-rate loans from European governments.

But now Boeing has been hoisted by its own petard.  Responding to a counter-complaint filed by the European Union, the WTO has just concluded that Boeing received its own illegitimate government help – both from research contracts awarded by federal agencies and from states that put together large incentive packages to lure production facilities for Boeing’s next-generation 787 Dreamliner. The value of the questionable payments was said to be in excess of $20 billion.

The ruling itself was not made public, but the descriptions of it that have emerged in the press undermine Boeing’s long-standing contention that its government assistance, unlike that received by Airbus, is legitimate. The company has strained to argue that the deals offered by the states are incentives and that incentives are not the same thing as subsidies. The WTO now seems to be saying that this is one of those distinctions without a difference.

Since the text of the WTO decision is not available, I thought it would be helpful to recount what kinds of assistance Boeing has received from various states. The deals were well covered but it is easy to forget how willing the company has been to make use of public giveaways.

WASHINGTON STATE. Boeing’s association with Washington State dated back to the company’s founding in 1916, but when it was making plans in the early 2000s for the Dreamliner, it forced the state to compete with around 19 others to be chosen as the location for a $500 million plant and up to 1,200 jobs.

Eager to preserve his state’s status as a center of aerospace production, Gov. Gary Locke proposed huge tax breaks for the company and pressured the legislature to approve them virtually overnight in a special session. Locke got his way, and Boeing ended up with a package of research & development tax credits and cuts in Business & Occupation taxes (the state’s substitute for a corporate income tax), sales taxes and property taxes that together were estimated to be worth $3.2 billion over 20 years. Boeing agreed to locate the Dreamliner operation in Washington after the state also agreed to overhaul the unemployment insurance system to reduce costs for employers and tighten up on workers compensation claims.

KANSAS. Hoping to persuade Boeing to perform a portion of the work on its Dreamliner at its 12,000-person operation in Wichita, the Kansas legislature in 2003 approved a plan to make available $500 million in bond financing to the company. The proceeds from the state bond issue were to be turned over to Boeing, which would be allowed to pay off the interest by diverting the state payroll taxes collected from its workers assigned to tasks relating to the new jetliner. The projected cost to the state in lost revenue over the 20-year bond payoff period was estimated at $200 million. In 2005, before it could make use of the bond financing, Boeing sold its commercial operations in Wichita to a Canadian private equity firm, which was allowed to make use of the funding at a reduced level.

SOUTH CAROLINA. The Palmetto State was one of the losers in the 2003 competition set up by Boeing to decide where to locate its initial production facilities for the Dreamliner. But the state kept wooing the airplane manufacturer as well as some of its major suppliers. In 2004 it gave a subsidy deal worth more than $100 million to one of those suppliers, Vought Aircraft Industries. In 2009 Boeing received a subsidy package initially valued at $450 million – later pegged at $900 million – to locate its second Dreamliner production line in South Carolina, where it clearly hopes to keep its workforce non-union.

ILLINOIS. Boeing played the same subsidy game in 2001 when it decided to move its headquarters from Seattle to another part of the country. It set up a competition among three cities that was won by Chicago after state and local officials put together a package of tax credits, property tax abatements and other incentives worth a total of about $56 million.

What this history shows is that Boeing not only mimicked Airbus in making use of anti-competitive subsidies, but that it did so by coercing state and local governments. For Boeing, at least, the main problem is not that it violated the WTO’s abstract notions of fair competition but that it exploited the hunger for decent jobs to extract massive sums from the pockets of American taxpayers.

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