Boeing continues its downward spiral


The plight of Boeing continues to fascinate me. Dad's cousin was a machinist / toolmaker for them from the 1940s to the early 1970s—from the B-29 to the 727. One Sunday afternoon I listened to him explain the problems of producing the tooling for the 727's tail section. Not only did the tail carry important control surfaces, the designers had run a third jet engine through the middle. Not surprisingly, making all this work required fabricating some complex shapes out of high-strength aluminum alloys. This was before computerized milling machines so these tools were built with slide rules, micrometers, Bridgeport mills, and a whole lot of skills. The resulting aircraft exceeded every important performance projection by at least 5%, thousands were made, and there are still people who argue it was the fastest subsonic airliner to ever fly.

My brother-in law was the guy who specified for Boeing which welding method would be used for every part that would be joined using heat. For every potential operation, he would test several welding methods, X-ray the results, and then break the weld to see how much load it would take. His results became part of Boeing's institutional memory. Any time folks needed to weld up a landing gear, or whatever, they could check to see what methods had been certified. My brother-in-law had not gone to engineering school but he was so good at what he did, he was given a "field promotion" to engineer by the company (along with the increased pay grade.) Such was the "old" Boeing.

According to his account, old Boeing began to die with the merger of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas on Aug. 1, 1997. The value of the transaction was $16.3 billion. McDonnell Douglas had been on the ropes for awhile and their senior management had turned to the Wall Street sharpies for "help"—the kind of help that stressed share prices and political connections to the Defense Department over the real work of building quality airplanes. These folks came to Boeing in the merger and began an assault on the company's engineering culture. On February 9, 2000, Boeing's engineers actually went out on strike—egged on, no doubt by the designated management fool / Wall Street darling named Debbie Hopkins who wondered aloud, "Just why does Boeing need engineers anyway?" I don't know Debbie, maybe it's because punching a hole through the air at nearly 600 mph is really hard to do. Maybe it's because without engineers, Boeing does not exist.

Anyway, shortly after the SPEEA strike was settled, my brother-in-law quit in disgust and found a peaceful job teaching non-ferrous welding at a Tacoma community college where he worked into his late 70s. Debbie was soon fired but her work was done. The rot at Boeing soon showed up in airplanes that had serious quality issues. I did a post in 2013 about the troubled Dreamliner and now the 737max fleet is grounded.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Dreamliner is grounded

If anyone ever needs a lesson in what happens when Predators take over a Producer company, Boeing will do perfectly.  In it's glory days, Boeing pretty much defined a Producer company.  Engineers ran the show.  The company would occasionally bet the farm on a breakthrough product.  There was a sense of pride you could feel the moment you passed through the plant gates.  And people who knew aircraft were often fanatically loyal to their output (It's Boeing or I'm not going.)  Yes, there were other companies that made large aircraft but sensible people would often ask "Why?"  Boeing was so sure about its products that for decades, it only had one salesman.  One was plenty because everyone knew what buying from Boeing meant.

And then it started to unravel.  In 1997, Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas, a company that had lost its airplane-making chops and had become just another cost-plus supplier hanging off the big Defense Department teat.  Boeing also had significant ties to the defense industry but were babes in the woods compared to the sharpies from McDonnell Douglas.  Soon the sharpies were ensconced in senior management at Boeing and the rot began to set in.  The open assault on Boeing's engineering culture came out into the open during the SPEEA (Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace) strike of 2000.  The cordial atmosphere between the engineers that designed Boeing's products and the engineers that managed the company was broken.  Management even moved the headquarters to Chicago from Seattle to show the divorce was final.

Once the Boeing Producer / engineering culture had been trashed, the chance for breakthrough, industry-defining projects was trashed as well.  The Dreamliner, which was not even that revolutionary to start with, became an expensive, ongoing fiasco that demonstrated the truth of the most famous sign carried during the SPEEA strike "No nerds, No Birds."  And so now, after several years of delays and $Billions of cost over-runs, the few Dreamliners that have been delivered are grounded.  The problem isn't even an aerospace problem but rather faulty lithium batteries.  If the Predators of the "new" Boeing management were actually capable of feeling shame, they would be resigning en mass. Yeah, that's going to happen (NOT)!

Boeing's travails show what's wrong with modern capitalism 

Deregulation means a company once run by engineers is now in the thrall of financiers and its stock remains high even as its planes fall from the sky

Matt Stoller, 11 Sep 2019

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.”

High profits masked the collapse in productive skill until the crashes of the 737 Max

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, the Economist noted that profits across the corporate sector were high and persistent, a function of a lack of competition across swaths of the economy. If corporations don’t have to compete, they can raise prices to buyers, lower what they pay to suppliers and workers, and reduce quality.

High profits result in sloth and corruption. Many of our industrial goliaths are now run in ways that are fundamentally destructive. General Electric, for instance, was once a jewel of American productive capacity, a corporation created out of George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison’s patents for electric systems. Edison helped invent the lightbulb itself, brightening the world. Today, as a result of decisions made by Jack Welch in the 1990s to juice profit returns, GE slaps its label on lightbulbs made in China. Even worse, if investigator Harry Markopoulos is right, General Electric may in fact be riddled with accounting fraud, a once great productive institution strip-mined by financiers.

These are not the natural, inevitable results of capitalism. Boeing and GE were once great companies, working in capitalist open markets.

So what went wrong? In short, the law. In the 1970s, a host of thinkers on the right and left – from Milton Friedman to George Stigler to Alfred Kahn to the current liberal supreme court justice Stephen Breyer – argued that policymakers should take restraints off capital and get rid of anti-monopoly rules. They used many terms to make this case, including deregulation, cost/benefit analysis, and the consumer welfare standard in antitrust law. They embraced the shareholder theory of capitalism, which emphasizes short-term profits. What followed was a radical consolidation of market power, and then systemic looting.

The disease of inefficiency and graft has spread to the government

Today, high profit margins are a pervasive and corrupting influence across the government and corporate sectors. Private equity firms moved capital from corporations and workers to themselves, destroying once healthy retailers like RadioShack, Toys R Us, Payless and K-Mart.

The disease of inefficiency and graft has spread to the government. In 1992, Harvard Professor Ash Carter, who later become the secretary of defense under Obama, wrote that the Pentagon was too difficult to do business with. “The most straightforward step” to address this, he wrote, “would be to raise the profit margins allowed on defense contracts.” The following year Prof Carter was appointed assistant secretary of defense for international security policy in the first Clinton administration, which followed his advice.

Earlier this year, the defense department found that one defense contractor run by private equity executives had profit margins of up to 4,451% on spare parts it sold to the military. Consulting giant McKinsey was recently caught trying to charge the government $3m a year for the services of a recent college graduate.

The ultimate result of concentrating wealth and corrupting government is to concentrate power in the hands of a few. We’ve been here before. In the 1930s, fascists in Italy and Germany were gaining strength, as were communists in the Russia. Meanwhile, leaders in liberal democracies were confronted by a frightened populace losing faith in democracy. American political leaders were able to take on domestic money lords with a radical antitrust campaign to break the power of the plutocrats. Today we are in a similar situation, with autocrats making an increasingly persuasive case that liberal democracy is weak.

The solution to this political crisis is fairly simple, and it involves two basic principles. One, policymakers have to increase competition for large powerful companies, to bring profits down. Executives should spend their time competing with each other to build quality products, not finding ways of attracting former generals, or administration officials to their board of directors. Two, policymakers should raise taxes on wealth and high incomes to radically reduce the concentration of wealth, which will make looting irrational.

Our system is no longer aligning rewards with productive skill. Despite the 737 Max crisis, Boeing’s stock price is still twice as high as in July 2015, when Muilenburg took over as CEO. That right there is what is broken about modern capitalism. We had better fix it fast. more