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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Pompeo Goes Populist (But Probably Not Populist Enough)

Wichita's representative in Congress, Mike Pompeo, won his seat in 2010 by emphasizing again and again the most common of Republican talking points these days: lower taxes, less regulation, and most particularly the need to keep the government's hands off of businesses making the sorts of decisions which enable, in his mind, the free market to be such a wonderful source of wealth and job-creation. But in the wake of the news that Boeing, one of the largest employers in Wichita and a huge economic engine for south-central Kansas, is considering moving the work it was scheduled to perform on a huge Air Force refueling tanker contact out of the state, a contract which local, state, and federal politicians like Pompeo helped Boeing win from the Defense Department, Pompeo is sounding less like a conservative and more like a populist. This is appropriate for a Kansas politician, since the roots of the 19th-century Populist movement which challenged the disruptive and controlling effects which the decisions of large corporations had on farmers and tradesmen run more deeply in Kansas than in any other state. But I doubt--though I would be both surprised and gratified if I turn out to be wrong--that Pompeo has it in him to go populist enough.

He has certain made his frustration with Boeing clear; in a news conference, he emphasized the years of work which went it to crafting the package of tax breaks and other economic supports which Boeing felt it needed to be competitive in landing the KC-46A tanker contract, worth an estimated $35 billion (nearly $400 million of which would be spent here in Wichita). He insisted that Boeing needed to be clear on what their reasoning was for considering relocating the work to another state, and that there was a long "trail of promises" which they were honor-bound--via a "promise and a handshake"--to be true to. Then in a Wichita Eagle column, he insisted that "Kansas and Boeing are family," with decades of history behind the community's development of an infrastructure and labor pool which Boeing (among many other aircraft manufacturing companies here in the "Air Capital of the World") depends upon. To take this work elsewhere, Pompeo wrote, "under a cloud of broken promises, is beneath the dignity of this proud company." And in case pride doesn't change corporate cost-benefit calculations, Pompeo threatened the company with unstated consequences for looking to "violat[e] long-standing promises and obligations that arise from its commitments," as well as "knowingly mak[ing] false statements to the U.S. government or to federal officials during a bidding process." Hardly the stuff of radical socialism, but pretty harsh words for a business-friendly Republican.

Harsh words, though, or even impassioned pleas to the good will of Boeing, are unlikely to have the kind of effect that Pompeo--and thousands of engineers and machinists and other laborers in the Wichita area--wants them to have, simply because the corporate logic of comparative advantage and profit maximization have no room for them. Large business interests like Boeing have--or so we have been told again and again by apologists for the "creative destruction" which capitalism wreaks upon individual livelihoods and whole communities--obligations only to their shareholders, not to the communities which have supported them, not to the workers which make them function, and definitely not to the political bodies, whether local, state, or national, which make the policies that allow corporations to flourish wherever seems to them to be best. For Boeing to keep its promises to Kansas, when the present economic outlook suggests it would be best for them if they didn't, smacks of encouraging some sort of "social responsibility" upon the corporation.

In other words, if Pompeo and others like him want to go head-to-head with Boeing and insist upon them keeping their promises to Kansas, then they're going to have to be willing to think in terms that present the notion that Boeing is "integral part of [the] community fabric" of Wichita as something more than talk; they're going to have to see that notion as having real political meaning and force. They're going to have to, in other words, not just talk like a Populist challenging decisions made by distant corporate calculators; they're going to have to admit those Populists have a point.

This doesn't mean denying "Boeing’s right to run its business as it sees fit," as Pompeo wrote; it does mean thinking again about what is Boeing's business...and what, by contrast, is properly at least as much the business of workers and citizens and taxpayers throughout Kansas and beyond. It means being willing to think the way the Populists were thinking, when they were faced with railroad corporations which charged bankrupting rates across Kansas, after having encouraged farmers to move out along those rail lines by implicitly promising them ready access to markets for their crops. It means, in short, being willing to think about things like economic sovereignty--about the ability, and the right, as least to a limited extent, for communities to claim some ownership over the economic engines which they enable to function through their labor and to flourish through their tax codes and other corporate-friendly policies.

There is no easy or obvious way to implement or resolve these claims, especially when dealing with a huge, global corporation like Boeing, at least not without embracing a full-scale revolution in favor of employee ownership, economic socialization, and market decentralization (and as good and justified as I think such a revolution might be, it would bring with it a host of problems all its own). But if Pompeo and others, as they engage in the difficult fight before them to change corporate minds and save thousands of jobs, aren't willing to at least acknowledge the point of the old Populist vision, then they'll be setting aside one of the relatively few resources which Kansas politicians have at their disposal: a history, one even older than Boeing's in Wichita, of measuring the power of citizens defending their livelihoods against the impersonal demands of corporations, and determining that the power of "community fabric" ought not be so easily set aside.

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