International tough

Boeing's departure is all about image.

THREE HOURS AFTER getting the word, Gov. Gary Locke still sounded a little shaken. Standing amid the box-lunch detritus of the Auburn Rotary Club meeting he'd just addressed, he confirmed early reports that Boeing had informed him of its imminent corporate departure from the Pacific Northwest less than 10 minutes before making the news public in Washington, D.C. No, he'd had no idea beforehand, no idea at all. When he'd dined with Boeing Chair Phil Condit a while back, the subject certainly hadn't come up.

It was a shock, no doubt about it—a big disappointment. On the other hand, he'd been given positive assurances that Boeing's commercial aircraft division and its 80,000 jobs would remain in the area. "And they said that a number of the executives plan to continue to maintain homes here, too," he said.

At such straws the Governor of the Great State of Washington was forced to grasp for comfort. However, there really is no comfort to be had. The immediate impact is not economic but emotional. A corporate entity that has conditioned the lifeways of this area for more than 60 years has chosen to terminate the connection, without notice and in absentia. "It's like picking up the phone and hearing that your grandfather has walked out on your grandmother," says state economist Chang Mook Sohn. "You get a divorce maybe after being married three years, five years—but 85 years? Imagine how the grandchildren feel."

If that sounds an odd way for an economist to react to the news, think again. The economic rationale Boeing leader Condit put forward for the move—to the extent he bothered to make one—is little more than a collection of New Economy buzzwords and business-school clich鳠that does nothing to explain how the move will measurably "serve our stockholders."

The real economic rationale is to be found not in the price of real estate in Dallas nor in the availability of venture capital in Chicago. True, Boeing stands to collect some useful perks from whichever municipality wins the bidding war for its favor. But that's just whoring, peddling your ass to the highest bidder, and even in the corporate realm, whoring is not where the big bucks are.

THE SIGNIFICANCE of the move lies not in the move itself but in the way it was made—as rudely, coldly, and dismissively as possible. It's a corporate version of the existentialist acte gratuit: We do it to demonstrate that we can do it and that you, to whom we do it, are helpless to respond.

That's already had a salubrious effect on Boeing's situation locally. Within 24 hours of the announcement, says Martha Choe of the Department of Trade and Economic Development, "the governor asked to meet with Boeing leaders and see if the decision is final, but also to make sure that we are aware of any other issues that we need to address." Translation: What do we have to do to keep you from taking the rest of the operation away from us?

Boeing's drama last week was staged to impress not us puny locals but its corporate peers. Real corporations these days don't make anything, except contacts, deals, and money. They outsource everything else. Boeing may be the 10th largest company in America, but it's cursed with making things in factories, and things and factories are so earthbound, old economy, unchic.

Reading between the lines of Condit's rationalizations to the press, you can make out an argument something like this: "If Boeing wants to be a lean, mean, modern corporation, it's got to cut itself loose from all the messy material and human impediments that distract from full concentration on cash flow. We've said over and over that we're transforming ourselves according to the new, improved model, but our stock price shows that our peers don't believe it. We've got to prove to them that we're serious. And the best way to prove it is to uproot ourselves from the earth where we have been nourished for 85 years, and do it in the messiest, most heedless, most destructive way we can. That'll show 'em we're tough, tough as they are—tough enough to be part of the big boys' club."

Maybe the image of a 10-year-old stealing his granny's egg money on a dare seems too puerile to account for the behavior of the leaders of a $50 billion corporation. Jack up the image a little if you like: Think of a punk proving he's man enough to join the mob by carrying out a hit on some loser who got in trouble with the big guys.

The point is, you and I have less to say about how this game is played or what its outcome will be than a bull has to say about the outcome of the corrida. Our only role is to suffer. For now, while our political leaders crawl on their bellies over broken glass to save what's left, all we have to suffer is contempt. But there's plenty more suffering where this batch came from.

For more on the Boeing departure, read Memories of a company town.

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