Obama and the Jets

Here in Wichita, Kansas, the “Air Capital of the World,” where general aviation is the backbone of the local economy, we’re always alert to the news stories concerning corporate jets. For the past three and a half years or so the stories have mostly been about Barack Obama’s relentless war on the industry, so you can imagine our surprise upon reading that he’s now offering corporate jet builders a billion dollars in subsidies.

The new policy is apparently an unintended consequence of the protracted debate over the renewal of the Import-Export Bank. We assume it’s unintended, at any rate, as we can’t imagine that Obama has suddenly acquired a new affection for corporate jets or seriously hopes to curry favor with the bitter gun-and-Bible-clinging Kansans who build them.

The Im-Ex, as it is known to those in the know, was established back in the ‘30s to help finance the purchase of American-made products by foreign buyers, but has since acquired a reputation as a dispenser of corporate welfare, with the Boeing Company’s huge airliner business being by far the biggest beneficiary. The bank’s periodic renewal is usually a routine act of Congress, but this time around it faced stiff opposition from several of the more conservative congressional Republicans, who were backed by such free market advocates as The Club For Growth, as well as such aggrieved corporations as Delta Airlines, which believe the bank is unfairly supporting their competitors’ purchases of Boeing products. More centrist politicians from both parties still love such cozy arrangements between government and business, as do such organizations as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and even the most stridently anti-corporate Democrats had been brought on board, so the bill had considerable bipartisan support all along, but it wasn’t until the Im-Ex’s head honcho promised to sweeten the deal with money for makers of smaller planes that the bill finally won passage in the Senate.

Obama signed the bill on Wednesday, citing it as an example of the common sense legislation needed to improve the economy, but he didn’t emphasize the corporate jet subsidies. The GOP immediately took to the internet with a reminder that as a presidential candidate in 2008 Obama had promised to eliminate the Import-Export Bank and called it “little more than a fund for corporate welfare.” The Republicans also correctly noted that Obama had previously sought to increase taxes on jet ownership, and had repeatedly given speeches that used business jets as a symbol of wretched corporate excess and immoral income inequality. No explanation for the contradictions has been forthcoming from the White House, so far as we know, nor any indication that Obama has disavowed his previous policies and rhetoric.

There’s a reasonable argument to be made for Im-Ex, which makes loans that are routinely repaid, and even for its special relationship with Boeing, an important American company whose only global competitor is heavily subsidized by the European Union, but the Obama policy of bashing corporate aviation with one hand and lavishing it with a billion dollars from the other hand is simply incoherent. A smarter administration would seek to negotiate a multilateral end to corporate subsidies with the European Union, whose member countries might well be looking for something to painlessly cut out of their budgets these days, and to devise a simplified tax code and reasonable regulatory system that would make corporate jet ownership more and allow the industry to be profitable enough that it would have no need of subsidies.

At the further edges of the right and the left, from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street, there is a rare agreement that corporate welfare should be abolished, but both sides have their own reasons. The right hates anything with “welfare” in the name, while the left abhors any mention of corporations. Obama seems to have staked out a strange middle position that is pro-welfare, anti-corporation, and unlikely to be of much help.

— Bud Norman