The Boeing 737 MAX and The Crash Of Capitalism

A first look onto the door plug by NTSB investigators (Photo: NTSB) (Via AVHerald)

If anything symbolizes the suck of late-stage capitalism, it’s the ‘door’ blowing off a 737 MAX, sucking a boy’s clothes out, and falling into a schoolteacher’s backyard. These planes fucking suck, but people have to keep riding around in them because they’re somebody’s investment. The 737 MAX is simply too big to fail, despite being an obvious failure, over and over again.

America doesn’t make things anymore, and neither does Boeing. They just rebrand, reboot, and loot the corpse of the 20th century until it’s unrecognizable. The Boeing 737 is a 50-year-old airframe that some marketing idiot just slapped the word MAX on, like it’s a flavor of Mountain Dew. They might as well call it the 737 EXTREME, which is the experience of riding one. The thing has crashed itself, blown out doors midair, and the engine can melt itself if the pilot isn’t careful. These are not isolated problems, they are simply the downstream effects of having stupid fucking ideas in the first place.

Take the 737 MAX crashing itself, which I’ve covered at length. The management decided to put a giant modern engine on a low 1960s airframe and it just didn’t fit. Just look at how squashed these modern engines look on such an old plane, and how high up the MAX engine is on the wing. This is what ‘financial’ engineering looks like.

Via me

To make the 737 MAX ‘work, they had to put the engine way forward and up on the plane, and it doesn’t work! This fundamentally changes the plane’s center of gravity and makes it ‘pop a wheelie’ in certain conditions, ie stall out and crash. To ‘solve’ this problem they wrote a software ‘fix’ that forced the nose down, involuntarily. That ‘fix’ got stuck and crashed multiple planes, in absolutely horrifying dips and dives that eventually grounded the whole fleet (temporarily), and hundreds of people (permanently). The problem was not the software or the engine, it was putting one century’s engine on another century’s airframe, so MBAs could save a bit of money. It, of course, cost more money in the long run, but who gives a shit? They got their bonuses and only failed upwards, while the planes they built kept crashing.

Now take the new problem. ‘Doors’ flying off midair. The 737 was initially designed to carry just over 100 people but has been stretched and contorted to fit double that, in multiple configurations. One of those configurations has a ‘false’ emergency exit (a ‘plug’), which is what recently blew out midair. Now, who is responsible for this part? Well, some outsourced company named Spirit Aero made the thing and Boeing assembled it, so effectively nobody. Which is the bigger problem underneath all of this.

As I wrote about Boeing’s Culture Crash, Henry Stonecipher destroyed Boeing as an engineering company in the 2000s. Like the rest of the American economy, he prioritized outsourcing in order to make short-term gains, leading to the destruction of Boeing as an engineering company. Quite intentionally. As Stonecipher said in 2004, “When people say I changed the culture of Boeing, that was the intent, so that it’s run like a business rather than a great engineering firm. It is a great engineering firm, but people invest in a company because they want to make money.”

Under Stonecipher, Boeing fired engineers, outsourced production, and the company has devoted 92% of cashflow to buybacks and dividends since 2014. They’re not actually in the plane business anymore, they’re in the branding and assembly business, and now these planes are disassembling midair and killing the branding. Because this is what happens when you have MBAs designing planes instead of engineers. They make good money and shitty planes. It was the triumph of short-term thinking, and only now do we get the long-term reckoning. As predicted. As Stan Sorscher, a Boeing physicists and union leader said in 2002:

In 2002, Sorscher, who had started working for the union full time, made his case to a Wall Street analyst in Seattle, arguing that bottom-line business models did not apply to building airplanes. The analyst cut him off. “You think you’re different,” he said, according to Sorscher. “This business model works for everyone. It works for ladies’ garments, for running shoes, for hard drives, for integrated circuits, and it will work for you.”

Taken aback, Sorscher said: “Let’s build an airliner with this business model. If it works, you and everyone who looks like you will be happy. And if I’m right, then we’ll all be very unhappy.”

This is the suck of late-stage capitalism. Boeing is a symptom of what Jamie Merchant calls “the abolition of the market without planning.” When you have companies that are too big to fail, regulators in a revolving door with industry, and government bailouts for the inevitable failures, you get central unplanning. You get planes crashing out of the sky and then going back on the market until their doors fly out, because what the fuck is anybody going to do about it? There are no actual rules to capitalism, it’s just rule by capital.

In any sane market, the 737 MAX wouldn’t be made, because it’s stupid, has wasted time and money, and kills people. But airplanes are a global duopoly, and a duopoly is just a monopoly with two orifices to go fuck yourself in. When Airbus slapped a new engine on an old airframe, Boeing just did the same thing. There’s no competition here, just shoddy cloning.

In any sane market, this product would not continue to be sold, after proving so fatally flawed (literally). But they keep selling it! They just keep patching up the Frankenplane and it keeps on lumbering from disaster to disaster, with different parts falling off or malfunctioning. Regulators go along with this, because they’re as corrupted as everything else in the American government. Indeed, in response to another design flaw (the deicing system melting the engine if left on), Boeing simply applied for an ‘exemption’. That’s the gall of these people. They think themselves above both market forces and government. Even though the planes are crashing, the oligarchs are high-flying.

Boeing was the quintessential American company, and in it you can see what America has become. A manufacturing powerhouse turned a financialized laughingstock. Boeing doesn’t make planes, it just makes money, and the same could be said about the American economy. In the short-run this is an orgy for oligarchs, but in the long-run it’s ruin. As Boeing dissident Dr. L.J. Hart-Smith said in 2001, “A strong case is made that it will not always be possible to make more and more profit out of less and less product and that, worse, there is a strong risk of going out of business directly as a result of this policy.”

However, it seems that not just Boeing but the 737 MAX will never go out of business, but that doesn’t make the risk disappear. It just accumulated upwards. The problem simply moves from the scale of a bad door, to a bad company, to a bad nation, to a bad Empire. The United States keeps having and bailing out bad company after bad company and all of that risk keeps piling up on the national balance sheet. They can keep doing this as long as the rest of their White Empire keeps paying tribute (called buying treasuries), but Boeing also makes shitty military equipment and the Empire itself is crumbling all over.

At some point, the deficits will add up, the debts will come due, and America and its whole White Empire will undergo what engineers called ‘Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly.’ This seems impossible but one can’t imagine the side of a plane falling off, until it does. This will happen the way Hemingway described bankruptcy, ‘gradually, then suddenly.’ Like the door blowing out a Boeing 737, an airframe from an air empire that peaked in 1967, and has only been cannibalizing itself ever since.