Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita, has long defended the idea that government has no place interfering with businesses making those decisions that, he asserts, enable the free market to be such a wonderful job creator. But in the wake of the news that Boeing may move its work on a huge Air Force refueling tanker contact out of the state, with all the jobs that contract would provide, Pompeo is sounding more like a 19th-century Kansas Populist than a conservative Republican (“Boeing needs to honor its promise on tankers,” Dec. 21 Opinion).
He has emphasized the extensive economic supports that Wichita and Kansas provided Boeing to help it win the contract. He has insisted that there is a “trail of promises” that Boeing is honor-bound to uphold. And he has threatened the company for “violating long-standing promises and obligations that arise from its commitments,” as well as knowingly making false statements.
These are harsh words for a business-friendly Republican. But his words are unlikely to have the kind of effect that he wants them to have, because most corporations, from Pompeo’s own perspective, shouldn’t be obliged to listen to them.
The usual assumption is that large businesses like Boeing only really have a responsibility to maximize the profits of their shareholders. The idea that they also have a responsibility to the communities that have supported them, or to the workers who make them function, or to the political bodies that make the policies that allow them to flourish in the first place, has few defenders in Kansas these days.
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If Pompeo and others like him want to go head to head with Boeing, they’re going to have to be willing to see his claim that Boeing has long been an “integral part of our community fabric” as more than talk; they’re going to have to see that claim as having real political meaning and force.
This doesn’t mean denying “Boeing’s right to run its business as it sees fit,” as Pompeo wrote. But it does mean thinking again about just what is Boeing’s business, and what is at least partly the business of the workers and citizens and taxpayers of Kansas as well. It means being willing to think the way the Populists thought when they were faced with railroad corporations that charged bankrupting rates across Kansas, after having encouraged farmers to move out along those rail lines by promising them ready access to markets for their crops. It means being willing to think about things like economic sovereignty – about the right of communities to claim at least some ownership over the economic engines that they enable to function through their labor and to flourish through their tax codes.
There is no obvious way to resolve these claims when dealing with a global corporation like Boeing – not without a full-scale embrace of employee ownership and market decentralization. But if Pompeo and others, as they engage in the difficult fight to change corporate minds and save thousands of jobs, aren’t willing to at least acknowledge the point of the old Populist vision, they’ll be setting aside one of the best resources that 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, distant demands of corporations, and determining that the claims of “community fabric” ought not be so easily set aside.