Despite tech-sector hype, defense spending still butters our croissants

Boeing's newest Pentagon contract highlights an economic powerhouse that belies Washington's claims of liberalism and innovation and the Peace Economy.

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Boeing's SST prototype at the Developmental Center in what is now Tukwila. (Boeing)

Boeing's newest Pentagon contract highlights an economic powerhouse that belies Washington's claims of liberalism and innovation and the Peace Economy.

If you listen to people like Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, Left Coast cities like Seattle are so far out of the mainstream, we're on the outer-banks of reality. We're an anti-war kind of place, having been at the forefront of opposition to nuclear submarines, wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Central America, and Vietnam.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Department of Peace. Earlier this year local boosters across the political spectrum were rooting for Boeing to get a new Pentagon contract to build the next generation of tanker jets. With lobbying from liberals like Sen. Patty Murray (a "terrible senator," according to O'Reilly) and pork-barrel politicos like Congressman Norm Dicks, Boeing won the $35 billion contract — a major boost to the local economy and a surprising turnaround. Early word was that Boeing was going to lose the tanker competition to a group led by rival Airbus. The decision means that thousands of jobs will stay on Puget Sound.

It was a setback for Boeing's European competitor and a defeat for the right-to-work Red states eagerly lining up to undercut Boeing's union labor. A big win, right?

Yes, but lost amid the good news about jobs is that the tanker contract is funded by billions in taxpayer money to keep America's war machine fueled. The tankers extend the range of fighters, bombers, and spy planes. In a city obsessed with the "new" economy, like software, biotech, Kindles and coffee, the Boeing win was pretty old school: government cash to keep the nation's bombers flying. The ghosts of political warhorses like Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson and Warren G. Magnuson — the dynamic duo that once kept Boeing flying and pork flowing — are no doubt celebrating in that great senatorial chamber in the sky.

Another piece of good news that largely flew under the radar: $13 billion in cuts to the Pentagon's budget, proposed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates earlier this year, left most of the region's major Boeing defense contracts unscathed. We'll continue to produce unmanned military aircraft and PA8 Poseidon "sub killer" planes.

Aerospace generates some $31 billion-per-year in revenues in the state and employs around 82,000 people. The military is Puget Sound's largest employer. Between the Bangor submarine base, the Navy in Everett, the shipyard in Bremerton, and Joint Base Fort Lewis McChord in Tacoma, the military directly employs some 125,000 people here, representing a $3 billion annual payroll.

The defense and military economy in Washington is a complex web that includes education spending (training, research), infrastructure enhancements (new roads, port improvements), and the countless ways defense work filters through economic sectors from real estate to retail. The state is also home to some 640,000 veterans, so the military economy is even seen extending to veterans benefits and VA hospitals. The so-called Military Cluster economy is so important that the Puget Sound Regional Council has a working group that focuses on how to support the military's "mission" here.

The web of influence also extends to how Puget Sound has been shaped over the years to suit military work. Our ports and airfields are partly a function of geography, but it goes beyond that. Urbanists love to tout "smart" cities, but a key ingredient to successful technology centers, such as Silicon Valley or Route 128 in Boston, is defense-related work.

Not only did innovations like the Internet grow out of defense work, but the notion of creative techies attacking problems in multi-disciplinary groups on suburban campuses was an invention of the post-World War II military industrial complex, according to University of Washington professor Margaret Pugh O'Mara in her book, Cities of Knowledge. The lessons of the Manhattan Project were applied to other post-war defense and technology work. In effect, the process that successfully produced the atomic bomb was the progenitor of Redmond's Microsoft campus.

It's easy to forget amid Seattle politics, which often focuses on such momentous issues as bike etiquette and mini-goats, that a bulwark of Puget Sound's economy is old-fashioned defense and military spending. As much as we might like to hype new nodes, such as Pioneer Square's burgeoning computer game developer nexus, or tout the hotness of Amazon, Starbucks, Zillow or Nintendo, the butter on our croissants comes from guns.

This essay first appeared in the June issue of Seattle Magazine.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.