Grey Matters: Knute Berger on Seattle's War-making Business

Despite our peacenik reputation, a key to Seattle’s economy is the war-making business.
Knute Berger  |   June 2011   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION

If you listen to people like Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, “Left Coast” cities like Seattle are so far out of the mainstream that we’re on the outer banks of reality. It’s true that we’re an antiwar kind of place, having been at the forefront of opposition to nuclear submarines, and 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 Senator Patty Murray and earmarking politicos like Representative 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 competition to a group led by rival Airbus. The decision means that thousands of jobs will stay in the Puget Sound region. 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, i.e., software, biotech, Kindles and coffee, the Boeing win was pretty old school: government cash to keep the nation’s war fighters 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 P-8A Poseidon “sub killer” planes. The aerospace industry generates some $32 billion per year in revenues in the state and employs around 82,000 people. The military is the Puget Sound region’s largest employer; it 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 has about 640,000 veterans, so the military economy can be 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 supporting the military’s “mission” here.

The web of influence also extends to how the Puget Sound area has been shaped over the years to suit military work. Our ports and airfields are partly the 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 and research. Not only did innovations like the Internet grow out of defense work, but the very notion of creative techies attacking problems in multidisciplinary 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 postwar defense and technology work. In effect, the process that produced the atomic bomb was the progenitor of Redmond’s Microsoft campus.

It’s easy to forget amid Seattle politics, which often focus on such momentous issues as bike etiquette and mini goats, that a bulwark of our region’s economy is old-fashioned defense and military spending. We help make the world safe for the Bill O’Reillys. 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 or Nintendo, the butter in our croissants comes from guns.

Write editor-at-large Knute Berger at knute.berger@seattlemag.com. His Mossback column is at crosscut.com