Conservative Texas Sen. Ted Cruz hasn't had many good things to say about Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist senator from Vermont— except on a little federal agency called the Export-Import Bank, which finances purchases of goods sold abroad by U.S. companies.
"I'll give credit to Senator Sanders for standing up against corporate welfare," Cruz said last summer, when a move to extinguish the bank became a rallying cry for tea party activists — including the conservative mega-donor Koch Brothers — bucking the GOP's business-backed leadership. After a short lapse, the bank's charter was renewed in December as part of a highway bill that stands as one of the 114th Congress' few accomplishments.
Cruz and Sanders may have lost their bid to kill the bank. But the episode did illuminate one area where the ideological left and right align against the interests of corporate America. At last night's debate, the bank became a flashpoint between Sanders and Hillary Clinton, who defended it on the grounds that America needs it to compete against countries that are already subsidizing their companies' exports. (Rather than costing the taxpayers, it actually generates a small profit every year for the U.S. Treasury).
Sanders fired back, correctly naming Boeing as the bank's biggest beneficiary — and then implying that it's been shipping jobs overseas. "Many of these corporations have shut down in America, and have gone abroad to exploit poor people," he said. "I don’t think it’s a great idea for the American taxpayer to have to subsidize through corporate welfare profitable corporations who downsize in the United States of America."
So is that what Boeing has done? Well, yes and no.
According to a spokeswoman, other than a recently-announced "finishing" plant in China, Boeing currently does not have its own manufacturing or assembly plants in other countries. It does buy parts from outside the U.S.; about 20 percent of its suppliers are based outside the United States. But import statistics from the International Trade Administration on the U.S. aerospace sector — dominated by Boeing — show that the vast majority of imports come from France, Canada, Japan, Italy, and the United Kingdom, with Mexico on the rise.
"The interesting thing is that they’re still high-skill, high-wage producers," says Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group. "This isn’t a race to the bottom." Boeing contracts with foreign companies in part because they've specialized in certain very high-tech components, rather than because their labor is cheaper. Boeing has, however, added thousands of jobs in non-union states like South Carolina, Texas and Alabama while shrinking its footprint in Washington state.
It's true, some companies may use Export-Import Bank financing while also seeking cheaper labor overseas. But it's probably not fair to single out Boeing for that particular critique.
As for whether Boeing needs the help from the U.S. government — that's more debatable. "It is to a certain extent a question of profits," Aboulafia says. "Would they survive? Yeah, probably. But do you want to take the risk?"