Tit-for-Tat Tariffs Don’t Work: Boeing and Airbus Show Why

A 16 year-long aerospace subsidies dispute between the United States and the European Union began another round this week. The U.S. claims that the EU’s Airbus subsidies are unfair. The EU argues that America’s Boeing subsidies are unfair. Both sides are right. But neither wants to admit that the other side has a point, too. The result has been tit-for-tat tariff increases and no subsidy reforms.

Today, the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that the EU may impose tariffs on up to $3.99 billion of American goods, because Boeing’s favorable tax treatment violates WTO rules.

This follows a 2019 decision allowing the U.S. to impose tariffs on up to $7.5 billion of EU goods due to the EU’s Airbus subsidies.

Boeing called today’s decision “irrelevant.” Last year, Washington state repealed the tax provision at the center of this decision. However, the larger sticking point in the dispute remains. Yes, this one tax break is gone, but Boeing still receives massive subsidies. That means the EU will not stop pressing the matter. Nor has the EU reformed Airbus’ special treatment. That means the U.S. won’t stop, either.

In addition to being ineffective, the tariffs are causing collateral damage to other industries that have nothing to do with the dispute, from French wines to American motorcycles. This deadweight loss matters at a time when the world economy is already hurting due to COVID-19.

The lesson both sides need to learn is, don’t copy other people’s mistakes. Instead, set a better example. Subsidized companies grow soft and lose their competitive edge. There is a reason why so much aerospace innovation these days, from space travel to supersonic flight, is happening outside of Boeing and Airbus’ subsidized comfort.

The right thing to do is for governments to stop subsidizing private businesses—even if the other side doesn’t. Set the right example. Boeing would likely do just fine without subsidies. They would certainly have far more incentive to improve their products and address their safety concerns than they do now.

And if Boeing can’t survive without subsidies, there is no shortage of entrepreneurs capable of unleashing engineering and manufacturing talent.

Either way, consumers and taxpayers win. Europe and Airbus can then either follow America’s positive example or be content with subsidized mediocrity. Realistically, they will very likely choose the subsidies. But we cannot let Europe’s mistakes be our own. The U.S. has been doing that for at least 16 years now, and we know it doesn’t work.

A modest starting point on the U.S. side would be closing the Export-Import Bank, which often devotes half of its business to securing below-market financing rates for Boeing’s customers, many of whom are state-owned. Boeing set record profits while Ex-Im was mothballed from 2014-2019, so we already know the company will do just fine without that multi-billion-dollar program.

For more on that idea, see my most recent Ex-Im paper.