How Will The Golden Age Of “Making It Worse” End?

One of the more poignant and ridiculous and enduringly popular contemporary American insanities is the belief that one person—it’s almost always a man, although Jennifer Garner did get to do it in a movie once—can make a critical difference in any bad situation, provided that person is angry and violent enough. The most crystalline expression of this probably came from bedtime extremist and retired rapper Mark Wahlberg, who told Men’s Journal back in 2012 that, “if I was on that plane,” by which he meant United Flight 93, “it,” by which he meant the tragic events of September 11, 2001, “wouldn’t have went down like it did.” In the apology that Wahlberg subsequently issued, he allowed that, “to speculate about such a situation is ridiculous to begin with.” It absolutely is, but also idle fantasies of retribution are something like the national pastime.

In all kinds of ways, from broader social cohesion to individual mental health, this sort of thing is “not what you want.” For me, though, the many obvious ways in which this kind of thing is worrying and bad are secondary to the reason that it is poignant, which is the implied faith that any of this is somehow still up to you. There’s a faint stirring of recognition latent and inherent in the fantasy, a sort of loose and loosely politicized sense of being betrayed or simply abandoned by the systems or institutions that might have prevented the bad thing from happening, and so kept you from having to enter Vigilante Mode.

Mostly, though, there is just a small, sad, thwarted wish to make a wrong thing right, and to make the powerful parties that hurt you and forgot about you pay for having done so. There’s some political potential in acknowledging that anger, I guess, although it is mostly latent and inchoate, and the shape that it takes—grimly but expertly laying waste to a warehouse full of faceless henchmen, generally—reflects the limits of the culture’s imagination. If the real fantasy at play generally boils down, as most contemporary American fantasies do, to being justified in doing whatever violent stuff you’re fantasizing and fulminating about, there is also a melancholy dream of agency in it. It’s the idea that a person might, despite all the wild recklessness and cruelty of full-spectrum social failure rushing down onto them, somehow still be able to make sure it Wouldn’t Go Down Like That. Put another way, it is easier to imagine an endless procession of increasingly expensive and grandiose John Wick sequels than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.

But sometimes it is easier to imagine than others. As someone who has been on four different Boeing-made airplanes in the last week, I can attest to the limits of this fantasy in the face of the prospect that a door on your airplane—the production of which was outsourced and subcontracted by a flub-prone duopoly to save some money; the installation and inspection of which was overseen by an overworked and multiply pressured person working in a conflicted and careless system, also to save some money—might blow off at altitude. There are some problems an individual is not equipped to fix, and “airplane now has moonroof” is one of the classics, there. More to the point, the bad people enabling or actively authoring those problems can seem not merely out of reach but safely within a parallel reality that is, if not any less brutish or ugly or stupid, notably better insulated. You think less of mounting a Jack Reacher-style offensive on Boeing’s executive suite, in that situation, and more about how strong an airplane seat belt is, really, and I guess also how reliable the subcontractor that produced that seatbelt was, and how carefully that was inspected.

There’s a bit in Maureen Tkacik’s comprehensively damning 2019 feature about Boeing in The New Republic that I keep coming back to, both here and in general. The central tension of that story is about how, as a former Boeing physicist told Tkacik, “a long and proud ‘safety culture’ was rapidly being replaced… with ‘a culture of financial bullshit.’” The supplanting of that purpose—of any purpose, really, at just about any business in just about any industry you can think of—with the blank nihilism of financial capitalism’s profit-driven imperatives is familiar by now; management’s quest to see how much more cheaply an increasingly poor product can be sold at the same price and under the same name as what came before is, at bottom, the story of basically every industry or institution currently in decline or collapse.

If it was always foolish to expect the free market to make things better, it feels more fanciful by the day to imagine a future in which the cynics and sociopaths in charge of that market do anything but continue to make it worse; they’ve evinced no capacity for that, but also no interest in it. Whether this deterioration is the result of buccaneering libertarian delusion or just a bloodless calculation that concepts like “safety” and “quality” are more nice-to-have’s than need-to-have’s, it appears to be the only idea that any of these people have. As this slips further into abstraction—if those mishaps-at-altitude don’t really ding the stock price enough to bother any of the parties capable of doing something about them—the problem compounds and compounds. In the case of my industry, there is the sense that the business dipshits smashing up various institutions and lives simply care more about their divine right to smash things up than they do about anything else; something new can be built around the ruins they make, but the needless, ugly, colossal waste of it all is offensive all the same. Also none of us know how to make airplanes.

The erosion of Boeing’s former, engineer-driven culture and the rise of its ravening and reckless financial-capitalism one can be traced, in Tkacik’s story, in part to Boeing’s 1997 purchase of the failing aerospace company McDonnell Douglass. The merger was more or less the corporate equivalent of inviting a vampire to cross your threshold. The heedless, shortsighted cost-cutting and contingency of the smaller and more dysfunctional company took hold at the larger and more effective one; little by little, and then all at once, Boeing got to work on making its products worse—as much worse as they could be without tanking the stock price, and occasionally, tragically, even worse than that.

The physicist who talked to Tkacik about the “culture of financial bullshit” told her, too, about his attempts to get through to Wall Street types that shareholders were at much greater risk from that recklessness than they were by the deliberateness and expense of the old, dying “safety culture” that it was replacing. He tells Tkacik about a Wall Street analyst telling him: “‘Look, I get it. What you’re telling me is that your business is different. That you’re special. Well, listen: Everybody thinks his business is different, because everybody is the same. Nobody. Is. Different.

At some level, this is just one of the asshole capitalists who are wrecking the world talking like the sort of asshole capitalist who would wreck the world more or less on principle if given the opportunity. But there is a threat only barely latent in it, too. It’s an inversion of the way in which ideas like “everybody is the same” have traditionally been used in the culture; where that has typically been deployed, always rhetorically and usually insincerely, as a politician’s shorthand for the belief that every life has value and every person’s dignity is meaningful, it is here an assertion that every life—that every line of work and every person working in it, and every concern that those people have—is equally valueless and equally insignificant. It is, in its way, a statement of purpose: not just the assurance that every person, place, and thing is now or will become food for its rightful devourers, but that those doing the eating also think of it as junk food.

This is not what the people in charge of Boeing spent last week saying as they toured various Senate offices and scowled meaningfully in front of cameras. That kind of performance, more than any other more legible aspect, is both how where these people earn their astronomical salaries; the work of squeezing quality and dignity and concern out of the labor is automated, or something very near to it, but the services of a stern man’s face are required in the moments when that work delivers the eruptions of tragedy and carnage that it always does. Someone has to look ashamed, and to ensure that the shameful stuff doesn’t stop, or slow.

It’s Boeing, but it’s not just Boeing; the problem with their company is the problem with every company, and the only effective solution to that problem would not just contradict their life’s work, but obviate their role as they understand and inhabit it. It would not just put them out of a job, but probably put them in prison. “I’m more than frustrated and disappointed,” Boeing CEO David Calhoun told NBC News last week. “I’m angry.” He might very well be, but I’d also submit that he has no idea—no idea how much anger there is about what he and his cohort have done to make every aspect of life flatter and crueler and riskier and worse, and no idea how lucky he is that all that rage is still being pointed in, and not up.

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