How the Boeing Crashes Explain U.S. Politics

Boeing 787 Dreamliner during take-off


The two recent crashes of a new Boeing jet have drawn attention to a topic at once polarizing and boring: regulations. A powerful and poorly understood anti-stall system in the new planes may have played a role in the crashes, leading lawmakers and the public to question how the system was approved in the first place.

The debate over regulation, however, is likely to be framed as the same false choice it has been for the past 40 or so years. Republicans will argue that regulations are bad for business and growth, while Democrats will essentially cede that point, arguing that rules are nonetheless necessary for health and safety. But in fact, the Boeing episode is a reminder that effective regulation is often good for business.

A system in the Boeing 737 Max 8 is programmed to tip the nose of the plane down to avert a stall. The pilots of the crashed planes seem to have been unable to override it. A Seattle Times investigation found that regulators, under time pressure to help Boeing compete with a new model from European rival Airbus, delegated review of the new system to Boeing itself. It was part of a larger FAA policy of delegating much day-to-day regulatory work to the company, a policy that has come under intense scrutiny since the crash. Boeing engineers, doing safety analysis on the FAA’s behalf, understated the system’s potential hazards, and pilot groups say that, until the first crash, they didn’t even know about the update.

The notion of sharing the work of inspecting and clearing planes with the company isn’t absurd. As Vox’s Matthew Yglesias pointed out, Boeing has a strong profit incentive to maintain a perfect safety record. But few people, or large organizations, act in perfect accordance with incentives, especially when short-term profits are pitted against long-term, hypothetical losses.

That’s why the U.S. has reams of rules about plane safety—which in turn is a big reason flying has become much safer in recent decades. How long can a pilot fly before they’re required to rest? There’s a rule for that. And one for how the cockpit is lit, and one for who’s authorized to inspect the propeller, and on and…

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