You might expect everyone at the CATO Institute to rubberstamp the EADS contract decision as a triumph for the globalized free market and a success for the depoliticized buying process. It turns out not to be so simple. In fact, CATO scholar Benjamin H. Friedman in his post on the CATO at Liberty blog has quite the opposite view:
“But while getting the best plane for the least money is essential, when it awards contracts, the Pentagon should be able to consider their effect on the political landscape, because that landscape drives future contracts. You can’t get the politics out of defense contracting, so you need to get the politics right.
The political problem with the Airbus deal is that it opens a production facility in Alabama to make conventional aircraft assembled elsewhere into tankers, but will not close Boeing’s similar plant in Wichita, Kansas. This means taxpayers have a new mouth to feed. Because they create concentrated interests, US military production facilities are nearly impossible to close.”
Mr. Friedman then goes on to explain how the competition in this case was not the work of a real free market. (To maintain our bipartisanship we have disguised the identities of prominent Republican and Democratic politicians.)
“But keep in mind what fair competition here means. As my friend Owen Cote, a researcher at MIT, points out, with only two viable competitors, this is a not a real market. Ensuring competition among two sellers means giving both leverage over the buyer, because if one exits the process, competition is lost. What the press has not pointed out is that [Sen. M’s] insistence on competition gave Airbus the power to force changes in the Air Force’s criteria.
There were two disputes about the Pentagon’s request for proposals that [Sen. M] got involved in to the benefit of Northrop-Airbus. First, in September and December 2006, just before the Pentagon was to release its RFP, [Sen. M.] wrote to top Pentagon officials, asking them to eliminate language in the RFP forcing consideration of how penalties due to a WTO dispute over subsidies might affect the tanker’s production cost. That provision, championed by Boeing booster [Rep. D.], would have hurt Northrop-Airbus more than Boeing. [Sen. M] got his wish.
Second, in the December letter, [Sen. M] asked the Pentagon to give the proposals credit for having more cargo space, instead of equal points for having in excess of a certain amount of space. Meanwhile, the Northrop-Airbus team, which was proposing a bigger aircraft, threatened to withdraw their bid if the Air Force did not change its criteria on this issue. This double whammy put the Air Force up a creek. If Northrop and Airbus weren’t bluffing, leaving the criteria be would hand the deal to Boeing, and enrage [Sen. M], who could then accuse the Air Force in public hearings of giving Boeing another sweetheart deal. The Air Force complied, giving another advantage to Northrop-Airbus.”
Tanker War Blog highly recommends that all our visitors read Mr. Friedman’s full entry Airbus, Alabama, Boeing… as it offers a truly insightful and unique analysis on how competion became the goal of this contract instead of getting the right sized tanker for the Air Force.