The economics of the Boeing B-29

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Building the B-29 by Jacob Vander Meulen. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995. 104 pp., b&w photos and drawings, $18.95 (hardbound).

What is most astonishing about the Boeing B-29 is that the U.S. Army asked for it in 1937. The army wanted a super-bomber in peacetime, and the company designed it as a private venture. Not until 1940 was there an actual contract--for two planes, out of a fleet that would number 3,895. They cost $3 billion, making the B-29 the most expensive weapon of World War II, not excluding the atomic bomb.

Vander Meulen is less interested in the weapon than in the industrial phenomenon--the B-29 as product of a U.S. emerging from depression and despair to find itself the most powerful country in the world.

Of four factories that built it, the most successful was in Wichita. Kansas offered good weather, level ground, security from foreign raiders, and thousands of patriotic, hard-working people with few job opportunities. The magnitude of a $3 billion program in those days can be gauged by the cost of a meal at Boeing-Wichita (28 cents including soup, coffee, and pie) and by the hourly wage (75 cents).

You worked 10 hours a day for 12 days, then got two days off. You earned $52.50 a week on the average, allowing for overtime but not for payroll deductions. Like the Pentagon, Musak, the preeminence of Boeing as an airframe builder--even many of our airports and factories--the withholding tax was a product of the war machine that the U.S. became in World War II.

As an economist, Vander Meulen brings a refreshing perspective to these developments. He concludes with this arithmetic: for every ton of explosives dropped by a B-29 on Japan, an American worked 3.4 years to get it there, and a Japanese worked 50 years to repair the damage.

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