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The Airbus v. Boeing slugfest

It's about subsidies. But only on the surface.

In 1776, Adam Smith in "The Wealth of Nations" famously railed against government subsidies and monopolies. Smith argued that free trade, competition and choice is more efficient and leads to faster economic development and richer societies.

On the other extreme, there's the government assistance and restrictive trade policies of Japan, South Korea and other Asian Tigers in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, which helped build up their industries to world-class standards (much to the chagrin of Detroit, Washington and the rest of free-trading America). These government policies sparked, well, faster economic development and richer societies.

Europe, meanwhile, has also historically taken a hands-on approach to supporting industry, particularly in a recovering post-war Europe. And while that orientation has changed in recent decades there is still a protectionist instinct in many parts of the continent (a belief that's clearly spelled out in Boeing's subsidies case against Airbus). To be sure, the United States is bailing out Wall Street banks and helping its auto companies, too, with billions of taxpayer dollars going to Detroit, and the $3 billion cash-for-clunkers government program helping fuel domestic auto sales. Moreover, the so-called "Buy American" clause in the government's $787 billion economic stimulus package sparked a global outcry.

So these historic plates are shifting as the global economic meltdown plays out. But the deep philosophical currents are still there, and they will no doubt underscore the economic horse trading that will go on in Pittsburgh on Sept. 24-26, when the leaders of the G20 nations meet to hash out their latest response to the crisis.

They will, of course, be arriving in airplanes made by Boeing and Airbus.