Originally published by the Journal of Commerce in August 2011
There is an old adage holding the more things change, the more they stay the same. Is the axiom true? For a milestone anniversary, my husband and I decided to take a cruise of the Baltic Capitals and Russia. So, we started out in Stockholm to pick up the ship which made stops in Finland, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany and Denmark. Because we were on a ship, we docked in working ports. And so, even though we were on holiday, we saw a lot of things that reminded us of home – cargo ships, more shipping containers that you can shake a stick at (to use another old phrase), and lots of cranes of all sizes.
We also saw a lot of people, on and off the ship. What struck us was how homogenized the worldwide population has become. Whether we were touring Stockholm, Helsinki or St. Petersburg, fashion was pretty much the same. In other words, unless you saw street signs telling us the country we were in, we could just as easily have been anywhere, including any major city in the U.S. We were also struck by how the many well-known brand names, we saw in the stores in every city;. Of course, there were the obligatory Hard Rock Café, McDonalds, 7-11, KFC and other eateries, but also Nike, Po lo, Ralph Lauren, Cartier, Longines, Audi, Mercedes, Lamborghini, and every brand of cars, clothes and other hard goods one can imagine. So, what does this have to do with import and export? Well, how else do those clothes and eateries get supplied.
One of the comments we heard repeatedly from our tour guide in Copenhagen was the Danes repurpose buildings. So, something that might have had military use back in the 1800s or 1900s was now converted to civilian apartments or homes. Many countries, such as Denmark are primarily exporting countries, they export finished goods and services. However, those finished goods are often made from imported inputs or raw materials, For example, we saw a large number of castles and fortresses in the Baltic region, including St. Petersburg, where we heard similar stories. The Russian version went something like this – Peter the Great wanted to build the city, but it was to be located in a low lying area. So, he set up a tax or duty and required each person to carry at least three stones into the city if he wished to enter. If you were wealthier, your duty was 10 stones or rocks. The reasoning was that in order to build the city on more solid ground, the stones were needed for the base. Now, no one is suggesting we revert to such primitive means, but it does illustrate yet one more time that countries figure out ways to accomplish their goals, and often do that by assessing duties on goods. In the case of Peter the Great, it was rocks to gain entrance to the city. In the case of the U.S., our greatest tariff and other protections remain on wearing apparel/textiles, shoes, autos and auto parts and steel. The big difference is Russia has long since turned away from demanding individuals carry stones, but in the U.S., we still continue to protect industries which in many ways are no longer competitive in the world market place.
Of course, we also heard all the stories about dynasties, their overthrow, rivals killing deposed rulers, rumors about loves gained and lost, besotted monarchs and crown princes, and a wily queen or two. Sounds a lot like Washington, D.C. these days – lots of intrigue, but little real substance!
At the same time, when I told passengers on the ship what I did for a living, it inevitably led to one of two topics – trade with China or food safety. The crowd was admittedly more intellectual than many travelers, and so political discussions were the order of the day. Although the world has gotten smaller and so more homogenized as previously noted, one thing was clear – our fellow travelers were much more informed about events in the U.S. than most Americans. Our travels took place during the period when the debt ceiling debate was on-going. The mostly Australians, New Zealanders and Europeans on the cruise could not understand why our political leaders could not sit down and work out the issues without all the grand standing which took place. They have a point, how much of this grand standing really is necessary? While we no doubt have the best system in the world, boy, could it use some fixing?
When was the last time a serious issue was resolved well in advance of a looming deadline? When was the last time Congress enacted both a sweeping change, such as the Food Safety Modernization Act, and properly funded it? Have you noticed it is getting harder and harder to reach anyone at FDA? And what about those new user fees?
Do we really need a Presidential election cycle that starts two years before the actual election? Can we ever get away from the cult of personality which seems to have infected our political candidates at all levels? What happened to having character and substance?
So, while we thoroughly enjoyed our trip, it made us realize yet again that no matter how much things change, what happens in the U.S. interests everyone worldwide and they are not shy about their opinions, even when traveling in a compact group of 200 and on a small ship. What are the three things you think should be changed to improve our system of government?