In Defense of International Junkets

This week, Publicola posted a news item on the travel expenses of Seattle City Councilmembers. Although there’s nothing editorial in the article, it has all the telltale signs of criticism of government travel: 1) the outrageous sounding headline (“City Spent Tens of Thousands on Council Incumbents’ Travel”), and 2) the use of the J Word (“Junket”).

It’s no surprise, really. These stories come out all the time, getting cheap publicity to sell papers (or online ads) by stoking the ire of taxpayers. Meanwhile, it forces elected officials to cut back their international travel and/or institute “moratoriums,” causing huge economic opportunities to be missed out on.

What was that? Did I just say that “international junkets” are good? Yes, yes I did. Here’s why they’re essential to our economic and community success as a city, region and state.

Let’s start by talking about the importance of international business. There’s a lot of agreement these days on the importance of exports. The President has his National Export Initiative, the Governor has hers, and lots of business organizations are focused on using increased exports to drive sector growth (like Impact Washington’s ExporTech program or the collaboration between the Washington Biotech and Biomed Association, the University of Washington’s Center for Commercialization, and the Washington Global Health Alliance to support medical technology product exports). Certainly, it makes sense from a basic economic perspective: consumer demand is down domestically, while other countries’ economies around the world are growing quickly; therefore, the way to increase revenues is to target the customers who are buying. And it makes even more sense for Washington state, which is the most trade-dependent economy in the country.

So, given that we want to do more exporting, what comes next? Well, you need three things: 1) products that people want to buy, 2) customers who want to buy those products and 3) an agreement by those customers to buy your products as opposed to the same product from someone else. Luckily, numbers 1 and 2 are a snap for our economy; we make a huge variety of products – from basic agriculture like potatoes, apples and cherries to high tech software and airplanes – that are high quality and well priced. And let’s not forget about services: all the architecture, engineering, law and business consulting that we provide around the world. Washington produces some of the best, most desirable products in so many categories that it’s not a problem to identify markets where those products could be sold.

But let’s look at #3 – making the sale. How do sales get made? Relationships! Yes, that’s right. International business is the same as domestic business: you identify a customer, you build a relationship with them and you convince them that your product is what they need and of higher quality and/or lower price than anyone else’s. And there’s a number of ways to do that, but one of the big ones – especially for international business – is traveling to those countries to show your interest in them as a customer. I imagine that this is particularly important for America to do, to show that we don’t consider ourselves better than other countries or above showing respect, but it’s important regardless of who you are.

OK, so let’s talk about elected officials now. The above makes sense for business leaders, but why should our elected officials go on such trips? Here’s three reasons:

1) In many parts of the world, it’s government officials that make a lot of these business decisions, and they like to be able to meet and do business with their peers. And so, the presence of an elected official (even one that has already announced plans to retire) can make or break the success of a trade mission.

2) You may or may not know that our local elected officials are making policy decisions all the time that impact our business climate and economic competitiveness. So, it probably makes sense for them to understand firsthand what it takes to be successful in business – particularly international trade – in order for them to be able to vote and craft legislation effectively. These trade missions are invaluable tools of learning for our elected officials.

3) This isn’t only about selling goods and services, but also branding our region and state as an internationally welcoming place. We get a huge economic impact from international visitors (both leisure and business) and international students (who study here and then go back to their home countries to become business and government leaders that make trade decisions). You should have seen the ridiculously large number of Emiratis that we met in Abu Dhabi and Dubai who were Seattle U alumni…and you can imagine how much more welcoming they were to our delegation because of that ingrained love of Seattle from their college days. The presence of our elected officials on those trips helps to sell our region and state as the kind of positive, well-functioning place that people want to come to, and there is a tangible economic impact from that.

Two last, quick points. First, you wouldn’t call these trips “junkets” if you had been on one; they are morning until night, non-stop meetings and presentations. Yes, there is wining and dining, but that’s what it takes to get business done. No elected official would be foolish enough to go on a trip that didn’t have a clear ROI or was just some golf and lobster extravaganza, especially in today’s internet age of exposure and news cycles.

Second, I’m really disappointed when liberal/progressive news sites like Publicola go all “exposing government waste” on us. I know that it’s good for a headline, but I thought that liberals and progressives understood that a strong government was an essential part of a vibrant community and a successful economy. These journalists are usually smart enough to point out the ridiculousness when candidates or elected officials say that they’re going to close huge budget deficits by “getting rid of waste, fraud and abuse”, because we know that there’s not actually enough of that going on to solve huge fiscal issues. But somehow they forget that when they have a “scoop” about “your taxpayer dollars going to travel!!!!!!!”

Until our journalists and our citizens have a better trust in government and a better understanding of the importance of international trade (and the investments that are necessary to facilitate it), we’re going to be much less successful economically than we would otherwise be.

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