The federal system of government in the United States has the invaluable consequence of enabling policy experimentation. If a state legislature is considering adopting a particular policy, it can often look at the experiences of other states that have tried that policy before. A recent study from the Milken Institute in California tries to take advantage of such potential comparisons to offer ways that California could increase its dwindling share of U.S. exports. It is a valiant effort, but California’s decline is not the consequence of inadequate trade policy and no amount of export promotion is going to fix it.
The study begins by comparing California’s decline in export share to the dramatic rise in cross-border trade originating from Texas, the nation’s leader in goods exports. After using Texas’s success as an example of how California is lagging behind, the study decides not to use Texas as a model for reform and instead focuses on other states that have used export promotion (subsidy) agencies as case studies for how California can improve its bureaucracy to reverse the current trend.
If the success of Texas is what California should seek, then why not look at Texas as a model for reform? The study says that Texas is “unique” because it 1) has no export promotion agency, 2) has a low cost of doing business, and 3) has benefited from increased trade with the growing economy of Mexico by virtue of NAFTA-enabled integration. These differences seem to point to clear policy choices: don’t worry about export promotion (easy), improve your state’s business environment, and be close to Mexico (done!).
If it becomes more business-friendly, your state will have more business, export-oriented business included. Since we’re looking at Texas as a model, may I suggest improving the business environment by lowering taxes and reducing regulation.
Now, I realize that the Overton Window for politically feasible reform proposals in California may not include lowering the cost of doing business. It makes a lot of sense for the authors of the study to point out the root causes of different outcomes in Texas and California but still seek a different solution more palatable to Californian sensibilities. I think their specific proposals for enhancing the capacity and quality of the export promotion process are insightful and well-supported.
There is a larger lesson in all of this for national economic policy. Increasing exports through the National Export Initiative has been a major goal of the Obama Administration’s economic recovery plan, and subsidizing loans through the Export-Import Bank has been a primary tool in that endeavor. But the people of the United States don’t need more bureaucracy to engage in more trade. They need policies that remove artificial barriers and decrease the cost of doing business—international and otherwise.