Is Wilson Bumbling California's Efforts in International Trade?


Jock O'Connell

This article appeared on the Op-Ed page of the Sacramento Bee on Tuesday, June 8, 1993.

The California State World Trade Commission meets this morning at the State Capitol in rather ironic circumstances. Just last month, the commission received the U.S. Commerce Department's coveted Excellence in Exporting Award for what the Los Angeles Times called "its dogged and innovative efforts" on behalf of the state's exporters over the last decade. But now its future as a coherent organization is imperilled, not by understandable budget constraints so much as by bureaucratic politics.

Although the commission was originally intended to coordinate all state programs relating to international trade and investment, it never had a chance to play that role. In the hallowed traditions of bureaucratic life in Sacramento, it was soon outflanked by more entrenched agencies like the Department of Food and Agriculture, the state Commerce Department and even the Energy Commission, all of which carved out glamorous international roles for themselves.

As a result, there was more confusion than clarity in the state's international business bureaucracy. To bring greater coherence as well as accountability to the state's disparate foreign trade and investment programs, Gov. Pete Wilson last year signed legislation to establish as of January 1, 1993, a new cabinet-level Trade and Commerce Agency.

That measure had the virtue of recognizing that previous distinctions between the international and domestic economies had become largely arbitrary. So, in addition to merging the World Trade Commission and the Department of Commerce, the bill gave the new agency responsibility for the state's five overseas trade and investment offices which -- in an arrangement few people really ever understood -- had been run by the governor's office.

But instead of producing a marriage of equals, the merger scheme devised last winter by the administration looked more like a hostile takeover of the commission's functions by Commerce Department functionaries. Worse, the proposed merger plan seemed to restore matters to the way they were before the commission was established, when the state's export promotion office was lodged down in the bowels of the old Department of Economic and Business Development, where it gained a reputation as a halfway house for political hacks trying to build new careers in international business.

Shortly after the plan's outlines were leaked in January, private sector groups like the California Council for International Trade and the Foreign Trade Association of Southern California were quick to register their objections to the bureaucratization of the commission. As a result of the largely unanticipated uproar, the agency's reorganization scheme has been shelved, at least temporarily.

But while the Wilson administration dithers over organizational charts, the state's services to exporters are suffering unconscionable neglect. Consider the plight of the overseas trade and investment offices which were opened amidst much fanfare by former Gov. George Deukmejian in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Mexico City, London and Frankfurt between 1987 and 1990. Within the first six months of Wilson's tenure, the original directors of the two flagship offices in London and Tokyo offices resigned to pursue other endeavors. Neither has been replaced with a permanent, full-time official.

In Tokyo, the Japanese national who has been watching the shop (with he help of one secretary with limited English-language skills) has repeatedly warned that, in Japan's business culture, it is considered most inappropriate that anyone but a Californian represent the state's commercial interests. Meanwhile, in a gesture reminiscent of some of America's more dubious ambassadorial appointments, the London office has been left to the part-time care of a former San Diego socialite and Wilson campaign fund-raiser who, critics contend, is more interested in developing social connections than commercial contacts.

Even worse, as the administration revealed in a report to the Legislature earlier this spring, the London office (as well as the outposts in Tokyo and Hong Kong) do not maintain comprehensive electronic data bases of prospective importers in their respective regions. For a state which sees itself as an avatar of high-tech, such primitive facilities are embarrassing.

In Frankfurt, arguably the commercial hub of the European Community, the state which fancies itself as the world's eighth largest economy is currently represented by a young intern whose job, according to one recent visitor, "is to come in and turn on the lights." The office's former director told state officials in February that he would be leaving April 1. Yet efforts to find a suitable replacement continue.

Perhaps the most remarkable lapse -- in view of the governor's support for closer trade ties with Mexico -- has doubtless been the failure to find a new director for the state's outpost in Mexico City, vacant since last August. Of the five offices, at least the Hong Kong office seems to have appropriate staffing.

The last thing California needs is for an organization with a proven record to be brought to heal by bureaucrats whose own accomplishments these past couple of years have been much harder to discern. For many of us in the international business community, a reaffirmation of the California State World Trade Commission armed with a more explicit mandate for coordinating the state's overseas programs would be much preferred.

Copyright (c) 1993 by J. A. O'Connell

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