I’m loving the ongoing blog back-and-forth about the President’s new National Export Initiative (NEI); it really is what this blog was intended to be: a place for folks from the Puget Sound to discuss and debate economic development issues. But I do think that the dialogue so far has missed out on one important topic: what are we exporting and to who?
There’s a number of reasons that export as a share of GDP is so low, including some of the currency issues discussed as well as trade protectionism in many parts of the world. But I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that some of it has to do with making stuff that other people don’t necessarily want…or at least haven’t wanted in the past. Cars being probably one of the prime examples of something we’ve tried to sell and failed, not to mention things that we’ve pretty much given up on trying to sell like a wide range of consumer electronics. The NEI seems to be focused mostly on marketing and technical assistance…but all the sizzle in the world doesn’t help if the steak is made of Grade D beef (ironic analogy, since agricultural products are actually some of our fastest growing exports).
Now, there are a lot of great things that are made in the US that folks want, and some of the biggest US exports come from right here in the Pacific Northwest (like airplanes). But the key to successful sales is figuring out 1) what your customers want and 2) providing it at high quality and low cost to them. What does China want from us? Is it different than what India wants from us? Who are our competitors in providing those goods and services? What are our competitive advantages to those other countries? And then, most important of all, are we good at making those things and how can we invest in becoming better?
As you all know, we’re looking right now at energy efficiency goods and services in our region, and trying to answer all of those questions through a Metropolitan Business Plan. It may be that we need to get better at some things, or else find that we have a really good advantage already in something else. It may be that China’s market is a long shot for us, but Canada is a huge, easy win. Products, customers, marketing strategy and investment needs: those are my big four questions for our region on energy efficiency goods and services, and hopefully the questions that the Department of Commerce is going to help different sectors of our economy answer as well.