There is a lot of talk on the campaign trail these days about jobs. Even as the overall economy improves, many have yet to feel any positive impact. So, talk about jobs resonates. But the fact remains there is little government can do to directly create jobs. In the end, the best way to do this is to invest in critical infrastructure. Not only do you create jobs building the road or runway or railway or waterway, but those things help foster growth for years and decades. And some candidates do seem willing to talk about this.
But there is one other way, maybe the only other way, the federal government can directly create jobs. And that is through ensuring that our customs and border protection resources are adequate and well deployed, and by ensuring that people who want to travel here for legitimate purposes can get a visa.
This might not be where you thought I was going with this. It might not seem obvious. But it is true, and it has never been more true than it is now. I say that because the parts of the world that are growing fastest: Asia, the Pacific, Latin America and certain parts of the Middle East, feature literally billions of people with disposable income who want to travel for business or please and who, compared with travelers from North America or Europe, spend a lot more money. And, we are making it harder and harder for these people to come to our country. And, those people are going elsewhere!
You might ask how this could be. After all, we have more than 100 open skies agreements, can’t anyone who really wants to come travel freely?
The answer is no, for a couple of reasons. First, we do have all those open skies agreements; and agreements with other countries, by and large, are more liberal than a quarter century ago.
But in reality, the skies are only as open as Customs and Border Protection says they are. If they can staff a flight or an airport, then sure, come on in. But if they can’t, if they do not have the resources, then those travelers will end up going somewhere else.
Even with a community able to generate the market. Even with an airline or airlines willing to serve it. Now I don’t want to blame Customs and Border Protection, entirely. They are resource constrained and have to make do with what they have. But the administration (like most before it) has not bothered to make the argument for more resources to welcome these high spending travelers (by the way, a dollar spent here by a tourist counts on the positive side of the trade balance ledger). Indeed, even though they are now collecting fees from Canadian and other Western Hemisphere travelers that were not previously levied (and that we were told would be used to facilitate travel) the administration has not asked for an increase in its budget. And, don’t tell me we don’t have the money, a dollar spent on facilitating travel is earned back many times over.
And, I am not letting Congress off the hook on this; they need to provide those resources.
The other problem we have is that it takes too long and is too costly for legitimate travelers from countries such as China, India and Brazil to get visas to come to the United States. Here, I will pat the administration on the back – once. They have announced efforts to deploy additional people to those countries and have set goals for quick visa issuance. But even with that, it is still too difficult. I will tell you straight up that even people in the airport business tell me they do not like coming to the United States because of the time, expense and hassle that is involved.
I was speaking earlier today to Mario Diaz, who runs the Houston Airports. One of our smartest airport leaders. He put it well. The problem, he said, is that too many people look at these things as simply cost centers. They do not look at the result. If someone came along and said that if the government turned a switch on some shiny new machine it would result in hundreds of billions of dollars of guaranteed annual impact to the economy, and said that the machine cost a half a billion or so each year, Congress would appropriate the money in a heartbeat. But spending that kind of money to facilitate travel for the same result seems a bridge too far (to mix modal metaphors) because these things are seen simply as cost centers.
People, we are getting our brains beat in by our international competitors. There are lots of reasons for that, and I will return to some of them in later posts, especially the investments they are making in critical infrastructure. But a key reason is this self-inflicted wound. We are not putting the effort we need to into facilitating legitimate, lucrative, travel to the United States.
We cannot blame any kind of improper subsidy or unfair trade practice. We are doing this to ourselves. Self-defeating is an apt description of the result. Stupid is the better term to use to describe our whole approach.
So, let’s put the resources where they need to be. Let’s buy this shiny new guaranteed job creating machine.