Rocking the Boat

The more things change, the more they stay the same, the old axiom goes. But is it true? For a milestone anniversary, my husband and I took a cruise of the Baltic capitals and Russia — starting in Stockholm, with stops in Finland, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany and Denmark.

Because we were on a ship, we docked in working ports, so even though we were on holiday, we saw many things that reminded us of home: cargo ships, multitudes of shipping containers and cranes of all sizes.

We also saw a lot of people, on and off the ship. What struck us was how homogenized the global population has become. Whether touring Stockholm, Helsinki or St. Petersburg, fashion was pretty much the same. Unless we saw street signs telling us the country we were in, we could have been anywhere, including any major U.S. city.

Also striking were the many well-known brand names we saw in every city. There were the obligatory Hard Rock Cafes, McDonalds, 7-11s, KFCs and other eateries, of course, but also Nike, Polo Ralph Lauren, Cartier, Longines, Audi, Mercedes, Lamborghini and every brand of cars, clothes and other hard goods one can imagine.

It’s a celebration of retailing luxury, but also a celebration of trade, transportation and logistics. After all, how else are these clothes and eateries supplied?

One comment we heard repeatedly from our tour guide in Copenhagen was how the Danes repurpose their buildings. Something the military used in the 1800s or 1900s now might be civilian apartments or homes.

Many countries, including Denmark, are primarily exporting countries; they export finished goods and services. But those finished goods often are made from imported inputs or raw materials. We saw numerous castles and fortresses in the Baltic region, including St. Petersburg, where we heard similar stories, for example.

The Russian version went something like this: Peter the Great wanted to build the city, but it had to be located in a low-lying area, so he set up a tax or duty and required each person to carry at least three stones into the city if he wished to enter. If you were wealthier, your duty was 10 stones or rocks. The stones were needed for the base, the reasoning went, to build the city on more solid ground.

Now, no one is suggesting we revert to such primitive means, but it illustrates again how countries figure out ways to accomplish their goals, often by assessing duties on goods. In the case of Peter the Great, rocks were needed to gain entrance to the city. In the case of the U.S., our greatest tariff and other protections remain on wearing apparel/textiles, shoes, automobiles and auto parts and steel.

The big difference is that Russia has long since turned away from demanding individuals carry stones, but in the U.S., we continue to protect industries that in many ways are no longer competitive in the global market.

Of course, we also heard all the stories about dynasties, their overthrow, killings by rivals to depose rulers, rumors about loves gained and lost, besotted monarchs and crown princes, and a wily queen or two. It all sounded a lot like Washington these days: lots of intrigue, but little substance.

When I told other passengers what I did for a living, it inevitably led to one of two topics: trade with China or food safety. The crowd was well informed and intellectually curious, so political discussions were the order of the day. One thing was strikingly clear: Our fellow travelers were much more informed about events in the U.S. than most Americans.

Our travels occurred during the debt ceiling debate. The mostly Australians, New Zealanders and Europeans on the cruise couldn’t understand why our political leaders couldn’t sit down and work out the issues without all the grandstanding. They have a point; how much of this grandstanding is necessary? While we no doubt have the best system in the world, boy, could it use some fixing.

When was the last time a serious issue was resolved well in advance of a looming deadline? When was the last time Congress enacted a sweeping change, such as the Food Safety Modernization Act, and funded it properly? Have you noticed it’s getting harder to reach anyone at the Food and Drug Administration? And what about those new user fees?

Do we really need a presidential election cycle that starts two years before the actual election? Can we ever get away from the cult of personality that seems to have infected our political candidates at all levels? What happened to character and substance in politics?

Although we thoroughly enjoyed our trip, it made us realize again that no matter how much things change, what happens in the U.S. interests everyone worldwide. And the global population isn’t shy about its opinions, even when traveling in a compact group of 200 on a small ship.

What are the three things you think should change to improve our system of government?

Susan Kohn Ross is an international trade attorney with Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp in Los Angeles. Contact her at

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