DeSantis’ feud with Disney puts the future of foreign investment in question | Opinion

In the brawl between Ron DeSantis and The Walt Disney Company, it is tough to predict who will prevail, but there is already one unqualified loser: Florida’s economic prospects.

If Disney’s recent decision to pull the plug on a $1B campus in Lake Nona is any indication, we’re likely to see a decline in companies, both foreign and domestic, choosing to locate in Florida. We can also bet on a smaller proportion of the foreign investment dollars coming into the United States and making their way to the Sunshine State.

One role most governors have is as an advocate for foreign trade and foreign direct investment. The U.S. president, an office to which DeSantis aspires, has an even broader mandate: Keep peace and prosperity while being an advocate for foreign policy, trade and foreign direct investment as part of a single strategy with a clear message. DeSantis’ record as governor doesn’t bode well for long-term success in either job.

President Biden’s recent trip to Ireland provides a vivid contrast. Most of the headlines focused on his charm offensive. He made much of America’s and his family’s personal ties to the nation. But Biden also made room for a compelling economic message. On the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, he made the stakes clear: Continued peace in Northern Ireland means continued investment from the United States.

On DeSantis’ recent trip to the United Kingdom, meant to resemble a head of state’s visit, the governor’s performance was underwhelming. “Horrendous,” “bored” and “low-wattage,” were just a few descriptions from U.K. business leaders. For a short, first trade mission to a friendly U.S. ally, this is a poor start.

If DeSantis can’t charm businesses abroad and is willing to behave recklessly toward companies at home, such as Disney — Florida’s largest private employer and the reason Orlando Airport brings in record numbers of foreign tourists — what will his leadership do to our place in the global economy?

Culture-warrior posing might turn short-term outrage into votes, but it does not bode well for statesmanship or long-term prosperity. And it is in the long-term where we see what weaponizing state power to score cultural wins looks like.

Take Hungary. DeSantis’ policies have often been compared to those of Viktor Orban, Hungary’s far-right prime minister. Both spoke at CPAC in Florida last year. Both have used anti-LGBTQ rhetoric to win votes, rhetoric that later became law. And under Orban, Hungary has seen a decrease in E.U. funding for domestic projects and is at risk of being seen as a pariah state. This is not a model any U.S. state, much less our nation, will want to emulate.

In Uganda earlier this month, the country’s leadership put the finishing touches on a bill criminalizing gays and lesbians. Thirty-four other sub-Saharan countries have similar laws. When I was head of the Export-Import Bank under President Obama, I had numerous discussions with ambassadors from Africa about how such laws can impede foreign direct investment, hampering the prospects of millions of Africans.

Even in our own country, there are comparisons to be made.

In 1986, when I was president of catalog company Lillian Vernon, founded by my mother, we narrowed down locations for a 500,000-square-foot distribution center from 12 states to two, Virginia and South Carolina. We chose Virginia, in part, because we were uncertain about the prospects in South Carolina for a woman-founded and -led business with an openly gay man as president. The recent far-right turn of South Carolina’s Legislature, with laws targeting drag shows, gender-affirming healthcare and LGBTQ-inclusive education, as well as a legislative attack on reproductive rights, have all, sadly, confirmed our decision.

Elected officials have a choice. They can pander to extremists on vital issues or they can keep to our traditions of open debate and the rule of law. They can make our country competitive by attracting investment, providing economic incentives and strengthening education or they can risk it all to punish their cultural foes.

With economic threats from a possible recession and an ever-more competitive global economy, we don’t have any more time to waste on culture-warrior posturing, a distraction that nevertheless causes real economic and social harm.

Fred P. Hochberg was chairman of the U.S. Export-Import Bank from 2009 to 2017. He is the author of Trade is Not a Four-Letter Word: How Six Everyday Products Make the Case for Trade, published by Simon & Schuster.

Editor’s note: This oped has been updated to include Disney’s Lake Nona decision.

Hochberg
Hochberg