Toward a Progressive View on Outsourcing

Article excerpt

When Gregory Mankiw, the head of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, remarked on February 9 that outsourcing "is probably a plus for the economy in the long run," he added heat to a debate that has been growing in ferocity as American job losses have mounted and as trade policy has developed into a key issue in the Democratic presidential primaries. In an effort to help develop a progressive position on outsourcing--one that reflects a concern about the well-being of American workers and those in the countries to which many US jobs have fled--we have solicited three views on the subject. We invite readers to respond.--The Editors

Sarah Anderson and John Cavanagh

"Don't worry; they'll get better jobs in the service sector." This used to be the mantra of free-trade supporters when confronted with the shift of auto or apparel jobs to Mexico or China. That line doesn't work anymore, since service jobs, including high-skill computer programming, financial analysis and X-ray reading, are going overseas as well.

Global outsourcing of service jobs is one of the most disturbing manifestations of the US government's corporate-friendly approach to globalization and requires a fundamental reorientation of policy that will aid workers at home and abroad.

Democrats have rightly seized on the issue. They are touting an array of anti-outsourcing proposals, mostly focusing on national measures, such as elimination of taxpayer subsidies. For example, John Kerry advocates banning foreign outsourcing of state and federal government contract work and would also eliminate tax breaks for firms that outsource, while giving tax credits to those that do not. Other US policies that encourage overseas investment could also be targeted. For example:

* The relatively weak requirements for US firms, compared with European counterparts, to pay severance or negotiate with unions over plans to move jobs overseas.

* Overseas Private Investment Corporation insurance for corporations investing abroad.

* Treaties that protect US investors against host-government actions--including public interest laws--that diminish profits.

Changes in these and other areas could help chip away at the incentive to outsource. However, such domestic remedies do not address the main driving force: the extreme gap in wage levels. For example, the average wage gap between the United States and India, the top outsourcing destination in the developing world, is more than 12:1 for telephone operators and about 9:1 for medical transcribers, according to a University of California, Berkeley, study. The next biggest developing-country draw for service work is China (which has rock-bottom wages but lacks India's English-speaking advantage), followed by Mexico, where the wage ratio with the United States is about 8:1.

Overall, global pay gaps result in cost savings for outsourcers of at least 45-55 percent (after accounting for higher infrastructure and other costs), according to the management consulting firm McKinsey and Company. If this is true, figures in the Berkeley study suggest, companies could save around $300 billion a year if they outsourced all of the estimated 14 million US service jobs considered vulnerable to being shipped overseas. Given these vast potential savings, it will be difficult to reduce outsourcing incentives substantially--unless the pay gaps are narrowed.

Of course, this is no easy task. Economists often claim that productivity growth is the key to boosting wages, but this has not been the experience of many developing-country workers. The key impediments to rising pay appear to be rampant unemployment, labor repression and increased employer power to play workers off against one another in a globalized economy. While national governments are not without responsibility for these problems, international financial institutions and trade agreements have also played a role. …