Outsourcing, like a brutal beating, is good for you

April 1, 2004
A college campus is not an alien place for me. I like to go to cocktail parties where I can wear a tweed sport jacket and hold a glass of wine while I regale other guests with fascinating and amusing tales of my life in the publishing business. So I always figured I belong on a college campus like a pig belongs in mud.
View other Ron
Khol editorials

Yet the last time I actually attended a campus cocktail party, I felt as though I were in a parallel universe populated by beings who looked human but who had never walked the real world as you and I know it. Most of the people at the party had tenure, were aiming to get it, were lifelong graduate students, or otherwise had spent their entire adult lives in a university environment. So their existence was untroubled by such annoyances as performance reviews, deadlines, demanding customers, or the 40-hour workweek.

The party was hosted by the university's school of journalism, and I was a speaker at a seminar it was sponsoring. So when I arrived, I figured I would soon be involved in sprightly conversations about the publishing business. But as I circulated through the room, chatting with various people here and there, I gradually realized I had nothing in common with anyone there. By one means or another, their concept of reality was warped by the protective cocoon in which they had spent their adult life. They just couldn't relate to a visitor from the real world.

Now let's turn to the furor raging over outsourcing. Everything I've read from economists and academia about this topic says that outsourcing -- and here we mean in the context of sending work overseas -- is good for the country. It allows American companies to get work done at the lowest possible price. That, in turn, frees up capital so companies can invest in innovative product development or more productive manufacturing. Meanwhile, workers losing their jobs are free to train themselves for more creative employment.

When I hear that, I am reminded of the academic crowd at the university cocktail party. At first, I was puzzled by experts extolling the benefits of outsourcing. How could they be so naive as not to see how damningly destructive it is for the United States? Then I figured it out. The experts praising outsourcing sleepwalk through a world of fantasy formed in their minds by a lifetime in a theoretical environment.

When they get together with relatives for a Thanksgiving dinner, there are no uncles or brothers-in-law who have been thrown out of work by a steel mill closing. They have no aunts or sisters-in-law who are unemployed because a textile plant closed.

At the office, they are busy writing position papers for various think tanks and government agencies. Their dads are comfortably retired after terms on one of the Federal Reserve Boards. Their mothers attend a lot of garden parties. Their sons and daughters are either interns at law firms or progressing nicely through drug rehab. In all, their world is neatly packaged with a beautiful bow on top.

To be sure, their existence is not totally insular. Most of them, at one time or another, have actually visited factories. But subconsciously they view industrial plants as sets for Hollywood movies -- something not real. And the workers are just actors. They aren't actually people like the planning staffs, consultants, and secretaries in their own offices.

The real world is one where people write reports, give advice to politicians and bureaucrats, and move paper from an inbox to an outbox. Buildings belching smoke, workers pouring molten metal, and assembly-line workers putting a nut on a bolt are just theoretical concepts found primarily in textbooks or position papers. And because workers are a theoretical concept, they will benefit from losing their jobs -- at least in theory. Sure, there will be momentary pain, but it won't last longer than maybe 30 or 40 years. While displaced workers are unemployed, they might think about retraining themselves to be economists. Then they will understand why outsourcing is good for them.

-- Ronald Khol, Editor
Send feedback to MDeditor @ penton.com

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