Sunday, May 31, 2009

Analysis/Synthesis--Two Views on Outsourcing

The articles, “30 Little Turtles”, by Thomas L. Friedman, and “New Threat to Skilled U.S. Workers”, by Froma Harrop, give two radically different views on the subject of the outsourcing of American jobs as a result of globalization. The two authors seem to be living on different planets.

It’s tempting to assume that the truth must be somewhere in the middle; that a balanced analysis of the two views would regard each as being an extreme, thus giving credence to both as legitimate. However, in answering the question “What should be our attitude about outsourcing?”, I don’t think that we should balance truth against fantasy.

Friedman sets out in his essay to convince us that the outsourcing of call center jobs is a love-and-light experience for Indian workers. They have high-prestige jobs, they support their families, they have credit cards, they have uplifting experiences learning to “roll their r’s” and they even “seemed to have gained confidence and self-worth”.

Friedman claims that “a lot of these Indian young men and women have college degrees, but would never get a local job that starts at $200 to $300 a month were it not for the call centers.” He goes on to give a couple of cloying anecdotes of young Indian hipsters, and “how cool it is” for them to have these exciting, promising careers. Of course, he exercises the tired myth that Indian (and third-world) workers worship someone like Bill Gates as a model of the American entrepreneur, “starting his own company, and making it big”.

Friedman then slyly inserts a scurrilous dichotomy when he says that the “positive . . . self-confidence” of a society (presumably the Indian society of call center workers) is better than a society (Arab? Muslim?) that is just “tapping its own oil” and that “can find dignity only through suicide and martyrdom”. Leaving aside the effects that outsourcing might have on his own country, Friedman apparently believes that if American corporations would just open call centers in Palestine (and forget workers here), all would be peace and prosperity.

Froma Harrop has a more sober view on outsourcing. Though she is definitely writing with the interests of American workers at heart (whereas Friedman’s sympathies obviously lie with multinational corporations and hot young Indians), her arguments are backed up by more facts than Friedman’s.

She quotes experts to quickly paint a picture of Business-Government collusion, not only to outsource jobs, but to do so within the United States. She describes the H1-B program, which “allows educated foreigners to work in the United States”, and which, according to one of her sources, is actually used to train these imported workers to better “interact with American customers” and bosses on their eventual return to the overseas call centers.

Harrop points out other effects of the program, such as that of depressing the wages of I.T. workers in America and extracting their knowledge at the same time as they are forced to train their own replacements. She deflates a typical argument of Business - that there is a “shortage of American workers trained to do the work” - with their own ideological contradiction, pointing out that if Business’ revered law of supply and demand were true, wages would not be flat.

Harrop concludes by describing a system in which “a few rich U.S. executives [are] commandeering armies of foreign workers” and showing no allegiance to the common good in the U.S., while a bipartisan congress is complicit. We, she warns, are “on our own”.

Friedman’s and Harrop’s views are completely and disorientingly at odds, and to me, Harrop seems to be more realistic. Although Friedman did make me consider the benefits that might accrue to young people overseas who do need jobs, he left out the fact that the main beneficiaries of outsourcing are the shareholders and executives of giant companies who put the difference in wages in their pockets, exploiting workers in India while betraying those in the U.S. All the while, workers around the world are getting poorer.

Considering that outsourcing is a natural consequence of capitalism, which seeks only lower costs and higher profits, I can only agree with Harrop’s grim assessment. When flowery-tongued propagandists like Friedman, together with both parties of the United States government, are bent on promoting the interests of capital, we are on our own.

Sources cited in this essay:

Thomas L. Friedman “30 Little Turtles”, pp. 142-143

Froma Harrup, “New Threat to Skilled U.S. Workers”, pp. 148-149

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