• Technology
  • The Economist

The Great Hollowing-out Myth

Outsourcing to other countries has become a hot political issue in America. Contrary to what John Edwards, John Kerry and George Bush seem to think, it actually sustains American jobs.

Earlier this month, President George Bush’s chief economic adviser, Gregory Mankiw, once Harvard’s youngest tenured professor, attracted a storm of abuse. He told Congress that if a thing or a service could be produced more cheaply abroad, then Americans were better off importing it than producing it at home. As an example, Mr Mankiw uses the case of radiologists in India analysing the X-rays, sent via the internet, of American patients.

Mr Mankiw’s proposition, in essence, is the law of comparative advantage, first postulated by David Ricardo two centuries ago and demonstrated to astonishing effect since. Yet the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, joined Democrats in their rebuke of Mr Mankiw for approving of jobs going overseas; another Republican called for his resignation. The White House gave Mr Mankiw only lukewarm support — unsurprisingly, since Mr Bush recently signed a bill forbidding the outsourcing of federal contracts overseas. And the Democratic presidential contenders? Mr Mankiw had just written their attack ads.

As if to underline the point, this week’s Wisconsin primary was dominated by the subject of jobs, and the failure of the Bush administration to do enough to protect them from going off to India. In John Edwards, who wants to rewrite the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the American left may have found its cuddliest protectionist yet; support for the southerner surged after he spent much of a debate drawing implicit comparisons between his own skills as a jobs-defender and those of John Kerry, who has stuck to free trade only a little more loyally. The Democratic front-runner defends NAFTA, but rants about “Benedict Arnold” bosses betraying American workers by moving jobs overseas (presumably to boost returns for fat-cat investors, like, er, Mr Kerry’s family).

As for what might be called the business lobby, this is in disarray. “Tech jobs are fleeing to India faster than ever,” moans the cover of Wired. Watch “Lou Dobbs Tonight”, America’s main business show, and every factory-closing is hailed as proof of America’s relentless “hollowing-out” at the hands of dark forces in China, India and indeed the White House. Strangely, no mention is made of the fact that a pretty tiny proportion of all jobs lost actually go overseas.

So what is really happening? Three themes emerge:

  • Although America’s economy has, overall, lost jobs since the start of the decade, the vast majority of these job losses are cyclical in nature, not structural. Now that the economy is recovering after the recession of 2001, so will the job picture, perhaps dramatically, over the next year.
  • Outsourcing (or “offshoring”) has been going on for centuries, but still accounts for a tiny proportion of the jobs constantly being created and destroyed within America’s economy. Even at the best of times, the American economy has a tremendous rate of “churn” — over 2m jobs a month. In all, the process creates many more jobs than it destroys: 24m more during the 1990s. The process allocates resources — money and people — to where they can be most productive, helped by competition, including from outsourcing, that lowers prices. In the long run, higher productivity is the only way to create higher standards of living across an economy.
  • Even though service-sector outsourcing is still modest, the growing globalisation of information-technology (IT) services should indeed have a big effect on service-sector productivity. During the 1990s, American factories became much more efficient by using IT; now shops, banks, hospitals and so on may learn the same lesson. This will have a beneficial effect that stretches beyond the IT firms. Even though some IT tasks will be done abroad, many more jobs will be created in America, and higher-paying ones to boot.

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