Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ship the Outsource Debate Overseas

Outsourcing (or offshoring) seems to be the political battleground of the week. Both presidential campaigns have launched into a finger-pointing offensive of claiming their opponent has contributed to the shipment of American jobs overseas. The outsourcing debate was sparked by an investigation into and a series of poltical attacks at Romney's activities at Bain. The Republican campaign retorted with recriminations regarding the handling of stimulus money.

While we'll leave the fact-checking to the newspapers, the entire debate is somewhat ridiculous, particularly from Romney's perspective—the supposed voice of economic reason during this electoral season. It is based on the ludicrous proposition that outsourcing jobs is an absolute negative for the U.S. economy. In simplistic political-speech, which assumes Americans are just too stupid to understand basic economics, the argument holds that when a company either hires a foreign company to perform a specific task or moves operations abroad that it is a unilateral loss for the domestic economy.

The first time I saw this "negative" ad from the Obama campaign, I could not help but think that the gist of the comments was true and Romney should proudly own it.

But such arguments ignore basic economic truisms that are taught in any introductory economics course. Trade, whether domestically or internationally, benefits everyone. The simple concept of comparative advantage—the situation in which one producer can produce a good relatively cheaper than its competitors—underpins this logic. By definition, every producer will have a comparative advantage, thus yielding an economic logic for specialization and trade.

In simple language, this is precisely what motivates outsourcing and offshoring. Other countries have a comparative advantage in labor. It is thus relatively cheaper for them to "produce" labor. Since they are comparatively better at labor, trade frees up American resources to do what we are better at (such as research and development). We can then, for instance, trade our research for their labor, creating products that benefit both sides of the transaction at a cheaper price. This specialization and trade helps both economies grow.

The real world is naturally more complicated (short-run costs of reallocating resources are very real), but the essence of the argument holds. Outsourcing and offshoring are good for the U.S. economy (if they are done without distorting effects of government meddling). But one must look at the entire effect, not just the outsourced job to appreciate this dynamic.

So how does outsourcing help? An outsourced job means that a domestic company can now get the work done for a cheaper price (it would not outsource the job if it was more expensive to do so). This frees up resources (money) to put to other uses. A company can either cut costs, passing along savings to consumers (maybe in an attempt to increase market share) who can then save or purchase more, or reinvest the saved money into expanding the business. In truth, both probably occur and both help grow the economy. As is usually the case, a growing economy creates new jobs, most likely in sectors in which the country has a comparative advantage.

If one thus looks at the economy on a holistic level, a cheaper input to production (cheaper labor abroad) will generally help an economy grow and create more jobs. A smart business leader, economist, or president will acknowledge that it is best to have the most efficient producer or worker do the job, regardless of national borders or any other consideration. Outsourcing is thus one piece of a broader economic puzzle, which allows an economy to operate at its highest and most efficient level.

But our politicians never try to explain this basic economic fact. Whether they think Americans are unable to comprehend such simple economics or are they beholden to special interests, both the left and the right seem to be stuck to a pseudo-protectionist argument. Arguably, much of this tenacity to the outsourcing-is-evil argument is due to political expediency. It is much easier, in a world of sound-bites, to make a a simple accusation of sending jobs to India, than explain an economic principle. But such expediency is damaging, not only by dumbing-down political discourse but by empowering certain groups to take-advantage of such language to further their own narrow desires (think unions and noncompetitive industries who want protection).

The Romney campaign would be wise to take a new angle in this debate. Much as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie does, Romney need to take an approach of separate, own, and educate. He needs to separate the fact from fiction, dismissing Obama's ridiculous conclusions about outsourcing, proudly own what he has done, and educate the people on why such actions are good. In other words, Romney has to stop looking like he is running from some greedy business transactions and start explaining how a smart economy works.

Such a change in tactic would not only benefit the United States by pushing our economic policy toward sound principles, but greatly help the Romney campaign. He'll regain the image of a responsible and educated economic steward, earn respect for standing up to smear campaigns and distortions of economic facts, make Obama look like the economic lightweight he is, and rise to a presidential level. It is a novel political strategy, but one that if properly employed will reap tremendous rewards for a candidate who is too often criticized for lacking a backbone.


  1. Just found your blog. Looks good from what I have read so far. One thought on the outsourcing issue. While I entirely agree with your points about economics and Romney's need to approach it differently, there may be political issues as to why it is cheaper to have certain products/services outsourced. In some cases it may be that one reason it is cheaper to produce products overseas is because regulatory burdens have increassed the cost of production. Basically, people want certain goods, and believe they should be produced a certain way (environmental and labor laws) if produced in the U.S. However, it does not appear that consumers care at all if the same product is produced below those standards elsewhere.

    I work in environmental law in the resource industries, so this is particularly problematic. In some sense, the US imports its goods and exports certain impacts (or percieved impacts) to the country of origin. This means that in some instances, American producers are at a disadvantage because of the artificial costs imposed by the regulatory burdens.

    All this means to me is that in addition to the points you made in your post, it could be added that we can and should improve competitiveness here in the US by easing regulatory burdens. For many industries we are headed entirely the opposite direction.

  2. Thanks for your comment. You are absolutely right on this point. I allude to it in the article ("Outsourcing and offshoring are good for the U.S. economy (if they are done without distorting effects of government meddling)") but didn't get into a full discussion.

    But I think our politicians and pundits have to be careful, when attacking this issue. The real problem is government distortion of the market, not the outsourcing. In most cases it shouldn't matter, from the government's perspective, where a good is produced, as long as its policies allow it to be produced by the most efficient producer (eg. cheapest). Any other policy is an act of selecting a specific group (eg. industry) to be, to use a tired phrase, a winner or loser. [I'd make certain exceptions for issues of national security. Certain industries may be better to control than have the cheapest product.]


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