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Toward a Progressive View on Outsourcing | The Nation

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Toward a Progressive View on Outsourcing

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Jeff Madrick

Gregory Mankiw's comment that the outsourcing of jobs is good for the US economy properly reflects a few key tenets of broadly accepted trade theory. When a company contracts services or manufacturing to a lower-wage nation, it reduces costs and cuts the prices of its goods and services. This surplus amply benefits consumers, and in general allows the United States to make at home what it makes best.

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In fact, it's hard to have taken even a couple of economics courses without essentially agreeing with Mankiw's point. I partly place myself in this camp. But the comments of the Bush Administration's chief economist were still infuriating. They oversimplified trade theory, for one thing. But more disturbing, they were issued by a member of an Administration that is presiding over a jobless recovery and showing only insensitivity to the considerable pain of massive job dislocation and slow wage growth that the theory itself predicts. Most important, the remarks, and most of the reaction to them, overlook the possibility that something new is occurring in the age of both the Internet and the rapidly growing low-wage economies in Asia and the Far East.

For evidence, take the current recovery. Job growth may yet arrive, but by historical standards, a million or two new jobs at least should already have been created. Manufacturing jobs in particular, the easiest to export, are being lost by the millions and are now down to a level first reached in 1958. Weak labor markets are showing up in poor wage growth. Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute points out that labor compensation has gained less in the current economic recovery than in any other in the post-World War II period. The growth of Gross Domestic Product is flowing largely into profits.

No one really knows how many jobs are being outsourced these days, and odds are that the numbers are less alarming than those bandied about. But one survey found that more than 40 percent of US businesses say the weak job market is due to outsourcing of domestic jobs. And job outsourcing is now moving up the skills ladder, meaning America's high level of education may no longer protect workers. Even if we are not already outsourcing as many jobs as is feared, the nation may be on the verge of a far faster growth in the trend.

One of the infuriating ironies of Mankiw's comments is that the beneficent theory he alluded to, and that so much of the media defended him for, applies fully only when unemployment is low, a fact not mentioned by him or anyone I read. "Conditions of full employment are required to validate standard propositions in trade theory," said former Federal Reserve vice chairman and Princeton economist Alan Blinder years ago in a speech to the American Economics Association. "High unemployment calls many of these propositions into question." Without full employment, which is determined by other factors, such as fiscal and monetary policies and the normal machinations of the economy, it is theoretically possible that gains from trade will not outweigh the losses due to job dislocation and lower wages.

This Administration has surely not produced a full employment economy. To the contrary, it has cobbled together one of the most inefficient sets of economic policies imaginable--tax cuts mostly for the rich over ten years and rapid increases in military spending. At the same time, the Bush Administration refuses to address seriously the inevitable pain for large swaths of dislocated workers, and the likely dampening effect on wages as well, that free-trade theory routinely predicts. According to many studies, in fact, workers who have lost jobs in general during the past couple of decades have had to take a pay cut on average to get a new one. A newer study shows that workers who lose jobs specifically because of trade take a still bigger pay cut on average.

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