Toward a Progressive View on Outsourcing
But should the Democrats be calling for legislation that raises tariffs or restricts outsourcing? Sparingly at best, I would argue. The reason is that even with the above concerns, there is so large a difference in wages and costs of production between rich and poor nations that the benefits of free trade and outsourcing--the so-called surplus--are potentially enormous. Even with some unemployment, these benefits will probably be considerably larger than even the properly measured costs of job dislocation. (Early pro-free trade studies seriously underestimated these costs, by the way.) In addition, if business cannot avail itself of overseas labor and lower-priced imports, it may simply lose world market share to other nations' businesses. Many companies will just close their doors. Finally, most forms of protectionism, such as tariffs, are crude and cannot be easily targeted at the firms and industries that warrant protection.
Still, where does that leave the workers who are hurt? What Democrats should be arguing is that if freer trade and outsourcing are inevitable, there is a clear and urgent policy choice for government. First, the best protection for jobs is full employment. In the high-employment late 1990s, for example, the wages of all income groups rose. Even the best policies might not have provided full employment in current conditions, but the Bush Administration's tax cuts for the rich over time delayed the expansion and created long-term nervousness about the federal budget deficit, which may already have affected hiring decisions. Far more effective would have been a sharp, front-loaded and temporary tax cut aimed at middle- and low-income workers, who would have spent it quickly. Better would have been direct government spending on education, healthcare and infrastructure and on bailing out strapped state governments.
Second, the government should provide ample protection for those who must pay the largest price for free trade. Workers lose jobs, cannot find equivalent ones and often lose their pension and healthcare benefits in the process, or see them reduced. They are typically inadequately educated for the new jobs available. But this Administration has resisted expanding unemployment benefits, it has not adequately funded its much-ballyhooed education program and it has made no serious effort to expand public healthcare coverage. In their hearts, I believe, Administration officials would like nothing more than to privatize Social Security and Medicare in a second Bush term, which would be particularly hard on low-wage American workers--the very workers mostly losing jobs because of trade. The Administration has certainly come up with no interesting new ideas to protect workers except ubiquitous tax cuts.
The Bush Administration apparently largely operates by the nineteenth-century principle that if you don't have a job it is your fault. But it stands by a set of trade principles--at least when it suits it--that will force job losses through no worker's fault. Such hypocrisy deserves the attention of the political opposition.
Innovative ideas that target aid for displaced workers are welcome, and are the best political weapons. Wage insurance might be one. It would pay displaced workers who found a new job a wage supplement to compensate for their lower pay over a year or two, enabling them ideally to learn new skills on a job.
There are other potential problems from outsourcing in addition to direct job losses and faltering wages. For one thing, lost jobs mean less demand for goods and services at home. Yet historically, thriving domestic demand has been a critical US advantage. In thinking about the theory of free trade, it's also hard to escape the fact that most rich nations today have a long history of high tariffs and quotas. Greater protectionism in the rich nations in my view would be damaging. But it is not necessarily the open-and-shut case many often arrogantly make it out to be.
Meantime, Bush Administration officials are oblivious to the implications of even their own traditional theoretical beliefs, and they should be required to explain themselves.
Jeff Madrick is editor of Challenge magazine and a contributing economics columnist to the New York Times. His latest book is Why Economies Grow (Basic).