Here is the offending statement in the Economic Report of the President that has led to calls for Mankiw's head: "One facet of increased services trade is the increased use of offshore outsourcing in which a company relocates labor-intensive service industry functions to another country. ... Whereas imported goods might arrive by ship, outsourced services are often delivered using telephone lines or the Internet. The basic economic forces behind the transactions are the same, however. When a good or service is produced more cheaply abroad, it makes more sense to import it than to make or provide it domestically."
One would have a hard time finding a reputable economist anywhere who disagrees with this analysis. No nation has ever gotten rich by forcing its citizens to pay more for domestic goods and services that could have been procured more cheaply abroad. Nations get rich by concentrating on doing the things they do best and letting others produce those things they can produce better and more cheaply. It is called the specialization of labor, and it is the foundation for economic growth. That is why even Democratic economists like Janet Yellen, Laura Tyson, Brad DeLong and Robert Reich have come to Mankiw's defense.
What is different about outsourcing and why it has aroused so much protest is that it is affecting workers who thought they were immune from international competition. Blue-collar workers in manufacturing have been suffering from outsourcing for 100 years. It is worth remembering that textile jobs in South Carolina today were originally outsourced from Massachusetts. While in the short run, the transition was painful for Massachusetts textile workers, they soon found better jobs in new industries. That is why per capita income there is and always has been far higher than that in South Carolina.
It would be grossly unfair to say that it is OK to move manufacturing wherever production is cheaper, but wrong to subject information technology services to the same competition. It is mostly because of the Internet and the fact that IT people know how to use it that they are getting attention disproportionate to their numbers. Moreover, if we hadn't just gone through a painful economic recession, most of these people probably would have already found new jobs and the problem of outsourcing would not be worth writing nasty emails about to politicians and people like me.
In any case, even if the federal government tried to stop outsourcing, it cannot. We can put quotas and tariffs on goods that cross our borders, but it is impossible to stop people from importing software and data over the Internet. The only response that is possible is to adapt, innovate and stay ahead of the curve.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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