Every political campaign seems to have some buzzword, and this year's buzzword is "outsourcing." Since the economic recovery has not yet reached the stage when new jobs are being created to the extent expected and hoped, the idea that American jobs are being sent overseas has political mileage, whether or not it has much economic substance.
A recent poll of economists by the Wall Street Journal found that only 16 percent of them saw outsourcing as having a significant impact on the over-all job picture. More important, the political remedies being suggested to stop outsourcing are virtually guaranteed to make things worse.
Yes, we can stop some jobs of computer programmers from going overseas. But what if Japan, for example, restricts the outsourcing of jobs to the United States, and Americans working for Toyota and Honda start getting laid off? What about Americans working for other foreign-owned companies operating in the United States?
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan recently warned against setting off "a new round of protectionist steps." But anyone with any knowledge of history could have given the same warning.
Back during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when unemployment in the United States hit a high of 25 percent, one of the many foolish things the government did was create international trade restrictions designed to save American jobs. Other countries around the world created similar restrictions to save their own workers' jobs.
Net result: world trade in 1933 was one-third of what it had been in 1929, making everybody poorer and therefore less able to create jobs. Many economists have blamed these restrictions for making the depression worse and longer lasting.
Whether with international trade or anything else, the political temptation is always to do something that looks good right now, with no thought of its repercussions -- especially if those repercussions will not be noticeable before the next election.
The government can always save 10,000 jobs -- at a cost of 50,000 other jobs. If the jobs that are saved are in one industry, represented by vocal spokesmen, and the 50,000 lost jobs are spread thinly across the country in two's and three's here and there, then this is a good deal for the politician who becomes a hero to those 10,000 voters whose jobs he saved.