Why help India's middle class, when U.S. white-collar workers are becoming an extinct species? Readers respond to Brian Behlendorf's "How Outsourcing Will Save The World."

By Salon Staff
Published July 11, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

[Read the story.]

Your short article hits all the points as to why globalization is good for everyone, in the long run. And it is the emphasis on the last part that tellingly ignores what is happening right now in this country. Right now, we are witnessing the slow destruction of one of the pillars that has made this country great -- the middle class. And it is outsourcing, in no small part, along with the seemingly inexorable rise of corporate influence on our government, that has contributed to this trend.

Which also makes your argument about how good having a strong middle class is just a little bit ironic. Yes, it is a good thing and would certainly be a boon for developing countries. But that class's diminishment in this country would be something that we can ignore?

Too little and too late you address this briefly at the end of your article. Right now, we are looking at a situation where students graduating with degrees are facing a job market that offers little to justify the investment they have made in their own education. And the increase in outsourcing combined with the lack of concern by our government is only going to make this situation that much more obvious and severe. Why become an engineer when you know that they cannot outsource something like plumbing? But you are right -- the onus to stop this change is on us. I just wish that was the emphasis of your article.

To paraphrase your concern about children in developing countries -- What could possibly be more negative than a American child deciding that a technical education cannot be the key to his or her future?

-- E. Grady

For last decade or so I have been amazed at the gullibility of some of the folks who spew such platitudes as "information economy" or "service economy." Remember during the dot-com bubble everyone was so taken by the talk of the "new economy"? It was as though the rules of physics had changed and the economic alchemists had finally succeeded. Well, we all know how that story turned out. And now it seems like we have more of the same in Brian Behlendorf's article.

The reality is far different. We live in a world that is, for the most part, finite. With an exploding world population and limited resources the planet is heading towards disaster at a dizzying pace. Sorry if most of you folks out there don't want to hear that, but it's true. And when the resources start to run out, countries are going to start to fight over them. Like starving beasts.

The outsourcing of white-collar work is only the logical extension of a very old trend. The problem is that after losing much of our manufacturing base the "information economy" and foreign investment were the only two factors propping up our economy. Now, the U.S. is turning increasingly into a rogue nation and the IT/IS sector is starting to go. It amazes me that Mr. Behlendorf is worried about the political climate of other countries when democracy in the U.S. is disappearing right before our very eyes. What about political stability right here at home?

I have been forced to change careers twice already in my lifetime, both due to the decline of manufacturing, and now IT/IS. Just make an "adjustment." Yeah, right, as if it were that simple. Mr. Behlendorf pays a bit of lip service to the suffering, while at the same time really downplaying the whole problem. Perhaps Mr. Behlendorf should try being unemployed for a couple of years and be forced to work at McDonald's or some other menial job and see if he changes his tune. I bet he thinks he's one of those who has no problem "adjusting." Well, Mr. Behlendorf I think you better start practicing your next career because your job could be next to be outsourced.

-- Edward Miechowicz

Come on, "outsourcing" service-sector jobs isn't getting popular for big, idealistic reasons; it's happening because you can get literate, educated English speakers for a fraction of the average American college graduate. All of the former safely middle-class who sneered at the blue collars put out of work by 14-year-old Cambodians are now threatened by the same thing that attacked the old Rust Belt. It doesn't feel so great. Oh, and forget the crap about helping the educated Indians too. What India needs is some capital that will stay there and build up an actual, native middle class, not a gypsy army of worldwide conditional workers.

-- Jim Hassinger

Brian Behlendorf makes a subtle plea to U.S. IT employees to look past the unemployment line, past the Indian programmers working for one-fifth of our American salary and past the fact we spent $50-$100K on college degrees only to find in midlife our jobs outsourced, overseas, overnight at a fraction of the cost. (It's taking decades for manufacturing to move.)

"Engineers in the developed world should be arguing not for protectionism but for trade agreements that seek to establish rules that result in a real rise in living standards. This will ensure that outsourcing is a positive force in the developing nation's economy and not an exploitative one."

Brian, since when do engineers influence trade agreements? I admire your idealism but do not share it. If anything we will see less restriction on "living standards" in the name of "globalization" while the U.S. white-collar class crumbles. Companies shift to outsourcing to save money, not to raise living standards abroad. Anything that threatens the wage advantage ("global living standards") will face fierce opposition by business as well as the countries seeking to attract the jobs. We can't even get a decent minimum wage law passed in the U.S. -- how do you expect us to influence a foreign country? Simple supply and demand ensures that U.S. salaries will sink to an equilibrium point with global wages ... but when and at what level?

If I am unable to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, how sympathetic will I be to those nations climbing into one? First it was "We are moving from a manufacturing economy to an information and services economy." Now we go from an information economy to what?

-- American IT employee

On the one hand, looking through the window of a truly free system of enterprise, I can sympathize with the critics of whiny American tech workers. After all, it does seem childish and arrogant of them to expect high-paying jobs as a natural right. According to the rules of globalization, no one deserves exemption from market pressures, and no one can expect entitlements.

The problem with this logic, however, is that it doesn't apply to the real world. Implicit in every government subsidy and tariff is the attitude that there are higher causes to subscribe to than self-sacrifice upon the altar of market discipline (self-preservation obviously numbering among them). Try explaining to the Japanese, for example, why it's ultimately in their best interests to submit domestic rice farmers to foreign competition; or to G.W. Bush why America benefits from the destruction of its steel industry by outside dumping.

In the case of white-collar outsourcing, then, there might also be reasons to protect American jobs from competition. Many others have pointed out, rightly I think, that U.S. corporations rely on domestic consumption -- it's the classic logic of Henry Ford.

I'd also like to point out, though, that American tech workers deserve higher wages for another reason. American tax dollars, American labor and American ingenuity have largely created the software and computing industries: Should not Americans, then, rather than Indians, reap American fruits? And while private capital has surely played its role, it just as surely could not have gone it alone; its freedoms should accordingly be limited by its loyalties and obligations.

I bring these points up not only in reference to computing technology, but also in anticipation of mushrooming biotech commercialization, where U.S. corporations may once again have to be reminded of their debts to the American public -- as investors in the U.S. government, taxpayers have the right to demand higher returns on the billions they put into military and university research.

-- Marcus Karr

As the founder and CTO of a firm which appears to facilitate offshoring, I can understand Mr. Behlendorf's point of view. Maybe he would like to share in a little of the economic devastation being experienced by so many in my field right now. Some of which, I'm sure, is being facilitated by Mr. Behlendorf's company. Maybe he needs to be laid off and lose his house while spending two years looking for work to feed his family. I was lucky ... it only took me six months to find work and I had help in not losing everything. Many others I know in our moribund profession are not so lucky. I live in an affluent area where foreclosures and bankruptcies are skyrocketing. Maybe Mr. Behlendorf would like to come up with a plan to manage offshoring while protecting the livelihood of those who have spent decades becoming the best in their field, only to lose it all anyway. It's not un-American to profit from the misery of others, but it's morally questionable to cause or accelerate that misery to generate more profit.

-- Chris Joffe

This is a real problem for the U.S. I've been in tech for 20 years and have witnessed the accelerating attrition of good technical jobs and the ever-increasing popularity of offshore outsourcing. I've also heard my share of horror stories about the difficulty in managing and coordinating with folks half-way across the globe ... or problems in companies entrusting vital intellectual property with overseas employees and contractors who have somewhat less strict notions about the concept.

I'm torn about offshore hiring because I do understand how this can be good for economic development overseas ... but even as it is uplifting to other economies, it is undermining to our own, and that has got to be of concern to anyone worried about America's future. First it was the manufacturing jobs, now the high-tech engineering jobs. Not much is going to be left.

There's an element of the "Tragedy of the Commons" in this. Each of the American companies using outsourcing is independently trying to reduce their employee cost to maximize their profits ... but collectively they are depleting the economy by consigning to unemployment folks who would otherwise be especially desirable consumers. And that can't be good for profits. Henry Ford may have been onto something when he made it a point to pay his employees enough to buy his cars ...

Not surprisingly, the place that I'd think hiring off-shore talent would make a good deal of sense is the one place it hasn't touched -- the executive suite. American CEOs get orders of magnitude higher pay than their foreign counterparts ... and we sure haven't been seeing performance to match ...

-- Miles Kurland

Outsourcing is the other side of globalization. What makes Americans think that globalization is only for non-Americans? When everyone shops at Wal-Mart because the prices are cheap -- how do they think the prices are so low? Because those products are made in countries like China and Guatemala by people willing or grateful to have a steady, good paying job in a country with little prospects for upward mobility; whereas Americans don't want the menial/steady/unglamorous jobs -- they are too good for jobs like that.

Maybe it makes the American "trainer" feel better to complain that they have to revise the code written by the foreign worker ("Indian") but can they honestly confirm that they have tried to find and recruit an American worker who is willing to be trained and to work as hard? From personal experience, I can tell you that American workers have tremendous "attitude" and massive egos -- and these have to be dealt with first before that American worker is ready to be trained. Our high schools graduate students who cannot even format a simple application letter, leave alone actually process multiple instructions necessary to produce a piece of code.

How many people in their professional or personal circles can they name that will encourage their children to pursue a professional and/or technical education? Our American notion of encouraging independence in our children leads to having a workforce well-versed in fine arts/textile design/movie design etc. etc. and so when you need a nuts-and-bolts worker you have to look abroad. And believe me, a hiring manager wants a worker who can contribute, not one who needs to be pampered and whose ego needs to be cosseted. American workers have only themselves to blame if their corporate people take their jobs away -- they want to be paid a whole lot for doing pretty little, and have attitude in the bargain. And despite my foreign sounding name, I am as American as any of your whining correspondents!

-- Arundhati Chakravorty

The general tenor of the (American) replies to this story, as well as the story itself, confirms what we in the Third World already know: Only American hardship is truly meaningful. In a properly global economy, the U.S. would not be the über-consumer upon whose whims and appetites we all depend. And with the creation of new middle classes in China and India (even, imagine, in Africa) there may come a time when we want more from the States than bland movies, bad television and Abercrombie and Fitch catalogues. When that time comes, you'll get your white-collar jobs back. In the meantime, we'll carry on, doing them better, faster and at least cost.

-- Nick Paul

Salon Staff

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