Outsourcing: Symptomatic of the Transition to the Idea EconomyPosted: February 20, 2012
Outsourcing is a concept that has been around for quite a while where a company can pay another company to run a portion of their business. Carlson was one of the first companies to make a bundle by taking advantage of the opportunity to run the travel departments for large corporations. Nowadays, outsourcing is commonplace in manufacturing, call centers, and back office functions and often means that work is placed offshore or nearshore, although that isn’t always the case.
Brym and Lie (2007) suggest that outsourced manufacturing to China is the cause of the manufacturing decline in the U.S, based on manufacturing job loss and then go on to note that free trade advocates would describe productivity gains as the culprit. In their final analysis, Brym and Lie (2007) suggest that offshore and foreign outsourcing results in the loss of good American jobs which are replaced which bad jobs, laying average income decline and class inequality at the doorstep of free trade. I think Brym and Lie are missing a couple of important points, namely the way in which trade raises everyone’s standard of living, technology’s role in job loss and job creation, and U.S. leadership of the knowledge economy.
Specialization has been creating surplus for workers since the beginning of work. Smith (1776) first articulated the way in which trade benefits everyone, however Mankiw (2012) describes the concept more simply, noting that “trade allows countries to specialize in what they do best and enjoy a greater variety of goods and services” (p. 10). Because of the law of comparative advantage, each party benefits during a trade, irrespective of who holds any absolute advantage (Mankiw, 2012). Therefore, the notion of foreign outsourcing or offshoring is economically beneficial for both parties, despite the disruption to the lives of U.S. workers that lose their job. The economic benefits are of using low cost labor pools is clear, as lower cost labor results in higher margins and lower prices for consumers (Brainard & Litan, 2004). Of course, neither foreign workers nor greedy multinational corporations are to blame for job loss. Instead, the culprit is technology.
Technological change is the number one cause of job destruction in the United States. According to Drezner (2004) more than 22 million manufacturing jobs were destroyed between 1995 and 2002 through improved productivity, the result of improved factory technology. Even the current ability to take advantage of low cost labor finds its origins in technology, the result of a global transportation network, a global communications network, and information technology. The process of creative destruction is going to continue as businesses and governments develop new technology to create sustainable competitive advantage, bringing about further changes. “For many, these changes will be acutely painful and impart serious consequences, while for others; technological change will bring unexpected opportunities and rewards” (Collins & Ryan, 2007, p. 7). Some even think the growth of technology is changing our economy in fundamental ways.
While Brym and Lie (2007) describe the major economic revolutions as agricultural, manufacturing, and most recently services, each characterized with serious disruptions in the labor force; they do not suggest that the labor disruptions occurring now are part of another revolution. Reich (2009) recognizes that the nature of skilled work is shifting towards what he calls symbolic analytic work, acknowledging that “a growing percent of every consumer dollar goes to people who analyze, manipulate, innovate and create” (p. 1). I prefer to think of the latest economic revolution as a shift from the manufacturing and service economy to the idea economy. Consider that in 2011, the global population grew past seven billion people, the majority of which are educated, and connected to the rest of the world through a global communications network. What new ideas will be shaped as billions of people connect with each other through the Internet in a many-to-many communications medium? Shirky (2010) is optimistic that humanity’s cognitive surplus will be put to good use, bringing new levels of creativity and generosity to our economies. Another way to think about the idea economy is through the lens of symbolic interactionism. Blumer (1969) noted that “humans act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things [and] the meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society” (p. 2). It stands to reason, that as more humans begin interacting with each other and society more often, and sharing their interactions, that new meaning will be creating and more human action will occur on the basis of that meaning. In practical application, consider how quickly the concept of microfinancing spread, with one study identifying more than 750 million accounts in alternative financing institutions, a clear example of a creative idea that caused a shift in human action (Christen, Rosenberg, & Jayadeva, 2004).
In economic terms, the idea economy represents a shift from neoclassical economic theory to endogenous growth theory, diverging “by making technological change a function of economic incentives and behaviors” (Freeman, 2000, p. 9). Cortright (2001) conveys the notion more succinctly in suggesting that while physical capital is subject to the notion of diminishing returns, ideas suffer under no such constraint. The implication is that government can create conditions for economic growth by supporting technology innovation (Romer, 2008).
So is offshoring and outsourcing a good trend, bad trend, or a natural trend? And why?
Offshoring and outsourcing are good trends that provide short-run economic benefit and harm to displaced workers. I believe that the outsourcing and offshoring of manufacturing and service jobs is the beginning of an economic revolution to an economy based on ideas, an area that the United States is poised to dominate because of our history of technological innovation and our leadership of the existing idea industries, like high technology, media and entertainment, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, life sciences, telecommunications, and information technology (Rock, 2011). Workers displaced as a result of the shift will either find low-skilled service labor and take a pay cut, or obtain an education in the fields based on symbolic analytic work.
Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism; perspective and method. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.,: Prentice-Hall.
Brainard, L., & Litan, R. E. (2004). “Offshoring” service jobs: Bane or boon and what to do? Brookings Policy Brief(132), 3.
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Collins, D., T. , & Ryan, M. H. (2007). The strategic implications of technology on job loss. Academy of Strategic Management Journal, 6, 27.
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Romer, P. M. (2008). Economic Growth. The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. Retrieved February 12,, 2012, from http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/EconomicGrowth.html
Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive surplus : creativity and generosity in a connected age. New York: Penguin Press.
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