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COLUMN

“Give Me Back My Job, Foreigner”

Ken Nesmith

Corporations who hire workers in foreign countries have come under sharp attack recently. John Kerry calls the managers of such companies “Benedict Arnold CEOs,” and Congress is ready to enact legislation limiting their ability to produce goods and services outside of America. Most objections amount to complaints that it’s not good to be unemployed. (For the record, I agree.) Nonetheless, it’s pretty well decided in all forums, save a few corners of leftist Web sites and protest sessions, that trade is good. What’s striking to me is that although commentators versed in economics have restated ad infinitum the ways in which trade is good, and liberal writers have retold a thousand sad stories about job loss (paying less attention to the jobs others gain), no attention has been paid to the racism involved in this conversation. It’s remarkable just how strong and tolerated that racism has become.

Not long ago, black people, even if equally or better qualified than white people, couldn’t get jobs only because of the color of their skin. This allocation of employment not by ability and willingness to perform a given task, but rather by skin color, is considered racism. It’s a sad part of our history. The conventional wisdom is that it’s a relic, but to the contrary, it’s both practiced and preached openly by prominent political leaders and commentators, as well as everyday citizens who profess, directly or not, that people should not be able to work if they’re foreigners.

Opponents of outsourcing insist that jobs should be kept here rather than offered to whomever is willing to do them, so that communities and lives are not disrupted. This changes the criteria for employment from ability and willingness to do a job to the only other relevant difference: country of residence. I’m tired of reading dry prose making obvious points about this topic, so let’s consider it in dramatization. IBM has come under attack for hiring foreigners to write software, so we’ll use software development as an example.

Two guys walk into a room. Sam is a white American; Juan is a Mexican. They take their seats in front of a desk where a woman eyes them each casually. She addresses them promptly: “I need someone to work on developing this computer software for me. Can you do it?” Both nod. Sam the American replies, “Certainly, I’ve actually been doing just that job for eight years. I’ll keep doing it for $20 an hour. Also, I’d like health insurance for my family, and I’d like to start setting aside some money for retirement.” Juan the Mexican is more desperate. He has a family of his own, living in relative squalor. “I’ll do it for $8 an hour,” he says. “I can do the job just as well.” That wage will fully raise his standard of living, and let him support his family, to whom such a wage is a godsend.

Just then, John Kerry/a leftist/other objector walks in. He’s irate. “This is economic injustice! Corporations like yours, woman, are exporting jobs to foreign countries just so they can pay lower wages. You shall employ Sam, and if you don’t Congress will make you. We need to preserve his community.”

Juan the Mexican is stunned. “But I’ll do the same job. I’ll even do it for less money. Why can’t I be hired? I want to do it, so that I can feed my family.” Leftie won’t have any of it. “We need to protect communities from disruption by brutal market forces,” he calmly explains. “That software will be developed here, and Americans will do it for high pay.”

End dramatization. What just happened? Open, destructive racism. Juan will not be allowed to work, Sam will. Those who decry outsourcing have a very simple message underlying their complaint: Americans deserve to be paid much more than foreigners to do the same things. The non-whites, or anyone else who wants to perform a job for less money, shouldn’t be allowed to offer their services. The funny thing is, this is called “economic justice” in popular discourse.

The same meeting is happening in offices around the country, each with an American and a foreigner: an accountant from Pakistan, a doctor from China, a telephone customer service rep from India. Each time, the foreigner is ready to perform the same job as the American for a fraction of the pay. They desperately want the employment, to buy food, clothes, and health care. Each time, an objector tells them they’re not allowed to have that job, consequently denying them a livelihood, either because an American will do it for more pay, or the conditions of employment are not as pleasant as the objector would like. Foreign countries shall not be allowed to host the production in question and the criteria for employment has been shifted away from willingness and ability to work, to race instead.

While we’re exploring trade and racism, let’s just peek in one more room to consider just one more phenomenon, the “race to the bottom.” In here, there are two more workers, but neither of them is American. One is Mexican, and one is from China. They’re being asked to make tennis shoes. The shoes have been made in Mexico for the past few years; the worker from China, though, offers to do it for half of what the Mexican asks for. Once again our leftist friend storms in, and this time he kicks the Chinese worker out of the room. Why? “We have to stop the race to the bottom,” he says. “Corporations cannot just move their factories around to wherever people will work for less money.” The Chinese worker thinks to himself, “I just wanted to make some shoes, and then use my earnings to buy dinner. Why is this American stopping me?”

Don’t let my silly dramatizations soften the horror of these crimes. Let’s make sure this is clear: doctors in china can read X-rays as well as doctors here. Programmers in India and elsewhere can code as well as most code warriors here (maybe not MIT code warriors, but most). People all over the world can sew sweaters together as well as workers here. They’ll do these things for less money. In various terms, they are told that they should not be allowed to do those things by loud voices from all over the political spectrum, leftist and conservative alike.

When we talk about trade, we’re far too ready to forget this framework of ability and choice. If people want to perform a job for less money, what right do we have to stop them? There are a thousand factors paraded around that obscure this fundamental point, but it can’t be avoided: it’s racism for the 21st century. It isn’t the ambiguous, evanescent racism that sociologists like to talk about these days, the kind where every white male is guilty of oppression and so forth. It’s racism globalized, slightly disconnected from everyday life, practiced by surprising culprits. It’s vicious and destructive. It impoverishes people because they’re not Americans, and it does so by actively denying them employment and a route away from poverty, not by the more morally ambiguous passive toleration of privation. Call it whatever you want: fair trade, economic justice, compassionate conservatism, or save time and call it racism. I hope that we Americans, and our leaders, change our tack and renounce it.