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Jagdish Bhagwati
Jagdish Bhagwati
Jagdish Bhagwati is university professor of economics and law at Columbia University.
The outsourcing bogeyman
Outsourcing benefits all countries by focusing on competitive advantage, but many politicians do not understand this.
Last Modified: 03 Sep 2011 14:07
  Outsourcing can be a two-way street - Indian software firms often 'outsource' product development to the US [EPA]

Outsourcing of services has been a persistent cause of panic and protectionism in recent years, especially in the United States since the 2004 presidential election. Back then, the Democratic candidate, Senator John Kerry, upon hearing that digital x-rays had been outsourced from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston for examination by radiologists in India, denounced firms that outsourced as Benedict Arnolds, the most infamous traitor in US history.

Kerry’s misstep was followed by alarm over outsourcing across the West. If free trade is to regain the support of statesmen who now hesitate over liberalising trade with developing countries, the myths that turn outsourcing into an epithet must be countered.

Myth 1: Outsourcing will be like a tsunami. While even a shrewd economist like the former US Federal Reserve Board member Alan Blinder thought this, it is not likely for several reasons, both "natural" and manmade. Consider just two.

First, it is simply not possible to outsource everything. For example, the fact that I can call someone in Bangalore to tell me how to fix a computer problem presupposes that I can understand her instructions. I tried this with a Dell computer and gave up after repeated attempts. I was so desperate that I asked Michael Dell, whom I met at the World Economic Forum in Davos, for a replacement.

That is a remedy unavailable to others, of course. So Dell has now given up relying on call centers. Besides, many "electronic plumbers" have emerged who will come to your computer and fix the problem while you spend the time working where your competence lies.

Second, there are manmade restrictions to outsourcing particular types of expertise: professional organisations often intervene to kill outsourcing simply by requiring credentials that only they can provide. Thus, foreign radiologists need US certification before they are allowed to read the x-rays sent from the US. Until recently, only two foreign firms qualified.

Myth 2: Outsourcing will be only from rich to poor. There is a lot of two-way trade in manufactures, even within a single industry. Economists call it "intra-industry" trade. But when it comes to services, the popular fear is that outsourcing will go in only one direction. This fear is baseless.

Indeed, there has been substantial growth in "reverse outsourcing," ie, "insourcing". Indian firms like Infosys and Wipro, giants in the information-technology sector, are now looking for cutting-edge services and high-grade talent as they compete for local markets such as the US. At IQor, the hugely successful outsourcing entrepreneur Vikas Kapoor now has 12 US locations, which account for half of its 11,000 employees.

Myth 3: Outsourcing costs jobs. A standard argument used by US Democrats against Republican business CEOs who were running for Congress last year was that they had exported US jobs. Senator Barbara Boxer railed continually against Carly Fiorina, a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, that she had exported 35,000 jobs. The obvious reply should have been: "Yes, I outsourced 30,000 jobs. But, if I had not, HP would have become uncompetitive in fiercely competitive markets, and I would have lost 100,000 jobs."

Another "jobs fallacy" is that when a job disappears in a Western country and turns up in India, it must have been "exported" by nefarious businessmen. But, in many cases, the job has simply become uneconomic to maintain in the West, regardless of whether or not India exists.

If it costs a US nursing home $2 per call to get someone to remind a patient to take her medicine, the job of providing such reminders will disappear. But if Indians can make the call for $0.25, the nursing home might well sign on. This would make its patients healthier, drug makers more profitable, and India better off, because employment increases.

In short, everyone wins from outsourcing of services. Alas, few understand this.

Jagdish Bhagwati, Professor of Economics and Law at Columbia University and Senior Fellow in International Economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, was Co-Chair of the High-Level Trade Experts Group appointed by the British, German, Indonesian, and Turkish governments.

A version of this article first appeared on Project Syndicate.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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Al Jazeera
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