“We will stop the Benedict Arnold CEOs your taxes reward for shipping jobs overseas,” Kerry would promise, in between preppy-on-preppy swipes at Howard Dean, late last year. Now neutralized of its primary season pungence, that message—leveraging the tax code (doing something!) to encourage American companies to retain their relatively expensive domestic labor—remains at the heart of Kerry’s candidacy.
Kerry is consistent on outsourcing for a reason: more American workers are more worried than ever.
No longer is it just the blue-collar workforce—the Midwestern hardhats, the Southern millers, the Rustbelt miners—who watch their plants close and their jobs replaced because foreign labor is cheaper. Now, we are told, it is all of us whose (future) jobs are at risk. Or, more precisely, it is every service sector worker who need not appear in person: today’s Bangalore customer service callers could become tomorrow’s investment bankers.
Back in the seventies, when outsourcing only happened to muscle jobs, the solution was simple: job skills. Get some information age training and get an information age job. But today’s problem is trickier. Thanks to the communications revolution, millions of better educated, lower paid Indian and Chinese workers can compete for American white-collar jobs—our jobs. And they can win.
Kerry isn’t the only former trade liberalizer to respond. The economist-class orthodoxy that, for America, unrestricted trade is always more positive than negative, is under attack from fellow free market wonks. From people like Paul Samuelson! People whose opinions don’t normally cause their names to end in exclamation marks.
Samuelson, the Nobel laureate and MIT economics professor emeritus, told The New York Times that, on trade, fellow economists are “dead wrong about the necessary surplus of winnings over losings.” And what of the economic benefit of lower priced goods for American consumers? “Being able to purchase groceries 20 percent cheaper at Wal-mart does not necessarily make up for the wage losses.”
Now, let’s get real. Nobody is proposing punitive taxes or tariffs on foreign competition. Nobody is sure that new fears about what Ross Perot used to call “the sucking sound” of jobs sent abroad will actually be realized. Jagdish Bhagwati, a Columbia economics professor and former Samuelson student, responded to his old mentor’s concern with unshakeable—and, thus far, defensible—faith in American innovation to hold most jobs here.
Which brings us back to Kerry: To the credit of a candidate laboring against appearing “nuanced,” he has always avoided the straightforward (but disingenuous) political response to lost jobs: various forms of a wall around America.
Many of the reporters who cover campaigns, shall we say, swim in the shallow end of the pool—and have, consequently, missed this. But what Kerry has consistently offered—beyond a (relatively minor) corporate tax restructuring, and an underreported (but dramatic) new focus on math and science education—is the beginning of an economic competitiveness agenda actually worthy of the next American president. A president who realizes that, in many ways, the world isn’t divided between good and evil, but between those getting ahead and those falling behind—and that it is every country’s responsibility to offer opportunity at home, with America leading the way.
“Americans have seen plants closed down, jobs shipped overseas and our hopes fade away as our economic position collapses right before our very eyes. And George Bush does not get it.”
Said Zell Miller, the last time a Republican president ran for re-election.
On addressing (and at least recognizing) the consequences of an economy in transition, John Kerry has been consistent. Which is more than anyone can say for the senile senator from Georgia.
Brian M. Goldsmith ’05, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Lowell House.