What's So Funny About Outsourcing?

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Foreign Policy in Focus/World Beat

What's So Funny About Outsourcing?

What were NBC executives thinking? The unemployment rate remains near double digits, and many Americans have simply stopped looking for work. And what does the network premier this fall but a sitcom called Outsourced about an American manager sent to run a call center in India. The jokes revolve around funny names, unappetizing food, Sikh turbans, arranged marriages. "It's hard to know what a normal smell is here and what isn't," says Todd Dempsy, the culturally insensitive manager played by Ben Rappaport, in last week's "Touched by an Anglo" episode. And there's indeed something fishy about a show that capitalizes on U.S. jobs going overseas during an economic downturn.

On the other hand, Outsourced introduces American viewers to bhangra music and lots of Indian faces. It makes fun of the inanities of American culture (bachelorette parties, pimping cars, fake vomit). The acting is pretty good, including the very funny Sacha Dhawan and Anisha Nagarajan. An inter-cultural romance beckons on the horizon. There's even the occasionally pointed comment, such as the assistant manager Rajiv's aside to his American boss that "this country is just a cash register to you."

And it's hard to remember when a prime time show took place somewhere other than the United States. If you get all of your information about the world from network television, you might not even be able to locate Canada on a map (oh, yeah, that place just to the right of Northern Exposure).

The premise of Outsourced is that Todd, the American manager, is saddled with a B team of call center employees — quirky but loveable underdogs who are just struggling to get by. In other words, American audiences are being asked to sympathize with a group of Indian workers lucky to have the jobs that Americans have recently lost. That the show succeeds in finding an audience — an average of 6.3 million viewers a week, making the show the #1 new network show so far this season — is quite an achievement.

Or it's another sign of the gulf between cosmopolitans who benefit from globalization and blue-collar workers whose wages have gone steadily downhill because of competition from abroad. Some people appreciate the 24-hour customer service line, regardless of the accent of the person on the other end. Others are strictly "Buy American." Of course, sometimes the same person lost her job last week at the factory and this week shops at WalMart to save money by getting cheap shirts from Sri Lanka, cheap produce from Mexico, and cheap Halloween decorations from China.

President Barack Obama has been on both sides of the debate. During the presidential election, as Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Roger Bybee explains in Obama's About-Face on Trade, "both Obama and rival candidate Hillary Clinton continued to focus on free trade and the flight of jobs offshore. They felt compelled to do so to woo Democratic voters infuriated by corporations abandoning U.S. workers and communities. These perceptions are validated by data from Public Citizen estimating that the United States has lost about 4.9 million jobs and 43,000 factories because of free trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement and normalization of trade relations with China."

As president, meanwhile, "Obama has been waging a long-running battle against offshoring in general, and to India in particular," writes FPIF contributor Saif Shahin in Obama: Blowing It on India. "Last year, he urged U.S. companies to 'say no to Bangalore, yes to Buffalo.' Two months ago, he signed into law a steep hike in the fees of some visa categories preferred by professionals working for Indian companies where information technology (IT) jobs are outsourced. The extra money will go into building a better border fence with Mexico."

But the president has also supported free-trade agreements with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia. And he pushed through bailouts for U.S. companies without conditions that would have restricted their outsourcing of jobs. He surrounded himself with a free-trade clique from Wall Street, so what did you expect?

Progressives face a somewhat different dilemma on this issue. On the one hand, we have always stood with labor unions to support the creation (and retention) of good manufacturing jobs. On the other hand, we push for the radical reduction in global poverty. The rise of new service and manufacturing centers in China and India alone has pulled hundreds of millions out of poverty. "It's possible to make the case that China's success in bringing masses of peasants out of poverty—as many as 400 million and counting—is the single most important event in the world in the past quarter-century," writes Robert Dreyfuss in The Nation. "To be sure, much of China's growth since the late '70s has come at the expense of the environment and of workers laboring under atrocious conditions."

In theory, the two positions can be reconciled. We must back trade and other policies that raise wages and provide good benefits in countries that use low-wage labor as their comparative advantage. In the case of chocolate, for instance, it's not just low-wage labor but child labor and slavery that goes into the making of so much of the candy we hand out on Halloween, as Andrew Korfhage explains in this OtherWords op-ed. Tax policies that reduce the enormous disparity between CEO pay and the rest of the workforce would also help to level the playing field. In this way the national interest would converge with the global interest. Even if passed, however, such reforms would take some before equalizing wages and reducing the flow of jobs from the United States to India. In the meantime, the opportunity to hire a workforce that can give you "follow-the-sun" service at low wages and in English is an irresistible combination.

Moreover, it's become more difficult in an age of sustainability to make the rising-tide- lifts-all-boats argument. Environmentalists acknowledge that U.S. consumers are simply going to have to cut back on our disproportionate use of world resources if we are to have an equitable solution to the climate change problem. It's nice to argue that the wages and benefits of workers around the world should be raised to American standards (and preferably those of the 1960s before real wages started to decline). But like a world that owns as many cars as Americans, is such a global wage regime environmentally feasible? Or will the gradual rise of wages in places like China and India necessarily involve a gradual decline in wages in places like the United States and Europe?

Don't expect Outsourced to wrestle with these difficult questions. It's a sitcom, after all. But it remains a remarkable change in the zeitgeist that millions of Americans are willing, week after week, to watch and root for so many non-Americans (who are not kicking a soccer ball). If nothing else, Outsourced humanizes the people so often demonized for taking American jobs. Even the Buy America crowd can take some measure of solace when watching the show. Except for a few framing shots, the show is filmed in Los Angeles with American actors.

But director Ken Kwapis says that if the show is successful, he'll do more work on location. Is Outsourced itself going to be outsourced?

John Feffer

 John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. He is the author of North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis (Seven Stories, 2003) among other books.

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