It all started with Joe, any old Joe.
Joe was a decent fellow, a businessman, a good citizen, a wonderful neighbor. But he was having a hard time making a profit. Oh, sure, he was worth a few million, but he could have been worth a lot more if labor costs weren't so high. And those unions!
So, one day, Joe got a bright idea. "Those people in Arkansas and Tennessee and South Carolina will work for a lot less than my employees," he thought, "so why don't I move my business down there?"
And that's what he did. Good-bye, Detroit, hello, Charlotte. Sure, he offered to take his employees with him when he moved, but they'd have to agree to work for half their former wages. None went.
About the same time Joe made his move, Geno began to wonder why he was freezing his butt off in Duluth and paying big bucks to ship his frozen foods all over the country. "I could save big transportation bucks if I moved my operation to Ohio," Geno thought, and so he did. Duluth wept. The folks there had lost a folk hero, and the town's best employer.
Meanwhile, the iron-mining companies pried the very last shred of iron ore out of the ground in northern Minnesota, so they left with an eye on Venezuela, which hadn't been raped yet.
The iron-mining companies were following the fine example set by the logging companies, which around the turn of the 20th century chopped down every virgin pine in Minnesota and then left.
Now those companies are chopping down Northern California, Oregon and Washington.
Meanwhile, back in Detroit, Joe's competitors were envious. And they were hurting. Not only was Joe raking in the big profits Down South, but he left behind a bunch of unemployed people who couldn't afford to buy anything anymore.
They hated to do it, but Joe's competitors finally caved in and joined Joe in the land of mint juleps, no unions and low wages. It was around that time that people started calling the northeastern part of the United States the Rust Belt.
The arrival of his competitors in the "right to work" states made Joe a little uneasy. It wouldn't be long before they'd be able to compete with him again, and even though he was now a multimillionaire many times over, he wanted to see just how big a fortune he could rack up before he died.
Joe made a little economic progress when he learned that people who snuck into the United States from Mexico would work for even less than the Southerners he was exploiting, so he canned his American crews and replaced them with people with Hispanic surnames. Then, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed an amnesty for Mexicans living illegally in the United States, thus encouraging other Mexicans to flood across the border. In his signing message, Reagan said that from now on, employers who hired illegal immigrants would be held accountable. They'd go to jail. (Wink, wink.)
Joe and his fellow entrepreneurs had a good laugh over that one, and he learned Spanish. And, on one of his trips to Mexico, Joe learned that Mexicans working in Mexico are paid a lot less than Mexicans working in the United States, so he did what comes naturally: He moved his manufacturing plants to Mexico.
And so it went, with Joe and all his competitors and men and women in other businesses. The grass really was greener on the other side of the border, and it proved to be greener yet on the other side of the ocean.
American jobs moved south, then further south, then all over the planet. The hot spot now is Communist China, which specializes in slave labor. We abhor that, of course, but what can we do? If we don't send our jobs there, our competitors certainly will, and where will we be then?
Out of business, that's where.
The big downside to all this is that we're destroying customers. Every job lost in the United States is a customer lost. Every job lost is a taxpayer lost and a tax burden gained. The pioneers in the outsourcing movement thought they were smart, and perhaps they were. Their competitors did what they had to do to survive.
But where will it all end? Will it be good for America when all the industry is somewhere else?
Governments can influence what happens. Conservatives say they don't like big government, and liberals nod in agreement, but big government in India is what's moving a lot of our high-tech jobs there.
India, thanks to government sponsorship, has the best technical institutes in the world. They admit only the best of the best, about 2 percent of applicants. Their standards are higher than Ivy League standards. And they have no room for slackers.
The result? India's high-tech people are sought after by American businesses, and we're shipping high-tech jobs to India at a breathtaking pace.
Most of you are too young to remember this, but the phrase "Made in Japan" used to be another way to say "junk." Japan had a reputation of producing everything out of used American beer cans.
That all changed in 1959, when the Japanese government told its manufacturers that, henceforth, everything shipped from Japan had to be of high quality. Toyota and Sony and all the rest had no choice but to comply, and now "Made in Japan" means dependable quality.
In America, our efficiency might spell our doom. Not only are we outsourcing production to the lowest bidder, but we've done a pretty good job of dumbing down all the jobs so that any low-paid worker can perform them. And we've automated to a maddening degree, which becomes obvious when you call just about any company with the hope of talking to a real person.
(Getting rid of switchboard operators in favor of an annoying automated system seems rather dumb until you realize how much money can be saved by not employing a team of round-the-clock operators.)
And the Wal-Martization of America continues apace, with our choices of retailers, grocers, banks, gas stations -- just about everything -- getting smaller and smaller.
I don't know what we or our government can do to reverse the movement of the United States toward Third World status. In Washington, it's all about money. The Republicans have always been the party of big business and money, and now the Democrats have joined them. The corporations are wonderfully represented, the people much less so.
What to do? It's fairly easy to see what's happening, but extremely difficult to know what to do about it.
Harley Sorensen is a longtime journalist. His column appears Mondays. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
©2004 SF Gate