Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Response to NYT article on free trade.

I take issue with several points in Steven Landsberg’s New York Times op/ed piece on “what to expect when you are free trading”.

To start with “All economists know that when American jobs are outsourced, Americans as a group are net winners” is a flawed statement. I had to read this statement several times to understand what Mr. Landsberg meant to say, because the wording is very close to the ad absurdum claim that “when all American jobs are outsourced, Americans are net winners”. Oddly enough economic theory/history seems to indicate that the American economy functions best when as many people as possible are gainfully employed. Isn’t that part of the secret to the 1950s-60s golden age?

The true unfairness about outsourcing is that the worker that loses his/her job played by the rules, went to school, mastered a trade/learned the job skills they needed, in short the worker did everything right and still lost his/her job. It is not the worker’s fault that their job is outsourced, but they (and their families) bear a real and significant burden as a result. It seems a simple matter of fairness and compassion to think we might offer to help them learn new and valuable skills.

Landsberg goes on to note “the winners can more than afford to compensate the losers.” Now education is something that society values enough to provide free (and compulsory) primary and secondary education to children, and our economy requires a skilled workforce to compete internationally, so why is it wrong to offer “taxpayer-subsidized retraining programs” mid-career? In the same way that we may benefit from an outsourced job, don’t Americans also benefit from a highly skilled workforce?

Yet somehow Landsberg wants us to think it is churlish for the worker to seek government help with retraining—these are the workers that have had the rug pulled out from under them (often by the very same grossly overcompensated “winners” referred to earlier) due to no fault of their own. Isn’t it rather churlish of Landsberg to begrudge his down and out compatriots a chance to update and refresh their skills?

The example of the playground bully doesn’t fly because we all know (including the bully) that bullying is wrong. The American worker has done nothing wrong! Offering assistance to honest workers seeking new, valuable skills is not protectionism, it is what government ought to do.

“What do we owe those fellow citizens?” asks Landsberg. If the “winners” wish to continue winning in a democratic society beset with questions about the utility of “free” markets in which the majority are losing, then they better do more than chastise their fellow citizens. Offering workers whose jobs have been outsourced, a helping hand in the form of new training and skills seems like a true win-win.

EDIT: Since I am nearly certain my letter to the editor won't ever be printed, let alone read, I continue my practice of self publishing my letters to the editors. :)


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