Exporting Jobs

by | Aug 19, 2003

Among George Orwell’s insightful observations, there’s one very worthy of attention: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Let’s look at a few examples of corrupted language, thought and information. Pretend you’re a customs inspection agent. There’s a cargo container awaiting a ship bound for foreign shores. You ask the shipper, who […]

Among George Orwell’s insightful observations, there’s one very worthy of attention: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Let’s look at a few examples of corrupted language, thought and information.

Pretend you’re a customs inspection agent. There’s a cargo container awaiting a ship bound for foreign shores. You ask the shipper, who works for a big corporation, what’s in the container. He answers, “It’s a couple of thousand jobs that we’re exporting overseas to a low-wage country.”

What questions might you ask? How about, “What kind of jobs are in the container?” or, “Are they America’s high-paying jobs?” Most people would probably say: “You’re an idiot! You can’t bundle up jobs and ship them overseas!”

A job is not a good or service; it can’t be imported or exported. A job is an action, an act of doing a task. The next time a right- or left-wing politician or union leader talks about exporting jobs overseas, maybe we should ask him whether he thinks Congress should enact a law mandating U.S. Customs Service seizure of shipping containers filled with American jobs.

Let’s turn to the next part of the exporting jobs nonsense, namely that corporations are driven solely by the prospect of low wages. Let’s begin with a question: Is the bulk of U.S. corporation overseas investment, and hence employment of foreigners, in high-wage countries, or is it in low-wage countries?

The statistics for 1996 are: Out of total direct U.S. overseas investment of $796 billion, nearly $400 billion was made in Europe (England received 18 percent of it), next was Canada ($91 billion), then Asia ($140 billion), Middle East ($9 billion) and Africa ($7.6 billion). Foreign employment by U.S. corporations exhibited a similar pattern, with most workers hired in high-wage countries such as England, Germany and the Netherlands. Far fewer workers were hired in low-wage countries such as Thailand, Colombia and Philippines, the exception being Mexico.

The facts give a different story from the one we hear from the left-wing and right-wing anti-free trade movement. These demagogues would have us believe that U.S. corporations are rushing to exploit the cheap labor in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Ethiopia. Surely with average wages in these countries as low as $10 per month, it would be a darn sight cheaper than locating in England, Germany and Canada, where average wages respectively are: $12, $17 and $16 an hour.

Let’s look at a few of the reasons why some U.S. corporations choose to carry their operations overseas. Much of it can be summed up in a phrase: less predatory government and the absence of tort-lawyer extortion. While foreign governments can’t be held guiltless of predation, their forms of predation might be cheaper to deal with than those of our EEOC, OSHA, EPA and IRS. Plus, tort lawyer extortion and harassment in foreign countries is a tiny fraction of ours. With each tort lawyer extortion and expansion of predatory regulations at federal, state or local levels of government, foreign operations become more attractive to U.S. corporations. Free trade helps make those costs explicit. American workers are just about the most productive in the world — however, our government and legal establishment have reduced that productive advantage.

It’d make far more sense for Americans to start attacking the real sources that have contributed to making foreign operations more attractive to those at home. It’s more effective than caving to the rhetoric of leftist and rightist interventionists who mislead us with slogans like, “How can any American worker compete with workers paid one and two dollars an hour?” when in reality our real competition is mostly with European workers earning a lot more.

Walter Williams (March 31, 1936 – December 1, 2020) was an American economist, commentator, academic, and columnist at Capitalism Magazine. He was the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University, and a syndicated editorialist for Creator's Syndicate. He is author of Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?, and numerous other works.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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