Out of sight, out of mind?
Lessons from the NBA and outsourcing's future
(This went up today as my regular Friday column on News.com)
I had been spending a lot of time thinking about the future of offshore outsourcing when one Yuta Tabuse turned up on my personal radar.
For those of you who are not hoops fanatics, Tabuse is a 5-foot-9-inch reserve who plays for the Phoenix Suns. Tabuse also happens to be the first Japanese national to make the roster of a National Basketball Association club.
As a fellow 5-foot-9er, I'm pulling for the diminutive point guard, though it makes no difference whether Tabuse goes down in NBA annals as a bust or as the second coming of Michael Jordan. Either way, his arrival--along with that of other overseas-born players--on the American scene speaks volumes about how economic globalization is fast changing old assumptions about the way things ought to work.
"The way things ought to work"--that's one doozey of an anachronistic phrase. So much so that it should be sandwiched on a garage shelf between a "Happy Days" poster of The Fonz and a Pet Rock. In the friction-free nirvana of the Internet age, such grudging expressions of entitlement are supposed to be tres passe. But don't tell that to an NBA journeymen, or you risk a knuckle sandwich. These folks are nervous and upset.
Nervous because foreign-born players are the new must-have commodity for every aspiring professional basketball club. Upset because so many Serbs and Russians and Turks are popping up all over the league, and that presents a threat to their coveted multimillion-dollar jobs.
This doesn't qualify as a textbook example of offshore outsourcing. (If anything, it's an example of offshore insourcing!) But the raw emotion that explodes when "American" jobs get handed to foreign-born talent is familiar enough. I see it in the outpouring of e-mail I receive each time I write about the export of computer jobs.
Oddly enough, offshoring hardly figured in the presidential election. More folks appeared interested in the outcome of the Red Sox-Yankees playoff series than they wee about the prospect of more software jobs moving to Bangalore, India. Of course, so much of the offshoring debate between the candidates was phony that you could excuse the electorate for not paying attention.
The Bush administration, which promotes itself as being friendly to free-traders, has long followed a fairly protectionist policy. And while John Kerry was keen on winning support from organized labor, he wasn't planning radical changes. To be sure, a Kerry administration would have expanded terms of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program to help workers displaced when their jobs got outsourced overseas--hardly enough to qualify him as the second coming of Leon Trotsky.
However, while the political discussion was informed more by style than by substance, nobody who works in the computer business believes that this controversy has even remotely found a resolution. The underlying structural changes that first forced offshore outsourcing onto the national agenda still exist. The palpable fear and uncertainty you find among rank-and-file employees is worse than before. And true to form, nobody in a position of authority is treating the subject in a serious, systematic way.
Instead, we receive caricatures of positions. Maybe I shouldn't judge the hired help in the nation's capital so harshly. After all, the academic elites are of two minds--as is the technology industry, with senior management and its employees as divided as ever. (Red sweatshirts, blue sweatshirts, anyone?)
So what's the answer? I'm going to reverse the tables this time. What do you think needs to be done? Head to my offshoring blog, and chime in. No screeds, please. I'm going to package together the 25 best answers and send them to the white building at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington just before the inaugural ball.
In the mean time, the only sure thing is that the migration of U.S. technology jobs will increase--as will the din. Who knows? By the time this country figures out what it wants to do, Yuta Tabuse might even be a household name.