Sunday, July 15, 2012

An Outsourcing and Protectionism Thought Experiment

The political news is replete these days with discussions of outsourcing and trade, and two stories are driving the chatter: (1) whether US presidential candidate Mitt Romney's firm Bain Capital outsourced US-based business operations to foreign countries; and (2) why the Ralph Lauren-designed uniforms of the US Olympic team are made in China, instead of the United States.  The political discourse on both of these issues has been soaked in economic ignorance, with a depressing, bi-partisan consensus among our political "leaders" that both foreign outsourcing and the private purchase foreign-made goods are "bad" things for America and even downright unpatriotic.  In response, President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have proposed legislation restricting, respectively, (i) US corporations' ability to engage in foreign outsourcing and (ii) the US Olympic Committee's purchase of foreign-made uniforms for the Games.  And, unfortunately, neither the Romney Campaign nor the Republican Party has challenged the underlying assumption in the Democrats' allegations and proposals that somehow outsourcing and free trade are bad, unpatriotic things.

I will not waste my time today again going over just how economically-ignorant these proposals are, nor will I re-hash the vast academic agreement, supported by mountains of empirical evidence, that both outsourcing and trade improve public welfare in the United States and abroad.  Instead, I simply want to pose a basic question for those who accept, promote or even consider the idea - supported by myriad politicians, journalists and pundits - that these private international transactions are somehow "wrong" and deserving of derision:
If it is unpatriotic or immoral for a private company to outsource certain operations to foreign entities or for a private organization to purchase foreign goods, is it also unpatriotic and immoral for private American citizens travel abroad?  And should the government therefore restrict that activity too?
Before you answer, let's walk this through:  Each of these activities involves an American's private, voluntary purchase of a foreign product.  In the case of outsourcing/offshoring, a private US party chooses to spend its money to purchase foreign labor.  In the case of Olympic uniforms, it's the private (remember: the USOC is a private entity) purchase of foreign goods.  And in the case of travel abroad, private citizens are choosing to directly purchase non-US goods (clothes, souvenirs, etc.) and services (hotels, rental cars, restaurants, etc.) in foreign countries, as opposed to having them shipped here.  Each activity involves a voluntary transaction between an American party and a foreign party that, theoretically, replaces the American's purchase of a similar product from a US-based competitor, be it a worker, manufacturer or service-provider.  And the only differences among these private, international transactions are the type of product purchased and the point-of-sale - neither of which should affect one's views on the subject (unless maybe he or she has an irrational hatred of container shipping).

So, again, is my private decision to travel abroad and, for example, to spend my hard-earned American dollars at EuroDisney instead of Orlando - thereby depriving Floridians of those dollars - somehow "unpatriotic" or immoral?  Obvious jokes aside, should I be prohibited from, or condemned for, going to EuroDisney?

If not, then why do politicians loudly and confidently assert - almost entirely unchallenged by the media or their political opponents - that a company's or individual's voluntary decision to purchase foreign labor or foreign goods is somehow unpatriotic or immoral?  And why do these same politicians advocate policies seeking to discourage, restrict or even ban such activities?

If so, then why don't our politicians also support government restrictions - for example, taxes or outright prohibitions - on or condemn foreign travel?  Or, at the very least, why don't they create a system to ensure "balanced trade" in tourism by, for example, passing a law permitting US citizens to travel abroad and purchase foreign goods or services only when foreign citizens purchase equal amounts of stuff when they travel to the United States? ("Sorry, sir, you can't get a federal travel permit go see the Great Wall of China because we haven't had enough Chinese citizens come here to see the Grand Canyon.")  In a similar vein, why don't President Obama and Senator Reid fight for a new law authorizing the US Department of Commerce to monitor "unfair" pricing of, of government subsidies to, foreign tourist attractions and to tax Americans traveling to these places in the amount of the "unfair" or subsidized price? ("Sorry, sir, you must pay us an extra 23% tax on your plane ticket to France because the French government unfairly subsidized the construction and maintenance of the Eiffel Tower.")

These might sound like silly questions but, really, they shouldn't be taken so lightly: we already have laws on the books restricting similar exercises of consumer freedom, and our politicians routinely propose further limits.  For example, the US government often forces American citizens to pay an extra tax on imported goods because these items are supposedly priced at hypercompetitive - and thus "unfair" - prices (aka "dumping").  Senator Reid and his colleagues routinely propose legislation limiting or restricting American purchases of certain "fairly traded" foreign goods or services - the Olympic uniforms being only the most recent example - and they also oppose efforts (e.g., free trade agreements) to eliminate these restrictions.  And, of course, President Obama has repeatedly advocated that the US government raise taxes on private American companies who purchase foreign labor (i.e., "eliminating tax breaks for companies that move jobs overseas.")

So, seriously, why don't President Obama and Senator Reid propose similar limits on Americans' foreign travel and tourism purchases?  Instead of simply demanding that US Olympic Uniforms be made in the United States, why doesn't Senator Reid also demand that all American citizens be prohibited from going to London to watch the Games at all?  Just think of all those private American Dollars that  Senator Reid's patriotic law could force to be "better" spent at Disney World or a NASCAR race, thus supporting American jobs?

And instead of only assailing Mitt Romney's patriotism for being affiliated with a company that engaged in outsourcing, why doesn't President Obama drive a few miles to Dulles International Airport and browbeat the happy American families there who are just about to enjoy a week in Europe?  

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

The fact is that our politicians don't propose such forcible restrictions on Americans' voluntary international transactions because doing so would be political suicide.  For some reason, the American people are inherently suspicious of government restrictions on their freedom to travel abroad and thus require an immense burden of proof from the government - most notably on national security grounds - to accept any such limits.  Perhaps this is because travel restrictions are imposed directly on individual citizens (instead of in bulk to US importers at the border) or are closely associated with totalitarian/communist regimes, but for whatever reason, a majority of Americans oppose laws that forcibly limit or prohibit their freedom to leave the United States and spend their time and money abroad.  Thus, broadbased travel restrictions have have absolutely zero political support and only very limited ones exist today (e.g., to specific countries like Cuba, Iran or North Korea). 

Yet, other than the insignificant differences mentioned above, there is nothing separating foreign tourism restrictions from the limits that Senator Reid and President Obama are demanding be placed on American companies.  In this light, it's clear that such proposals are not only economically ignorant, but also quite obviously immoral.  And it's these policies, not the voluntary, private actions of their targets that deserve our derision.  Or, to put it another way, the accusers, not the accused, should be roundly criticized for their transparently cynical advocacy of restrictions on our personal freedoms.

So isn't it time Republicans stopped playing along with these offensive political ploys and started asking some very basic questions about the moral implications of their political opponents' allegations and policies?  Is this really too much to ask?

On second thought, maybe I should quit while I'm ahead.


Simon Lester said...


Shhh! You're giving them new protectionist ideas!


Scott Lincicome said...

Don't think for a second that that didn't cross my mind, Simon.

Anonymous said...

A small problem with your argument is that some people (and I'm afraid it's not a small number) do believe that travel abroad is unpatriotic and either do not travel or feel somewhat remorseful when they do...

Scott Lincicome said...

Yes, anon, a small number of people do think that, but it's tiny compared to the large number of people who inherently reject such restrictions. And it's also small compared to the 50% or so of the American public who think outsourcing and free trade are "bad" things. Seems to me that this is just a classic example of political pandering to public ignorance.

Lyman said...

Great article; definitely going to share around.

James Wilson said...

Let's take the logic another step: It was immoral and unpatriotic for Americans to go to Haiti after the earthquake. Don't they know that there are plenty of impoverished Americans they can help here at home?

Melody said...

I, also, was thinking "Stop giving them more ideas! Maybe they just didn't think of this yet!" Wonderful article, and the analogy is perfect!