Treat the cause of outsourcing, not the symptom
Suppose your child came home sick from school. Suppose you found out the school nurse treated his fever with a cold shower and his sweaty brow by wiping it dry. You'd be outraged, because that's just responding to symptoms. You know that to solve your child's problem, you must find the cause and treat it.
Congratulations! You know more than most people who complain about globalization.
The latest protest comes from a tech union in Washington, Microsoft's home state. The word is out that Microsoft plans to let foreign coders work on the next release of Windows®. The union's solution? Make Microsoft hire Americans. Treat the symptoms, don't worry about the cause.
Sometimes the truth hurts. Microsoft, the world's most successful company and an American success story, now believes that some of its software development can be done better and more cheaply overseas. What exactly is going on here?
Instead we must ask about the oppressive levels of taxation American businesses and citizens bear, the countless regulations that drive up our cost of living, and the unchecked entitlement programs that mortgage our future.
These are painful questions with painful answers. That's why we don't hear much about them.
But we also have to think about the quality issue: how other countries are catching up with us in the race for technical excellence. To do that, we'll have to face up to the abysmal state of American math and science education.
I teach computer science at a world-class university. It's tough. Even at schools with outstanding students like mine, less than half those who attempt the challenge will graduate with a computer science degree.
A large part of that is poor math preparation, along with a declining sense of the excitement of math and science among American high school students. This is the exact opposite in Asian countries, where mastery of math and science is seen as a noble goal worth striving for.
Some of it is the unavoidable economics of the industry. Microsoft's product is information, which thanks to the Internet now zips around the globe at the speed of light. In an economy where national borders matter less and less, work flows towards the most efficient place for it to be done. In the long run, that benefits everyone.
But even so, there are a lot of financial advantages to hiring close to home. There was even a time when most software developers were American. When I was in school, companies looking for the best and brightest programmers were desperate for access to American university graduates.
What went wrong? How come programmers in other countries can do better work for less money? The answer lies in understanding that the quality issue (better work) and the quantity issue (less money) are symptoms of the same disease.
American technical professionals are demanding wages out of sync with the world market for skilled labor. Unfortunately they have to, because it's more expensive to live here.
But if we want to solve that problem, we don't do through protectionist legislation. That just helps some Americans by hurting others.
Until this problem is solved, we'll continue to fall behind in the race toward a promising high-tech future.
We can fix the high cost of living in America and our problems with high-tech jobs, but only if we recognize that they both spring from the same bad ideas.
The beliefs behind higher taxes and more regulations are the same ones convincing people that Microsoft's software belongs to Congress.
The sense of entitlement that funds our bloated federal budget also encourages social promotion in schools and reduces educational rigor.
The ethic that is afraid to make distinctions between right and wrong answers is the same one that tells our brightest students math and science aren't worth the trouble.
These ideas all need to disappear. We must replace our casual disregard for property with respect for what others have created, even if it's worth billions. We must replace our collective sense of entitlement with one of personal responsibility, even if the short-term consequences are painful. Finally, we must learn to value earned achievement over unearned self-esteem, even if the results don't correspond to some arbitrary notion of "fairness".
Let's get to it.
© 2004, Barry Fagin