Matthew Yglesias at Slate makes the case that Romney should simply shrug and say offshoring is a Good Thing, instead of making silly claims about "retroactive retirement." He says basically that it is good for jobs to be located where it's most efficient, that in terms of wealth creation this is positive sum, that the problems it causes in the US are distributional, and that the preferred way of handling these is via taxation, welfare and job training. It's a good article (I'm not convinced it's good politics, another reason to support this :) ), in the 'lets infuriate the NAFTA-bashing portions of the electorate' genre. I do agree with most of what's said, but what provokes this post is the following:
A couple of hundred of years of catastrophic misgovernment and imperialist exploitation left billions of Asians languishing in dire poverty. When Asian governance started improving, Asian workers’ productive capacity and earnings potential skyrocketed. This has been a triumph for human welfare but a disaster for Americans whose skills have been radically devalued in the process.
The reason I like this is that captures a certain zero-sum logic, and I want to write about the ethics of that situation. Far too many on the American left act as if globalization and trade hurt everyone instead of just first-world workers as workers, and it is important (if rhetorically inconvenient) to mark the distinction. As I see it, anti-outsourcing rhetoric from the left is basically anti-humanitarian for reasons of patriotism. Patriotism here might well be acceptable - no doubt most Americans want their president to benefit fellow Americans, not the globe at large. What's not right is not even acknowledging, or thinking about the tradeoffs. Some examples of the unexamined patriotic view follow:
1. The patriotic argument against globalization is unthinkingly extended to a sort of amorphous first-world solidarity. I've had plenty of well-meaning American friends speak with casual dismay of Canadian or French or UK jobs going to China or India or Vietnam. Few have managed to explain (to their own satisfaction, forget mine) why jobs going from rich French people to poor Vietnamese should make Americans sad instead of happy, or why this isn't a huge increase in global utility. Mind you, none of these people actually believe whites/Christians/Westerners count more, it's just they've never really made themselves consider, you know, the rest of the globe in their thoughts about globalization. Most people I've made this argument to have managed to see the point that Americans should rejoice in Canadian or Australian jobs going to raise third world standards , reducing global inequality, even if they as Americans, they have a patriotic reason not to want American jobs to do the same. I am not quite sure if that argument works, but they've typically never even thought about it before.
2. Especially with the increased outsourcing of white-collar jobs (where it's hard to say believably that your customer service guy with a thick accent is being exploited) some of the rottenness that's always been at the heart of the anti-sweatshop movement is made clear: to a substantially under-acknowledged extent, anti-sweatshop is about labor protectionism, not humanitarian concern for the world's poor. Globalization and sweatshops have been basically good for China, not bad. And don't pretend to me that American labor unions are motivated principally about giving the Chinese good jobs, and not to 'keep American jobs American.' The recent media interest in Apple and Foxconn (never mind that the suicide rate at Foxconn is actually lower than even that for the US) similarly was carried out, for the most part, without mentioning that the Chinese benefit from their iJobs, and that "bringing the jobs back home" would help Americans workers and hurt the Chinese. Which is fine, if that's what you want, but remains a pretty sketchy thing to sell as humanitarian benevolence.
3. Even if it's defensible for a private American citizen (or company) to care more about Americans, it's not obviously ethically obligatory. It seems morally permissible to lack the patriotic jobs preference. To give an intuition jogger, few, even those who're very patriotic, would say Bill Gates is being wicked to spend his foundation money fighting malaria in Africa instead of trying to improve American high school education. The idea that firms moving jobs offshore are being immoral is actually rather harder to justify than the claim that they are merely not immoral not to. Indeed, leftist ideologies tend to value in-group preference less, which is to my mind as unambiguous a reason for preferring them as any.
Again, I don't really think trade-with-redistribution (or even trade-without-redistribution, it's just worse that what might be) is zero-sum. But it's useful to think about what kinds of moral arguments follow, at least if you're uncomfortable with explicitly parochial perspectives. Hell, considering the existence of absolute poverty, or even just the decreasing marginal utility of money, trade could be substantially negative sum and still be a net moral positive for humanity.