Tuesday, August 15, 2006

30 Days: “Outsourcing,” The American Perspective (Part 1 of 2)


A recent episode (2 August) of Morgan Spurlock’s “reality” TV show, 30 Days, deals with the issue of outsourcing. I was surprised to find that there has been no discussion of the episode among bloggers of Indian origin, especially desi bloggers who have access to this program unlike India-based bloggers.

In the broader blogosphere there has been a modest number of postings about 30 Days’ “Outsourcing” episode, but almost exclusively on pop culture and TV blogs (e.g., see here, here, here, and here).

Before I offer my own analysis, let me provide a bit of background on the show. Morgan Spurlock became relatively famous for his high-grossing 2004 documentary “Super Size Me” in which he attempts to subsist solely on food from the McDonald’s menu for 30 days. He followed up the success of this film with a 6-episode season of 30 Days on the Fox-owned FX cable channel. The premise of 30 Days is that in each episode a person leaves the comfort of their own lives and moves into a situation that will challenge their own beliefs and attitudes. In other words, the main character quite literally “walks a mile (or 1.6 kms) in someone else’s shoes.”

For example, last season’s episodes included a devout Christian living with Muslims, an anti-gay man living with a gay man, and Spurlock and his then-fiance abandoning their comfortable New York City lifestyle to live on minimum wage jobs in Columbus, Ohio. This season the show premiered with an anti-immigration activist living with a family of illegal immigrants in East Los Angeles, which brings us to this season’s second episode.

Here is the TVguide.com description of the episode:

Outsourcing is explored as a New York computer programmer follows his former job to Bangalore, “the Silicon Valley of India.” Chris Jobin, 37, finds he can't get it back (he'd need “Indian experience,” he's told), but he easily finds work---prestigious work---at a call center. But first Chris must take “American training.” It's “raining jobs,” Chris marvels, but the training is part of the price India must pay. “This culture,” he says, “is bending and reshaping itself to match ours.”

What is interesting about the outcome of this social experiment? First, Chris’s experience, at the very least, conveys the range of responses Americans have to outsourcing. Chris represents every American’s worst nightmare, that you will be the one whose job is sent to India. The first response most Americans have is an understandable, albeit narrowly self-interested, concern with the loss of American jobs (since one of those jobs may end being your own). One important message the episode gets across is the incongruence between concern for loss of American jobs and anger directed at Indians who are the beneficiaries of the new outsourced jobs.

A second American response to outsourcing, which is characteristic of what I will call “enlightened free market champions,” is captured by Chris’s father. At a family dinner prior to Chris’ departure for Bangalore, his father says about outsourcing: “I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s going to create a growth market and a place to sell American products and services ... If companies don’t take advantage of cheaper labor resources, then they become less competitive, they disappear, and the jobs disappear with them.”

Side note...
I find it interesting how free market advocates pull out the “let’s think about the long-term” argument when it justifies near-term impacts on workers; but they won’t consider long-term perspectives, like reducing global greenhouse gas emissions for everyone’s future benefit, when the short-term impacts are borne by corporations.

Back on point...
This seems to me to be the primary perspective, albeit largely unspoken, underlying U.S. support, substantive or in spirit, for India’s economic development. At its extreme, people use this line of reasoning to justify the loss of thousands of U.S. jobs. More significant is the way in which this perspective--that companies must remain competitive or they will go bankrupt and the jobs will be lost anyway--illustrates our reification of this thing called “the economy.” We treat the economy, and its growth, as an entity somehow independent of all the human actors who make it up. As a result we become overly focused on measuring growth quantitatively through numbers like GDP. Meanwhile, overlooked is whether or not quantitative indicators of economic growth are even correlated with qualitative measures of the improvement of the human condition.

The reification of the economy relates to the final perspective some Americans have on the outsourcing controversy. Blame, so this perspective holds, lies not with Indians working outsourced jobs, but with the corporate executives who pursue the bottom line in yet another example of the pursuit of abstract numbers, like stock prices, over real improvement in people’s quality of lives.

The “blame the executives” view is more or less the perspective Chris’s mother exhibits when she points out that executives after the almighty dollar are the real culprits of outsourcing. It is also the view expressed by a commenter to a post about the episode on the blog TV Squad: “Chris shouldn't of showed anger towards [Indians] ...its not their fault. It is the douche bag CEOs and VPs that send the work over there, they are just willing to take it...”

So, what actually transpires in Chris’s 30 days in Bangalore? He is told he cannot get a job as a programmer because he does not have enough Indian experience, but he does get a job in the call center where is host, Ravi, is a manager. Through his job at the call center and his interactions with Ravi and his family (especially Ravi’s wife, through arranged marriage, Soni), Chris comes to realize that (a) people in India needed his outsourced job a lot more than he did; and (b) that the influx of outsourced jobs, and the money they bring with them, is causing tension within Indian culture and society.

As an example of Chris’s first realization, take the following statements:
Indians have a much tougher daily life. They suffer through a lot of things that we don’t have to deal with, and they smile. Outsourcing is a step. What’s going on here is giving India a real chance to become economically viable. “

Knowing that probably like 16 people are surviving off of my one job ... it’s almost like charitable at that point. They need the job way more than I do.
As an example of his latter realization, take the tension Chris observed between Ravi and his wife, Soni. Soni fulfills her duties in the house (cooking, cleaning, and organizing the extended family’s religious rituals and cultural traditions), but she has an education and wants to test her skills in the new marketplace of jobs.

The other example of Chris’s realization that India’s economic growth is causing some internal strife occurs while he is surveying some of the damage caused during the unrest that ensued after the death of famous Kannada film actor Dr. Rajkumar. Crowds marched, often out of control, many vehicles were burned, and building windows were broken with rocks and chunks of concrete thrown by the rampagers amidst the largely peaceful gathering of mourners. Eight people were killed by police firing into the crowds.

As Chris observed:
“People were throwing rocks at the fancy new buildings. And it seemed almost like an economic outcry from the poor people of this city. There’s so much wealth around them and they’re starving ... There is millions and millions of dollars here, but there is no visible signs of it being used to take care of their own people.”
This kind of observation and analysis of the violence following Rajkumar’s death was almost completely absent from the Indian English language media (I can’t speak for how the Kannada dailies covered the violence, but perhaps a reader can inform me if the coverage was any different than the superficial stereotypes of mob violence doled out in The Hindu and Times of India).

The lone exception was a profound analysis offered by Rajendra Chenni in an editorial in The Hindu’s “Friday Review” section on April 21, in which Chenni writes:

In these times of globalisation (that is abdication of the state of its social welfare responsibilities) the state is seen as a handmaiden of the rich. In the absence of any politically mature people's movement, the anger and frustration of the deprived is ventilated in frenzied acts of destruction ... One doesn't want to make a case for the violence, but social analysis is impoverished by the blanket refusal to understand the language of violence. As long as we continue to ignore the double speak of development, modernisation and globalisation through which it privileges a few and orphans the many, there will be many occasions when the masses resort to the language of violence.

My point is that viewers should give Chris some credit for making such a connection, even just a day after the violence occurred, when few other Indians were making such a connection. Now, I am sure that many Indians would take umbrage with Chris’s attempt to link the violence following Rajkumar’s death to economic inequality and the claim that there are no visible signs of India’s increasing wealth being used to take care of its people. But events like the violence in Bangalore last April ought to give everyone pause--Indian or not. Throughout India’s economically booming metros, there seems to be a blindness to the intense poverty, perhaps facilitated by the euphoria the middle and upper classes feel about emerging economic opportunities.

“This is the only way,” they say, to put India on the global economic map and bring its people out of poverty. But by “the only way,” do these financially secure Indians mean that the only way is for India’s new wealth to be concentrated into the hands of a small number of economic elites (a social class that largely coincides with India’s historically most privileged castes)? It may such a blindness to “other ways,” and a refusal to see the growing discord among India’s most poor, that creates the type of powder keg we saw go off in Bangalore.

Now for a little self-reflection. Since returning from india back in May, I have been convinced that globalization is not good for India in the long run. It was only after watching Chris’s experience that I had the realization that globalization itself is not the concern. The creation of jobs through business process outsourcing, facilitated by India’s economic liberalization and certain external forces of globalization, is good for India. Chris learned this as well or else he would not have concluded that his job is better off in India than back in New York. My major concern has to do with the link between production and consumption as India’s economy grows.

Currently, India’s economic growth, as I have written about previously, is creating a western-style consumer class in India. But this consumer class is, for the most part, limited to those who are benefiting from India’s production-side growth (whether what is being produced is computer chips or IT services). There are certainly questions about how consumerism will transform Indian society and culture. But perhaps the more pressing question is how in-your-face consumerism will impact the masses in India for whom western-style consumption is an extremely distant dream, and one that for many will never be realized?

Maybe as Americans watch Indians embrace the consumer revolution, we can learn something about ourselves and the role of consumerism in our own lives. Chris’s 30-day experience in Bangalore certainly gave him a new way of looking at outsourcing:

I’m here talking about outsourcing to people, and about how Americans are losing their jobs and might have to sell their homes and move into an apartment. And then I look at these people and they’re getting jobs and they’re living in a prison cell, and they don’t complain. There’s a huge gap in the way people think on different ends of the planet.

But the gap that Chris is talking about is in terms of the way we think about our jobs in the global economy. In terms of our respective views on consumerism and finding happiness through material goods, there appears to be virtually no gap. Here lies my concern.

It’s a concern I will be writing about in a 5-part series I will begin shortly. Stay tuned.

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6 comments:

Prasanth said...

Hi,

Came here after seeing your comment on "interim thoughts". I agree with Chris - what happened after Rajkumars death was an explosion of anger by the poor - they see people loaded with money but cannot see a way of breaking into that society and leading a better life. The issue here is education - total absence of quality education. The publisc schools and colleges are pathetic.

Salah said...

Hi,

The IT boom and the consumerism, which came in as a package in bangalore has definitely created a huge gap between the rich and poor. There have not been much efforts to distribute the goodies to the poor. Most developments the city is making are to uplift roads (by building flyovers, airports). Areas like health, primary education (need a complete revamp) are not even in the back seat. I fear this bubble could burst.

Cezar said...

"Side note...
I find it interesting how free market advocates pull out the “let’s think about the long-term” argument when it justifies near-term impacts on workers; but they won’t consider long-term perspectives, like reducing global greenhouse gas emissions for everyone’s future benefit, when the short-term impacts are borne by corporations."

Some of us do.

Outsource SEO said...

It is very good article about outsourcing, the first response most Americans have is an understandable, albeit narrowly self-interested, concern with the loss of American jobs.

Dean Velasquez said...

One of the biggest advantages of outsourcing to India is cost savings. The lower cost of operation and labor makes it attractive to outsource.

lohith said...

hello boss...!!! It was not an outrage on the rich by the poor.. it is what happens when an icon being followed for 50 years is dead. If dead u pay respect with silence of a min. and we do it with violence of a day or more.First check with all the other iconic deaths in INDIA. First learn to look into an issue with out wearing American Glasses(mind set).

MIND IT...!!!