Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Outsourcing of Labor and Dis-Integration of Production

Yesterday was Labor Day--a great time to pause and think about how work has changed from the good old days of unions and posh benefits. Outsourcing and global production have undermined corporations and workers alike. But they empower those who can take advantage of the new game.

The extreme edge of this new game can be understood in a provocative thought experiment posed by professor Gerald Davis of the University of Michigan Business School in a recent conference paper (thanks to this New York Times blog for first alerting me to the paper). Professor Davis imagined how you could create a killer new iPhone app called "Remote Drone Assassin" along with actual drones that you could sell to mercenary companies, "without leaving your couch."

First, he wrote, you could go to the Plug and Play Tech Center and rent a  desk and fancy mailing address. (Why bother with a real corporate HQ?)

Second, you could "incorporate online in Liberia for $713.50" through the Liberian Registry site. (Who needs lawyers in Delaware?)

Third, you could fund your idea through the crowdsourcing site Kickstarter. (Who needs venture capital anymore?)

Fourth, you could hire programmers to actually design your software app through ODesk, "the world's largest and fastest-growing online workplace." (Who needs to hire people you even know?)

Next, you could hire a low-cost Chinese manufacturer to make your drones through Alibaba.com (Who needs to make it at home?)

If you don't want to sell through the Apple Store or Amazon, you could arrange payment through Square, which allows you to charge credit cards through your iPhone or iPad. (Who needs to work directly with the credit card companies?)

Finally, when it comes time to ship the goods to the mercenary company, you could use Shipwire. (Why bother with the biggies like UPS or FedEx?)

You never left your couch, and you managed to employ a bunch of subcontractors to bring your drone and its app to market. Still, what have you actually contributed to the US or world economy? Did you actually work? You never left your couch.

An extreme scenario, perhaps, but it illustrates the loss of the ideal of craftsmanship--the satisfaction of being involved in the whole of a process, from beginning to end (a key theme in chapter 5 of my book). Professor Davis' scenario also helps us understand the puzzle of the jobless recovery. Profits and economic growth occur all along the way, but no U.S. workers are employed. Except for maybe one couch potato.

Thankfully, this is an absurd extreme, but it does suggest that if we are not careful we may outsource ourselves to death.

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