A Look Back October 2004

125 Years Ago in The Atlantic

The flight of jobs overseas is a hot-button issue in the 2004 election. But the problem is by no means new. As this October 1879 editorial by William Vaughn Moody makes clear, concerns about losing jobs to developing nations have been with us for a long time.
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It is well known that wages in India, like wages in China, are very low,—about ten cents a day.

To obtain the foreign market, we must therefore compete with fourteen, twenty, and twenty-four hours a day of work, for seven days in the week, with wages at ten cents a day, or sixty or seventy cents a week …

We are doing all we can to make our people still poorer, to work for still lower wages, that we may undersell, not only England, but India; for to succeed we must undersell the cheapest …

Thus, after thirteen years of national effort,—of legislation, of subsidizing, of treaties and conventions of every nature,—and superhuman efforts at cheap production, by the reduction of wages and salaries, the substitution of machinery for muscle, and the throwing of millions into idleness, we have got so far below the cost of manufacturing and producing in India, in Brazil, in England, as to increase or make a foreign market for our manufactures to the amount of one hundred million dollars, and of our general products of six hundred millions of dollars, per annum …

[But] the time is not far distant when the textiles from the Chinese machine looms, iron and steel and cutlery from the Chinese furnaces, forges, and workshops, with everything that machinery and cheap labor can produce, will crowd every market. The four hundred millions of China, with the two hundred and fifty millions of India,—the crowded and pauperized populations of Asia,—will offer the cup of cheap machine labor, filled to the brim, to our lips, and force us to drink it to the dregs, if we do not learn wisdom. It is in Asia, if anywhere, that the world is to find its workshop. There are the masses, and the conditions, necessary to develop the power of cheapness to perfection, and they will be used.

[Volume 194, No. 3, pages 29—30]

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