The terminology of economics—"marginal utility," "vertical equity," "asymmetric information"—is not, by and large, the stuff of deep public passion. But in recent years one economic term has become hot to the touch. The term is "outsourcing," which refers to the spinning off of job functions from one place to another, and especially to the export of jobs from high-wage America to low-wage countries such as India and China. Both presidential candidates have expressed concern about outsourcing, which has devastated some of the most vigorously contested swing states, even as economists debate the overall pluses and minuses of outsourcing in the long run. What nobody disputes is that outsourcing has been occurring, that the pace is picking up, and that it affects all economic sectors and levels of management. Indeed, much of the job of President of the United States seems to have been outsourced to a lower-wage Vice President.
But it would be a mistake to think of outsourcing as simply an economic transaction; it is a universal tendency, like gravity, that exerts a pull on everything. It may be helpful to think in terms of a fourth law of thermodynamics. The first law, you'll recall, holds that the amount of matter and energy in the universe is constant. The second holds that the default direction of everything is toward entropy. The third law … well, never mind. The fourth law, newly postulated, holds that outsourcing—getting others to do things for you—is the intrinsic vector of all human activity.
National governments, for instance, once cherished their vaunted "monopoly on violence"; this was among the chief attributes of sovereignty. The war in Iraq has made Americans aware of the extent to which military functions have been outsourced to corporations like Halliburton, Bechtel, and DynCorp. Of course, armies never provided everything for themselves (the toilet paper inside meals-ready-to-eat, for example, comes from a $1.4 million contract to the Rose Resnick Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, in Oakland), but core military functions such as building bases, guarding depots, and conducting surveillance are increasingly private-sector affairs. So, too, sometimes, is torture, as the Abu Ghraib scandal reveals, although the more common practice is for squeamish governments (i.e., ours) to outsource problematic interrogations to less squeamish governments (Cairo, Manila)—a practice that goes by the artfully bland term "rendition." Even the political task of educating Iraqis about the virtues of democracy has been outsourced—in this instance not to an American company but to a British public-relations firm, Bell Pottinger, which received a $5.6 million contract to produce promotional commercials for use on Iraqi television. (Bell Pottinger's chairman, Lord Tim Bell, previously oversaw publicity for Margaret Thatcher.)
Outsourcing extends into areas one might never have expected. The United States, seemingly self-sufficient in its own territory, has been outsourcing itself for years, at least when it comes to movie and television locales. New York is often played by (cheap) Toronto. The Appalachian settings in the movie Cold Mountain were played by (even cheaper) Romania. It used to be that standing in line for a driver's license or a government hearing, or to buy tickets, was the sort of thing one pretty much had to do for oneself. This function, too, is outsourceable. Today the "service expediter" industry provides human substitutes (for up to $30 an hour) who will save a place until your turn arrives. It's hard to see how this industry could ever be moved offshore to people in Thailand or Indonesia, but God help anyone needing a license if it is.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the diploma-mill industry is being outsourced. There have long been unaccredited educational institutions in America willing for a fee to offer fast-track doctorates, and fly-by-night companies willing to send out handsome facsimile transcripts ("for amusement purposes only"), but the nation's homegrown diploma mills are now being undermined by competition from abroad. The Jerusalem-based University Degree Program has sold more than 30,000 advanced degrees of various kinds, from nonexistent institutions such as Ashbourne University and the University of Palmers Green. (There is even a phone number employers can call to confirm a job applicant's claims.) A China-based company called BackAlleyPress.com sells official-looking fake transcripts from real universities, custom-made to suit every educational need.