Innocent Bystander November 2004

Let Someone Else Do It

The impulse behind everything
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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.

Demographic realities create urgent outsourcing needs. The shortage of Catholic priests in America has resulted in a grave backlog of prayers and masses. When the devout request special prayers of thanksgiving or remembrance, often to be said for years at a time, the requests (and monetary offerings) are increasingly outsourced to India, whose Catholic priests are giving the notion of service expediter a whole new dimension. Asked about this by The New York Times, a spokesman for the Catholic Church commented, "The prayer is heartfelt, and every prayer is treated as the same whether it is paid for in dollars, euros, or rupees."

If spiritual succor can be outsourced, so, presumably, can other ineffable qualities and pursuits. A bit of a fuss was caused some years ago when it was revealed that clergymen in the United States had been outsourcing their sermons—buying them from an online "sermon mill." But the entire range of human expression, from toasts by a best man to eulogies by a grieving friend, can now be acquired at a factory outlet. InstantWeddingToasts.com sells fill-in-the-blank templates to help clients create a memorable wedding speech. "In about five painless minutes, you'll have a wedding speech ready to go … without writing!"

In America we've been outsourcing the idea of personal responsibility for years. The old-fashioned moral stance is the one articulated in Julius Caesar: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars but in ourselves." That was before the "Twinkie defense," which attributed a murderer's actions to elevated blood-sugar levels brought on by vigorous snacking on junk food. The dispositions of diet, the lash of upbringing, the twist of genetics—targets of other-directed blame have become only more plentiful. A killer in Eustis, Florida, cited the fantasy role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade as the catalyst of the alleged mental illness that formed the basis of his defense. In another case, according to a newspaper account, a man in Panama City, Florida, "claimed drinking jasmine tea caused him to go temporarily insane before he smashed his way into a neighbor's house and chased the woman with a large dagger." The charges against him were dropped.

Outsourcing has been with us from the very beginning. Think of slavery, a fundamental form of outsourcing. On a macro scale, the great imperial systems of history have been exercises in outsourcing. No doubt one of the earliest forms of outsourcing was the delegation of one's intellectual chores to a support staff of consultants.

Middle-class Americans today have typically outsourced a vast proportion of child care, food preparation, and money handling. With the help of personal concierges, many higher-end Americans also have outsourced the great bulk of their interpersonal relationships. Reproduction itself is often outsourced (by means of sperm and egg donors and in vitro fertilization), and people needing various kinds of human tissue for purposes of repair increasingly seek outsourced components in the developing world, where life is cheap and so are kidneys.

And I must confess that much of this column was in fact outsourced to subcontracting facilities in Bangalore and Nogales, where I've been told that quality control is adequate and language issues should present no cause for concern. To be sure, there are glitches still to be worked out (for instance, the previous sentence originally came off the assembly line as "where I've been told that quality control is jolly good and language issues should present no problema"). But I can assure you that the sentiments expressed herein remain heartfelt, whether paid for in dollars, euros, or rupees.

Cullen Murphy is The Atlantic's managing editor.
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Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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