President Obama's Disingenuous Attack on Outsourcing

His populist critique of free trade and outsourcing is a cynical pander. Just look at the economic leaders with whom he surrounds himself.

In recent weeks the Obama campaign has revealed how it intends to portray Mitt Romney in the upcoming election: as a greedy, dishonorable, unpatriotic member of the international business elite. They're taking advantage of the gulf in values that separates the average Harvard M.B.A., who regards it as his or her duty to contract for labor abroad when it maximizes shareholder value, from the average American, who sees outsourcing as a distasteful, mercenary act. These attacks are likely to be successful precisely because the lives of business elites are so different from the lives of ordinary Americans. Among business elites, for example, drawing a large executive salary from a firm where you're little more than a figurehead is common enough. For the average worker, that sounds like a creepy, dishonest scam.

Some of the ways big business evolved during the era when Mitt Romney was making his fortune are in fact distasteful -- the lobbying for regulatory advantage; the focus on tax arbitrage rather than creating value; whatever portion of executive compensation is attributable to insiderism. Other critiques are wrongheaded. Take outsourcing. It's absurd to think that the American worker wouldn't face pressure from foreign labor if only America's CEOs were less greedy.

Whether right or wrong, these critiques are difficult to rebut. Doing so involves explaining the global perspective of the ultra-rich business elite to the struggling U.S. worker. They're also disingenuous attacks for President Obama, of all people, to make. They're disingenuous because Obama isn't a consistent, principled critic of the business elite. He is an inconsistent, opportunistic critic.

He started playing this game during the Democratic primary in 2007, insisting that if elected president he would renegotiate NAFTA. To no one's surprise, he wasn't in office a month before he reneged on that promise. He was pretending to be someone who believed the populist critique of free trade agreements, but like the academic and business elites with whom he staffs his administration, Obama buys into the conventional case for free trade and never wanted to renegotiate NAFTA. He still doesn't, no matter how many times he complains that "Romney's firms shipped jobs to Mexico." In the long run, capital and labor mobility either benefit us or make us no worse off, insofar as global competition cannot be escaped. I tire of Obama pretending his position is different, and feel especially sorry for the voters he's misleading.

How credible is it that Obama actually thinks there's something unethical about sending jobs to China? Well, here's what Obama said about another ultra-wealthy entrepreneur who outsourced jobs: "We celebrate somebody like a Steve Jobs, who has created two or three different revolutionary products. We expect that person to be rich, and that's a good thing. We want that incentive."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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