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Mothers Can’t be Outsourced May 13, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Ethics.
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Debates about trade policy and protecting American jobs have been raging among blogging economists.(See here and here) The importance of this debate cannot be exaggerated. Given the enormous supply of cheap labor coming on line from newly emerging economies, the future of the American economy may rest on getting this right.

Some argue that we should hold our trading partners to higher environmental and labor standards or increase tariffs on their imports. This would raise their costs, help U.S. manufacturers to compete, and make the outsourcing of U.S. jobs less enticing.

Other economists argue that this would set off inflation and harm the American consumer, our economy, and ultimately American workers. Instead, we should focus resources on retraining displaced workers and generating new jobs.

But retrain them to do what? What new jobs will be immune to outsourcing?

Even some die-hard, free market fundamentalists are worried that the lure of cheap labor overseas may overwhelm anything we can do to create new jobs, and few industries will be immune. As economist Alan Blinder writes, “30 million to 40 million U.S. jobs are potentially offshorable. These include scientists, mathematicians and editors on the high end and telephone operators, clerks and typists on the low end.”  Apparently, even the job of reporting on local city council meetings can be outsourced. 

So what to do? Perhaps its just because its mother’s day, but it seems to me part of the solution is obvious. Why not pay mothers and other caretakers (fathers, children caring for aged parents, etc.) for the work they do? Salary.com estimates the value of a full-time mom is $138,095. The monetary value of a second-shift mom (the shift that begins after the day job ends) is $85,939. This is a stunning example of how, despite all the bleating about family values, we undervalue care work. (For more on the care crisis see this)

Compensating care workers will not prevent jobs from going overseas, but it will protect families from a catastrophic loss of income due to fluctuations in the labor market. Importantly, care work is one of the few jobs that cannot be outsourced since it is dependent on face to face interaction.

Implementing such a proposal will require a wholesale shift in our attitudes toward care work including how we measure outputs and inputs. But economist Michael Lewis has some thoughts about making the numbers add up.

Perhaps mom has the solution to one of the most pressing social/political/economic problems this country faces. “Thanks mom for all you do” may take on a whole new meaning.

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