Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo has a long article, “The Company Town,” in this week’s New Yorker about life in impoverished, air-polluted Chennai (formerly Madras), India, which has become a major outsourcing outpost for U.S. white-collar back-office work. (You can’t link the piece, but you can link to photos and a web interview with Kate here.) I’ve always been a fan of Kate’s perceptive reporting and her classy literary style–she was at the Washington Post for years writing articles about our city’s underclass and the bureaucrats who purport to serve it, and many years ago, she was an editor of mine who taught me a great deal about structuring a story and reporting it to the nines. But now that Kate’s at The New Yorker, her writing has acquired an unpleasant sarcastic edge that I suppose goes with the rest of the sarcastic-liberal political fare the magazine so often serves up to its readers.
In Kate’s Chennai story, for example, the villains of the outsourcing saga are a) the Americans (natch!), b) the British (they ran India for a couple of centuries, remember, so colonialism has got to have something to do with it), and c) the capitalists who set the outsourcing system in motion. The result: wage-exploited, culturally rootless (because they’re semi-Americanized) Indians, jobless Americans (although that’s not so true anymore in the current surging economy), and a lot of air that’s unfit to breathe and water that’s unfit to drink–if you can find it.
But I thought: What about American white-collar workers themselves, who are often so maleducated these days that they can’t, or won’t, do the jobs that Indians are supposedly taking from them for a tenth of their salaries? The outsourcing company that is the focus of Kate’s story, a firm called Office Tiger in Chennai, was set up only six years ago by a pair of Harvard Business school grads with investment-banking jobs on Wall Street who noticed that their firms’ lackadaisical Manhattan-based clerical workforces couldn’t turn out the letter-perfect documents that Wall Street operations typically need to produce at top speed. Kate writes:
“It had become apparent to [Office Tiger’s eventual founders] that not every typist and copyist working the midnight shift in their investment banks–the moonlighting actor, the artist with the ring in his nose–was putting his heart, soul, and syntactical memory into completing the PowerPoint presentations that needed to be done, perfectly, by morning.”
Kate also describes a typical U.S. end-user of Office Tiger services: a 43-year-old man with a bachelor’s degree who lacks the basic writing skills to enable him to update his resume! The guy has to go to a copy shop, which in turn outsources the work to a Hindu “document specialist” in Chennai for typying, formatting, and proofreading.
Once, of course, American clerical workers equipped with a few business and English courses from high school knew how to turn out crisp, perfectly spelled and punctuated documents that satisfied the most exacting of bosses. But now, high school (and grade school) English teachers see their mission as helping their students be “creative.” Students work on their inner poet when it might be more useful for them to work on their inner sentence-diagrammer.
India, however, thanks to those dreadful British colonialists, has a superb, old-fashioned, English language-based education system in which students still learn the essentials of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. And it turns out that those skills are highly marketable–as they would be in the United States if anyone still had them. India is also a desperately poor country, which America is not, so it is not surprising that job-starved workers there covet and strive to excel at low-paying clerical positions that many Americans today disdain and perform poorly.
Kate’s article is replete with nostalgia for lost village ways in India. That’s all well and good–I think traditional Indian culture is wonderful in many ways myself, and the price of modernity for any society is high–but a viable economy based on simple ways and agriculture disappeared years ago in India, just as it did in the West. The options for a place like India are two: a xenophobic command-society folk-museum in which the inhabitants tend their quaint looms and grind along in poverty (a favorite modus operandi of India’s socialist governments past and present), or to have what India has now, which at least gives the inhabitants a chance to work at jobs whose wages look good to them. A few years ago I saw one of the famous Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s last movies, made during the 1970s. Its protagonist was a highly educated young man whose sole source of income was peddling packages of typing paper on the street. Is this what we really want for India?
In any event, outsourcing to India may look cheap because the wages there are rock-bottom by U.S. standards. But when you factor in the set-up costs and what you have to pay to keep a middleman like Office Tiger profitable, it may not be so cheap after all. Nonetheless, given the way the American education establishment has both failed to prepare a competent U.S. workforce and taught it to look down its nose at clerical jobs, outsourcing may be the only way that U.S. businesses, from investment banks to humble copy shops, can get the work done.