Pondering Outsourcing: Part Duh

I was pondering outsourcing yesterday and ran out of pondering time. Now that I have some pondering time, I thought I would continue with my pondering of outsourcing. {“ponder”: interesting word, isn’t it? Perhaps I should look it up… Here is what one source on the web says:

To weigh in the mind; to view with deliberation; to examine carefully; to consider attentively.

Syn: To Ponder, Consider, Muse.

Usage: To consider means to view or contemplate with fixed thought. To ponder is to dwell upon with long and anxious attention, with a view to some practical result or decision. To muse is simply to think upon continuously with no definite object, or for the pleasure it gives. We consider any subject which is fairly brought before us; we ponder a concern involving great interests; we muse on the events of childhood.

End of digression.}

First one point of clarification. Yesterday I wrote

Fun fact #2: Trade occurs only among two dissimilar entities. If I have an excess of peanut butter and you have an excess of bread, then we can trade and both end up enjoying peanut butter sandwiches. But if both of us have exactly the same ratio of peanut butter to bread to start off with, then we could not trade.

The point was that the two trading entities have to be dissimilar. That dissimilarity could be intrinsic or extrinsic. If they are intrinsically dissimilar, then even if their endowments are the same, trade can still take place. For instance, we may start off with the same ratio of peanut butter and bread, but you may have a strong preference for only bread and I may have a strong preference for only peanut butter. In that case, we can trade and end up happier. If we are instrinsically similar — our preferences match — then we cannot trade unless our endowments are different. End of digression number two.

Continuing with the list of fun facts, here is another. Fun fact #5: The world is moving towards increasing specialization since the stone age. Speciation is what happens in the natural world where life evolved in some primal soup and since then from the earliest protozoan to the present day different species have emerged. Evolution is a fact. The theory which explains the mechanism of evolution was given credence through the diligent and brilliant work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Darwin got the germ of his idea upon reading Thomas Malthus’ (1766-1834) Essay on the Principle of Population. No doubt Darwin pondered that issue long and hard and then it struck him that speciation occurs through competition for resources and those that are less fit are doomed and this process he called “natural selection”. Darwin explained the mechanism that underlies the question how did all the diversity of life originate.

It is easy to see that specialization in the economic world is a close analog of speciation in the natural world. Once upon a time you used to have people who were jacks of all trades and masters of none. Now you have programmers and playwrites, prostitutes and politicians (ok, I repeat myself), pharmacists and paleontologists. The more advanced the society, the more specialization of its work force.

Hand in hand with the specialization of the work force, we have the specialization of the firms that operate in the society. Firms that used to do all things in a particular sphere (vertically integrated firms) no longer do so. They ‘outsource’. For instance, take a car manufacterer. Once upon a time, at one end steel, rubber, and glass would go in and at the other end of the factory you would have cars rolling out of the assembly lines. All the raw materials would be transformed inside that one plant into cars. That was then. Now a car manufacturer assembles cars from components that are manufactured by other firms. So a firm that manufactures engines will supply these intermediate goods to a host of firms.

{Advanced industrialized countries (or developed countries) trade a lot amongst themselves. Much of that trade is in intermediate goods. Given that, it is hard to tell where something is really manufactured these days. For instance, ponder a complex creature such as a Boeing 777. Engines could come from Europe, parts of the fuselage from Japan, avionics from the US, … by the time you are done enumerating, you would find that practically the whole world was somehow involved in the manufacture of the plane. End of aside #18.}

That is what outsourcing is all about. You don’t do all the stuff that needs to be done. Get someone else to do it because they have a comparative advantage in doing that bit. I outsource ‘jhadu-pocha-bartan’. American firms outsource much of what they need done and a part of that outsourcing happens to be done abroad and of that work done abroad, India has a small share.

So now let’s ponder outsourcing and India. I will ponder outsourcing and the US later because I am fast running out of pondering time.

India appears to be a destination for a specific kind of outsourcing. Business processes and software development. The sort of work that does not require hard infrastructure such as roads and ports and water and power. You just need some kind of connectivity, a bunch of English-speaking graduates who can be easily trained, and a bunch of entreprenuers who would start BPO and software firms to do the ‘jhadu-pocha-bartan’ equivalent for the US firms.

From all indications, the whole business works quite well. India has a huge population. Out of that billion+ population, India graduates around a million every year. Some of these graduates can speak English and of them some are trainable. Firms that initially went into the BPO and software business had an easy time. Lots of unemployed and underemployed graduates to choose from and they had a party. Will the party continue? As more and more firms get into the game, it will become increasingly difficult to find graduates that are trainable and can speak English. Given increase in demand without significant changes in the supply, prices will get bid up. That will drive up the costs of BPO and software in India. India’s competitive advantage in the sector will deteriorate.

So how does one go about avoiding the fate that I just outlined? Simple: increase the supply. India should see that more of the million graduates it produces are capable of being trained and speak English.

For the record, I should state that while I feel happy for the people who get the BPO and software jobs, I do not feel very happy about the fact that India has to be the preferred provider of ‘jhadu-pocha-bartan’ to the Americans.

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