TCS Daily

Whine, the Beloved Country!

By James K. Glassman - May 11, 2004 12:00 AM

George (Jack Nicholson): You know, this used to be a helluva good country. I can't understand what's gone wrong with it.

Billy (Dennis Hopper): Man, everybody got chicken. That's what happened, man.

-- (from the film "Easy Rider," 1969)

Actually, it's still a helluva good country, but Billy has a point. Lots of people got chicken. Or more precisely, lots of people started whining.

There is a new culture of complaint in America, and it has surfaced with a vengeance in the recent clamor over outsourcing. Economists know that outsourcing -- that is, the purchase of services abroad by U.S. companies -- is simply another form of trade. And trade, as Adam Smith pointed out more than 200 years ago, is beneficial to both parties in the transaction.

Yes, trade can plunge previously insulated workers into competition with foreigners. That can cause pain and lost jobs. What's troubling is the reaction here to that competition. Understand that outsourcing is a pebble in the ocean of macro-economic effects, like the boost to the economy from tax cuts and low interest rates and the drag from the terrorist attacks. But the reaction makes outsourcing seem like a tidal wave.

The reaction: whining, whinging, complaining. Indians and Chinese are stealing our jobs. They work for cheap. "We can compete with anybody...if we have a fair and balanced playing field," said Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) in an interview with CNN's Lou Dobbs. "It's not fair today and we know that."

Having appeared twice myself with the egregious Mr. Dobbs, a champion of the whiners, and having received a ton of nasty e-mail for defending trade, I have heard this refrain many, many times: Not fair!

But was it fair that, perhaps a generation or two back, the forebears of these same complainers came to America's shores without a job or a grasp of the English language, without education and without welfare? Was it fair that they had to make their way on the plains of, well, South Dakota, fighting vicious weather and coping with terrible farming conditions?

It's not just outsourcing. Encouraged by trial lawyers, Americans seek redress for practically every grievance, including the fact that they are fat or that banks lend them money when they're not creditworthy. The American Tort Reform Association quotes a Wisconsin newspaper: "Cable TV made a West Bend man addicted to TV, caused his wife to be overweight and his kids to be lazy, he says. And he's threatening to sue the cable company."

The truth is that life in America has improved so much in the past century that we have forgotten what it is to struggle -- even with adversity that's unfair or unlucky. Are schools overcrowded today? In fact, the ratio of students to teachers has done from 30-1 in 1955 to 19-1 now. Are people coming down with infectious diseases? Turberculosis took 200 lives per 100,000 population in 1900 and 0.4 lives today. Total compensation, adjusted for inflation, has tripled since 1947, and the cost of necessities has plummeted. Food in 1950 represented about one-third of a family's total expenditures; today, it's one-seventh.

Our advantage over the Indians and the Chinese -- and the Italians, for that matter -- is that we have the world's best system of higher education, its most vigorous entrepreneurs, its most abundant capital. Also, we're a lot richer. Is it fair for Americans, with our massive infrastructure, our clean water and our incredible financial markets to compete against poor Indians who have to climb over sleeping beggars on their way to work? Who should be complaining here?

America's Gross Domestic Product is greater than the GDPs of the next five countries combined. Our unemployment rate of 5.7 percent - while higher than it was before the 2001 recession -- is still lower than the average U.S. rate in the 1970s, in the 1980s and the 1990s. Unemployment in France is 9.6 percent; in Germany, 10.4 percent.

Two-thirds of Americans own their own homes. Sure, some people have trouble making ends meet, and, over the past few years, many hard-working people lost their jobs. That's a shame, but they're getting them back again as the economy recovers.

On the whole, we're more prosperous than any other nation in the history of the world -- and far better off than we were in the past. We have more cars, larger houses, more children in college, more cultural institutions. We work shorter hours and make lots more money.

And yet, Americans complain. And complain. And complain.

Some of the complaining is understandable, even endearing. As the late Gilda Radner of "Saturday Night Live" famously put it, "It's always something." But there is a darker side. The complaints point to the development of a decadent and complacent America -- much like present-day Europe -- where every obstacle, every minor setback, is viewed, not as a challenge, but as a personal affront and, of course, as someone else's fault.

Can an economy that was built on principles of what Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction" coexist in a society that embraces a culture of complaint and demands an easy ride everywhere? Not on your life.

A version of this article appeared in The American Enterprise magazine.


TCS Daily Archives