Op-Ed Columnist: Watching the Jobs Go By
February 11, 2004
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
To be permitted to read the rest of this column, you must
first click here and answer the question correctly:
Go on, try it. After all, 83 percent of Japanese high
school seniors got it right (though only 30 percent of
American seniors). The correct answer is (c). If you
answered incorrectly, though, keep reading - think of it as
a social promotion.
The topic today is the growing furor over the outsourcing
of jobs to India - and, more broadly, educational lapses
here. One reason for the jobless recovery in the U.S. is
that it doesn't make much sense to have an American
radiologist, say, examine your X-ray when it can be done so
much more cheaply in New Delhi.
Indeed, why should computer software be written, taxes
prepared, pathology specimens examined, financial analysis
done or homework graded in the U.S., when all of that can
be done more cheaply in Bangalore? I.B.M. is moving
thousands of jobs to India and China, and Reuters says it
will have Indian reporters cover some U.S. companies from
All this is unsettling. But to me the alarm seems
overwrought - and dangerous, for it is likely to fuel calls
for protectionism. A dozen years ago, there was a similar
panic about high-tech jobs going abroad, and people said
that Asia would be making computer chips while Americans
produced potato chips.
Instead, free trade worked. Some autoworkers lost their
jobs, but America emerged stronger than ever. Studies by
Catherine Mann of the Institute for International Economics
suggest that it is the same this time. Outsourcing raises
American productivity, gives our economy a boost, increases
foreign demand for U.S. products and leaves us better off.
Yet, as an Indian friend, Sunil Subbakrishna, pointed out
to me, there is one step we should take in response to this
wave of outsourcing: bolster our second-rate education
Mr. Subbakrishna, a management consultant specializing in
technology, notes that in his native Bangalore, children
learn algebra in elementary school. All in all, he says,
the average upper-middle-class child in Bangalore finishes
elementary school with a better grounding in math and
science than the average kid in the U.S.
I saw the same thing when I lived in China and interviewed
college applicants there. The SAT wasn't offered in China,
so Chinese high school students took the Graduate Record
Examinations - intended for would-be graduate students -
and many still scored in the 99th percentile in math.
The latest international survey, called Trends in
International Mathematics and Science Study, found that the
best-performing eighth graders were, in order, from
Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Belgium
and the Netherlands. The U.S. ranked 19th, just after
Latvia. (India and China weren't surveyed.)
"For too many graduates, the American high school diploma
signifies only a broken promise," declares a major new
study released yesterday by three education policy
organizations. Called the American Diploma Project, it
found that 60 percent of employers rated graduates' skills
as only "fair" or "poor."
The broader problem is not just in schools but society as a
whole: There's a tendency in U.S. intellectual circles to
value the humanities but not the sciences. Anyone who
doesn't nod sagely at the mention of Plato's cave is
dismissed as barely civilized, while it's no blemish to be
ignorant of statistics, probability and genetics. If we're
going to revere Plato, as we should, we should also
remember that his academy supposedly had a sign at the
entrance: "Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here."
In 1957, the Soviet launching of Sputnik frightened America
into substantially improving math and science education.
I'm hoping that the loss of jobs in medicine and computers
to India and elsewhere will again jolt us into bolstering
our own teaching of math and science.