Playing Indian: What Outsourced Says About the American Economy

On a recent episode of NBC’s Outsourced, Todd, the clueless American who runs the call center for a US-based novelty company in Mumbai, is trying to understand what the Hindu celebration of Diwali is all about.  He asks one of his employees which magical element is featured during Diwali:  “Uh, laughing cow? Crouching tiger? Flying monkey?”  Manmeet replies:  “There does happen to be a flying monkey. But I feel like that guess came from a bad place.”

A lot of the jokes on Outsourced come from a bad place.  TV critics over the last four months have argued that the show is racist, grounded in cheap gags like Americans eating Indian street food that gives them diarrhea. Others argue that Outsourced is too abject to be funny, given how many American jobs have been lost to outsourcing.  As one forum participant quipped, “What’s next?  A comedy about foreclosure?”  Finally, there are many who complain that the show is simply not funny—evidence, according to these critics, of how far NBC has fallen since the glory days of “Must See TV,” when Friends and Seinfeld dominated Thursday night in the battle for network supremacy.

The critics are mostly right:  Outsourced does play on a series of base and ethnically problematic gags, from having cows wander through set, to a pudgy character named Gupta who becomes addicted to a tobacco-like chew called “Paan,” to an employee who confounds her boss with her enigmatic head bob, to a beautiful Indian woman call center worker (played by the ravishing Rebecca Hazlewood from a steamy night time soap opera that ran on BBC, Bad Girls) who is torn between an arranged marriage and her Anglo American boss.  The Indians are frequently perplexed and/or offended by the American novelties they are selling—everything from fake vomit and Green Bay Packer Cheese Head Hats to red, white, and blue condoms and men’s belts with mistletoe attached to the buckle.  Likewise the Anglos are “fish out of water,” as they try to adapt to Indian holidays, Indian food, monsoons, power outages, Mumbai traffic, and Indian rules surrounding courtship and marriage.

What most of the critics have overlooked, however, is that Outsourced is more of a satire about the global workplace than it is a show about India.  The dialogue that pertains to economic issues is frequently biting and funny, and the overall message is two fold. Outsourced is critical of the economic situation that lured the call center from Kansas to Mumbai, but it also argues that the call center offers its Indian employees, and, especially, its women employees, genuine opportunities for social and economic advancement.

The criticism of the US economy comes out the most strongly in the character of Todd Dempsey (Ben Rappaport) the call center manager, who agrees to move to India in large part because he needs to pay off $40,000 in college debt.  As one reviewer pointed out, $40,000 doesn’t seem like quite enough debt to move the plot forward.  On the other hand, Todd’s plight calls attention to the situation of the typical college graduate who walks away from college with a debt burden of $24,000.  During this current climate of high unemployment, how many college students might be willing to take the kind of deal that Todd has taken in order to pay back their student loans?

Todd is also a loser in the eyes of his American family.  During one episode in which he Skypes with his mom, dad, and brother, Todd’s brother brags about the sales records he is breaking in the US at his own company, and the fact that he can buy their parents a first class trip around the world.  In order to compete Todd lies about his achievements in India, but his parents still are not impressed.  In the context of these vignettes, it is easy to feel a bit more sympathy for Todd, who betrays a certain clear-eyed acceptance about the irony of his position.  In episode 107 he quips:  “I came to India to sell Americans novelties made in China and that’s what I’m going to do.”

Going back home to the US is not necessarily the right answer for Todd and his ilk.  In a recent Thanksgiving episode, “Temporary Monsanity,” in which the Americans try to teach the Indians about the sales hysteria in the US on the day after Thanksgiving (Black Friday), the Indian call center deputy director offers his workers an incentive:  “If anyone can break the sales record they can have full health insurance for themselves and their family.”  The workers cheer, and then one of them pipes up:  “They don’t even have that in the US!”  Indeed, we don’t.

During this Thanksgiving episode Outsourced also showed a remarkable self-consciousness about the colonialism at the heart of its premise.  Throughout the episode, parallels between Native American Indians and east Indians were frequently played up.  In one example, one of the Indian workers tries to explain Thanksgiving to his co-worker: “It’s quite simple really . . . the Pilgrims came to a land that was not their own and subjugated the Indians so that the white man could run their call center . . . I mean country.”  The Indians on Outsourced are subjugated by the white man, even though they occasionally use their Indian wiles to “get over” on their Anglo bosses.

At the same time Outsourced raises the possibility that call center work is making a tangible difference in the lives of its Indian workers.  One of the women workers, Madhuri, explains that she went from being a source of shame for her family, because she wasn’t married, to being the primary bread winner.  In the case of the alluring Asha, we see that her attraction to her boss, Todd, might give her a reason to resist the pressure she feels to pick a husband from an arranged marriage website and get on with that part of her life.  This portrayal may have some relationship to the real life experience of Indian women;  a report by San Diego State researcher, Doreen J. Mattingly, shows that in many cases call center jobs have been socially and economically beneficial for Indian women.

Is Outsourced a good show?  At the end of the day I am less interested in whether or not the show is good or bad.  But I am interested in the fact that the show has provoked a lot of discourse about outsourcing, globalization, and the US economy.  In dozens of fan websites, blogs, and reviews of Outsourced, ordinary viewers discuss the pros and cons—and mostly the cons—of outsourcing.  I am also intrigued by the fact that the show has provided work for a handful of actors with East Asian ancestry.  As xenophobic as the show can be, it is providing actual jobs for East Asian Americans in Hollywood.  The actress who plays the demure Madhuri, Anisha Nagarajan, grew up in the Fox Chapel suburbs of Pittsburgh.  She learned to tie a Sari from her grandmother when she spent a year at an Indian boarding school when she was 15.  Likewise one of the show’s Indian American writers, Amit Bhalla, grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

In this sense Outsourced calls to mind a lowbrow workplace comedy that featured an all-ethnic cast from the early 1950s:  the African American comedy Amos ‘n’ Andy.  The show was cancelled in 1952, after two seasons, when the NAACP pressured the show’s sponsor, Blatz Beer, with the charge of racism.  My hope is that Outsourced will continue to move in the direction of becoming a satire on racism and globalization, rather than a show that perpetuates some of the most pernicious stereotypes of Indians.

On the other hand, if some of the jokes on the show continue to come from a “bad place,” I can take some comfort in the fact that this Thursday night comedy is getting us to talk, in serious terms, about the “bad place” that so many of us are in, economically.  Outsourcing isn’t funny.  But maybe, just maybe, if Outsourced becomes more so it will provide us with a better vocabulary for making sense of these troubled times.

Kathy M. Newman

Empathetic Indifference: Why the Democrats Lost

In 2008 white working-class voters in Wisconsin and Iowa gave Barack Obama 52% of their vote – and that was pretty important because in both states, working-class whites were a majority of all voters.   In 2010 they were even larger majorities, but they gave Democratic candidates  only 40% of their votes in Wisconsin and 32% in Iowa.

Though especially striking, these huge swings are pretty typical of Midwestern states – where, except for Illinois, whites without bachelor’s degrees (the reigning definition of the electoral “working class”) constitute a majority of all voters.  In the Great Lakes states over the past two decades, there has been a slow but substantial drift of white voters, including working-class whites, toward the Democratic Party.  That drift halted (or at least paused) big time this year.  Why?

First, as Democracy Corps has documented (see “Graphs,” p.7), nearly every demographic group swung against Democrats in 2010, including declines of 3 and 4 percentage points among the core of the Party – African-Americans, Latinos, and union households.  The swing was just larger, more dramatic, and potentially more damaging among working-class whites in the industrial Midwest.  Given the ubiquity of the swing, any explanation needs to focus on large overarching causes that affect the entire electorate but have special force in the Midwest where the working class of all colors is such a large majority.

The consensus causal explanation among analysts and pundits on this score is, of course, the state of the economy.   But there are several variations of this explanation with important differences.

One variation is arithmetical mechanics:  an official unemployment rate of nearly 10% automatically leads to whoever is in charge being thrown out by voters, regardless of what they have or have not done.   With the inauguration of President Obama, the Democrats were clearly in charge in January 2009.  The official unemployment rate then was “only” 7.7%, and it steadily rose to 10% by the end of the year, where after a very slight improvement it has remained.   That economic number and its trajectory are highly predictive of electoral outcomes.  Period – end of story.

There is wisdom in the simplicity of this mechanistic explanation, and it should not be forgotten.    I am among those who think that Democratic economic policies in 2009 averted a much worse economic situation than would have occurred had the Republicans been in charge – or if there had been complete, instead of partial, gridlock.  That’s why I voted for Democrats, but I can understand why the “wisdom of crowds” might see voting as a kind of thumbs up – thumbs down affair, and not a comparison.  Indeed, as I voted for Democrats (a few of whom, like my Representative Danny Davis, are actually very good),  it felt like I was saying “everything is okay.”

Another variation of the it’s-the-economy explanation holds that the Obama administration was simply ineffective in explaining its various economic policies.  Endless punditry about “messaging” and “narratives” ranges from the mildly insightful to the disgustingly superficial and manipulative, but there is undoubtedly truth to the general proposition.  In particular, the President bragging on his accomplishments (which, as Rolling Stone has comprehensively summarized, are many) as life got palpably worse for workers and homeowners, not to mention the poor and unemployed, was certainly counterproductive when it was not outright maddening.

The third it’s-the-economy analysis points to the actual Obama macroeconomic policy, the “stimulus plan”: it was not big enough and too much money was spent on the wrong things to get the economy growing vigorously enough to bring down unemployment.  This is tricky territory, and I’m not competent to make the kinds of combined economic and political judgments that politicians have to make.  But if the mechanistic relationship between unemployment rates and electoral outcomes is as important as decades of statistics indicate, then a President and his party have to actually move the numbers – or at least try.

They did try in 2009.  Indeed, the Obama mistake was not in the original stimulus plan, which we now know averted a Great Recession but was not sufficient to move the economy forward.  Rather, the key mistake was later, in the President’s first full budget at the beginning of this year. After promising “to focus like a laser” on jobs and the economy when health care reform was passed, the President presented a budget that accepted 9% or 10% unemployment as the best he could do.  Eschewing a second stimulus plan, he rejected an economically robust and politically shrewd stimulus plan that was developed for him by the labor movement and its allies.

That plan would have invested $400 billion of borrowed money in job-creating activities, paid for over time by a permanent Financial Transactions Tax designed to reduce the kinds of speculative activity on Wall Street that helped drive our economy into the ground.  After the $400 billion stimulus was paid for, that tax on Wall Street would have produced more than $100 billion a year in government revenues, which could have been used to reduce the national debt.

It was not too late then to make a significant dent in unemployment, and it is not too late now.  The President could pursue a similar plan outlined by some of his most important allies.  Even the Federal Reserve Board is now pleading for a large deficit-financed job creation program in the short term that will reduce government deficits and debt in the long term, in part by growing the economy faster and stronger.

It’s true that Republicans will form a phalanx of opposition to any such plan, and even with a full-throated, whole-hearted effort by the President and his party, the chances of passage are well south of 50/50.  But the alternative for Democrats is to do what they did this year: to do next to nothing about unemployment and to be seen again as doing nothing as the jobless rate edges down to a projected 9.2% by the end of next year and not much below that in 2012.

The white working class, in the Midwest and elsewhere, swung decisively against Democrats in 2010 for pretty much the same reasons as almost everybody else did:  As they went to vote, there were not enough jobs for one of ten people who want to work and need to work, and the governing politicians in charge, all Democrats, didn’t seem to give a shit.  It’s not just the fact of such outrageously high and painful rates of unemployment.  It’s the passive acceptance of them, the serene, if empathetic, indifference.

Jack Metzgar, Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies