Indians are taking jobs from Americans!" That's the latest outburst of hysteria in U.S. politics, and it's bound to be a big issue in this year's presidential election. But for once it's not about us.
The Indians here are India Indians, dwellers on the south Asian subcontinent in the world's largest democracy. By the wonders of modern telecommunications, large U.S. corporations are finding it cheaper to route help-line calls to answering rooms on the outskirts of Bombay or other centers of that country's computer boom. Someone with a question about a credit card or a stock transfer is likely to find himself talking to a pleasant young lady with a clipped, partially-disguised accent who will refuse, on grounds of "security," to say from where she is speaking.
This new side-effect of globalization might not seem to affect Indian country, except for the occasional confusion of the name, were it not for this thought. If modern telecommunications makes it possible to "outsource" work halfway around the world, why can't it "insource" by bringing jobs to the Native reservations in North America?
In the early 1980s, a free-market think tank called the Sabre Foundation helped finance a study to see if the then-hot idea of free enterprise zones with business tax breaks would boost economic development on Indian reservations. The investigator, the Charles Trimble Company, found that businesses look for many of the other business essentials to development - i.e., trained work force, nearness to markets, available mass transportation, local investment, quality of life, etc., before they are influenced by tax incentives. (Trimble, Oglala Lakota and a native of the Pine Ridge Reservation, is now a columnist for Indian Country Today.) We've always felt reservations were the original free enterprise zone, and many of the drawbacks that Trimble identified then show now how much the times have changed for those businesses exporting American jobs.
Whatever the impact of "outsourcing" on the U.S. economy - and there's a hot debate on that subject not just between Republicans and Democrats but within the ranks of "free-market" economists themselves - it offers an obviously viable model for bringing jobs to Indian reservations. And very few places on earth need them more. For all of the national fixation on casino wealth, unemployment on reservations exceeds a 40 percent average, according to the latest figures assembled by the BIA. In some remote tribes it runs up to 80 percent.
Again the story is location. Indian casinos make money when they draw on large population centers, like southern New England or southern California. But the "ethnic cleansing" of the 19th century pushed many tribes as far away from the growth centers as the federal government could manage. Distance and poor infrastructure, such as the notoriously bad reservation road system, supposedly ruled out physical manufacturing as a development option for many of the largest tribes. But cyberspace and telecommunications are creating an entirely new world.
So what can Indian country do to benefit? The first step is to realize that the tribes have to do the real work themselves. Al Sharpton will never be President of the United States, but he is leavening the campaign with his pungent stump speech, and one point we like to hear him make is that if someone has knocked you off a stool, you can't expect him to come back and help you get up again. If you knock me down, it's on you, he says, but if you come back a week later and I'm still on the floor, it's on me. Part of the wisdom of tribal sovereignty is that it embraces this truth.
Tribal workers have to be ready for these new opportunities, both in training and reliability. Learning work skills and habits is part of the great movement of social regeneration we see going on all around us. It can and should be part of the revival of tribal tradition, family ties and personal self-confidence that is bringing new hope to Indian country. Many tribes have already laid the foundation in one of their greatest achievements in institution building, the tribal college movement.
To develop and exploit these skills requires capital, however. Indian country is now accumulating the wherewithal for investment at a rate that could never have been imagined 10 years ago. But the wealth is still in relatively few hands who still have their own loans and tribal responsibilities to take care of. We can't blame them for proceeding cautiously, given that they are flooded with ambitious and often not well considered business proposals. Joint projects are emerging, however, such as that between the casino-rich Mohegans of Connecticut and the Menominee of Wisconsin, one of that state's poorest and most populous tribes, which promise to put more of Indian country on its feet.
Yet this wealth still isn't enough. Reservations need to look beyond their casino cousins to the national economy and offer the same kind of inducements that are drawing large corporations overseas. As sovereign governments, tribes can tailor their tax breaks and business environments to support economic development, and they can probably do it better than the federal and state programs that rely on the same principle. The federal government, for instance, has a program of Enterprise Zones that offer tax reductions to bring business to certain areas. Much of Indian country is an Enterprise Zone waiting to happen, and the crucial decisions are totally within the control of tribal governments.
Some of these decisions have to be taken, however, before outside investors will be fully comfortable. American business often sees the reservation as a high-risk, Third World location plagued by political instability, arbitrary courts and rudimentary commercial law. The final hurdle to economic development is responsible self-government. A common lesson around the world is that prosperity comes from stable property rights. Formerly communist countries have had to incorporate this principle into their constitutions to make the final transition to a free market.
Some investors in these countries have learned the hard way to look for fairly enforced, well defined business law. Investment can become extremely costly and even grind to a halt if uncertainty enters the resolution of business disputes. Tribal governments, too, are hearing a call to incorporate the Uniform Commercial Code into tribal law. Suspicion of tribal courts might well reflect prejudice and ignorance rather than reality, but this distrust is a fact of life. One of the hardest and most important tasks in defending tribal sovereignty will be to show that the judicial system in Indian country can be as capable and fair as any on the continent. But this reputation, once won, will be priceless.
The barrier to development in Indian country is no longer one of geography, as the outsourcing phenomenon has demonstrated. The final barrier is political will. But tribal governments have it in their power to make corporate investors look as favorably on Indian country as they now do on India.