MULLING THE INDUSTRIAL POLICY OF STEVE JOBS
One of the interesting tidbits in Walter Isaacson’s underwhelming bio of Steve Jobs is an account of the Apple CEO’s meeting with President Barack Obama. From the book:
“You’re headed for a one-term presidency,” Jobs told Obama at the outset. To prevent that, he said, the administration needed to be a lot more business-friendly. He described how easy it was to build a factory in China, and said that it was almost impossible to do so these days in America, largely because of regulations and unnecessary costs.
Distressingly, this thread is never picked up again in the book, which ignores the most troubling aspect of Apple’s current business model — the human cost it inflicts on workers at the giant industrial plant, Foxconn, in China’s Shenzen province. Forget “regulations and unnecessary costs” — what about plain old labor laws? Could any American company replicate the low-cost, high-output model of such a plant? And would we, as a society, want to try?
To be fair, Apple is not the only company whose outsourced model relies on the long hours and dehumanizing work rules of Foxconn. Intel, Cisco, HP, Dell, Nokia and Amazon, among others, rely on the plant and, by extension, the Chinese industrial policy that created it.
One person who is talking about Apple’s labor practices abroad is monologuist Mike Daisey, whose The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is currently playing at the Public Theater. Daisey is an Apple fan (as am I), but he is also a self-aware person who mulls the human cost of our digital lifestyle. Below, on The Daily Ticker, he discusses these issues and proposes a modest solution.
UPDATE, MARCH 18, 2012: This week sections of Mike Daisey’s monologue on Apple’s labor practices in China were revealed to be fabricated. Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz reached Daisey’s translator, who confirmed that some events Daisey described — gun-toting guards at the Foxconn gates, underage workers interviewed at those gates, and a man with a mangled hand who had never seen the iPads he crafted, among others — were made up. This American Life, which devoted an episode to Daisey, has retracted it. Daisey responded on his blog, saying, “I stand by my work,” but admitting that he is not a journalist and that he regrets allowing his work to be excerpted on a journalistic platform like TAL.
Like many who took Daisey’s claims seriously, I’m saddened that his failure to correctly identify his work has served to obfuscate a discussion of globalism, high-tech American trade and Chinese industrial policy rather than elucidate it. I regret linking to it.