Greater Krueger National Park

Greater Krueger National Park
An image from a recent trip to South Africa. Clcik on the image for more on this trip.

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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Working Conditions in Apple's Chinese Factories

By way of background, the reader should know that I have used Apple products since before there was a Mac.  I like the hardware and software and admire the people who have developed both, including the oft-mentioned Steve Jobs.  I have two criticisms of Mr. Jobs.  He did not find a way to give credit to the host of people who contributed to the success of these products and he did not find a way to manufacture his products in this country.  Neither of these criticisms are enough to stop me from using these fantastic tools, but I hope that Tim Cook will address them both in the not too distant future. 

Very few folks appear to feel very strongly about either of my two complaints, but there are two other types of criticism of Apple that are alive and well in this country at this time.  The first is criticism from longtime PC users who constantly sneer at Mac users and what they regard as their amateurish computers.  This stupidity never ceases to amaze me, but I have long ago stopped participating in the discussion.  If someone wants to use a PC instead of a Mac so be it.  Not my concern.

The second criticism is more important.  It revolves around working conditions in the Chinese factories that produce these sleek Apple products.  As noted above, I am critical of Apple's decision to manufacture their hardware overseas, but once we are past that, I am not a supporter of the Chinese working conditions argument.  As I understand it, conditions and pay in the those factories are better than in the average Chinese factory.  It is naive, if not ridiculous, to compare working conditions in a foreign country with American standards.  The proper comparison is with other situations within the country where the manufacturing is taking place.  As far as I can see, Apple is doing an excellent job of overseeing the Chinese factories and Chinese workers are standing in long lines to get one of the jobs in those factories.  The recently exposed false claims by Apple critics attempting to tarnish the brand reinforce my current view of the situation.

If you step outside of your American identity and think seriously about the state of the world today, one can make an argument that Apple is contributing to the prosperity of an important segment of the world's population.  It is providing jobs to thousands of Chinese workers and it is creating a pool of highly skilled labor that will benefit their country in the years ahead.  This is complimented by the inevitable trade secret leaks that occur in a situation such as this.  It is impossible to manufacture a product without learning what makes it tick and it doesn't much matter if you promise to keep the secret.  The fact that you already have it is enough.  The long term economic stability of China is important not only to the people of China but to the entire world.  An argument can be made that Apple's Chinese factories are an important building block for world stability. 

I understand this one-world argument intellectually, but my problem is that I find it difficult to step outside of my American skin.  I see an America that needs good jobs here at home and worry about giving away trade secrets related to the high tech sector of our economy.  I am not anti-Chinese and I do not particularly fear an imminent invasion by the Red Army, but I do worry about the corrosive effects of longterm joblessness within my own country.  Perhaps Mr. Cook can figure out how to do something that the vaunted Steve Jobs could not do - bring Apple's manufacturing jobs back home.  Not to hurt China, but to help America.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Second table of the day.

I tuned in to the political jabber on television last night, listened for a few minutes, and went to bed early.  We had spent the day shopping for necessities in a succession of stores that were half empty.  We live in a rural part of California and it is a long drive to town for us.  We usually eat a late breakfast in one of the more popular diners.  Yesterday, we overheard a waitress thank a customer for coming in.  She explained that it was her second table of the day.  It was noon.  Last year, you would have to stand in line to get a table at that time of day.  The stores and malls that we visited were equally empty and we were the only customers at the restaurant we chose for dinner.  When we filled up with gas we paid $4.19 a gallon, because it is $4.69 where we live.  This morning, I looked through the news and learned that there were student riots in Sacramento because the California state government had made some cuts in higher education.  The press coverage looked like Greece all over again.

It would seem to me that, at some point, the American public would begin to comprehend that we have to get our spending under control, yet the majority of folks in the state where we live obviously do not agree with me.  Here in California, we have long ago successfully implemented the complete liberal political/social/economic agenda and we are confused as to why there is no money to educate our youth or even keep our state parks open.  We have managed to get by to this point in time because of federal Government handouts, kicking the can down the road, and fancy bookkeeping, but these tactics are becoming more problematical as the entire country approaches insolvency.   It is not accidental that we hand out more food stamps than any other state, have more illegal residents, and rate at the bottom of the list in most other subjects related to economic prosperity.  We have consciously structured our society that way.  The amazing thing is that some very intelligent people have done it on purpose.

I think about this fact a lot.  My fellow Californians that disagree with me are not dumb people.  Many of them have IQs that are way higher than my own, so I spend a lot of time trying to get my head around their ideas.  When it comes to objectives, the task is relatively easy.  I love nature and hate pollution.  I believe that society should take an interest in the health of its members.  I'm sympathetic with folks who are hurting economically and want to help them.  I like solar better than fossil fuel.  Etc, etc,etc.  Like I say, the objectives are easy to agree on.  I start having trouble when we discuss the best way to achieve those objectives and I part company when we get to the part where we finance them.  I look to history for help in finding the right course forward and do not find anything there but hard work and sound economic practice.  I find no utopian oriented society that has managed to outlive it's economy. 

My criticism of California's present policies is not to say that I am a proponent of unbridled capitalism.  I accept that greed can take the country in the wrong direction just as easily as the road that we are on presently.  It would be wonderful if we could just adopt a libertarian philosophy and let the market place rule our lives, but nobody in the history of the world has ever been able to make that work either.  Like it or not, the American experiment of the last two centuries, with all of it's obvious flaws, has proven to be the best political/social/economic system the world has ever known.  We rightly take great pride in our constitution and we even quote it to support one or another of our political positions, but I honestly do not think that it has been the real strength of our system.  I believe that the bedrock of our system has been a fundamental unity in our set of beliefs - economic, social and political.  This unity has made it possible for us to achieve compromise where necessary and to pull together when critical.

Much of that unity was centered in religion, much was the result of the promise of a better life if one worked hard, much was related to pride in our country.  I am not sure that I am smart enough to understand all of the factors that created that unity, but I lived during a time when it was still alive and well in our country and I know for a fact that it was here.  That unity is cracking and I am not at all certain that it can be restored.  As I look around me, I find deep disagreement in things that are fundamentally critical to our well-being as a society.  The right and the wrong of each individual position is not critical, but the disagreement is.  I am fiscally conservative, but am highly critical of those of my fellow conservatives who use improper language to attack rather than more temperate language designed to persuade.  It does not help if we argue for our political/social/economic positions in ways that make us anathema to half of our country.  That is just as stupid as the policies that are presently taking us over the economic cliff.