This quote in this Sunday Times article which caught my eye, if only for the utter tone deafness of Apple's executives. They are happy to reap enormous profits but unwilling to shape their manufacturing structure in a way that might aid American workers or the overall U.S. economy.

Anyway, the quote is:
"We sell iPhones in over a hundred countries,” a current Apple executive said. “We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.”

The article notes:

"As Apple’s overseas operations and sales have expanded, its top employees have thrived. Last fiscal year, Apple’s revenue topped $108 billion, a sum larger than the combined state budgets of Michigan, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Since 2005, when the company’s stock split, share prices have risen from about $45 to more than $427.

Some of that wealth has gone to shareholders. Apple is among the most widely held stocks, and the rising share price has benefited millions of individual investors, 401(k)’s and pension plans. The bounty has also enriched Apple workers. Last fiscal year, in addition to their salaries, Apple’s employees and directors received stock worth $2 billion and exercised or vested stock and options worth an added $1.4 billion.

The biggest rewards, however, have often gone to Apple’s top employees. Mr. Cook, Apple’s chief, last year received stock grants — which vest over a 10-year period — that, at today’s share price, would be worth $427 million, and his salary was raised to $1.4 million. In 2010, Mr. Cook’s compensation package was valued at $59 million, according to Apple’s security filings. "

Ok, so none of this is very surprising, even if it is appalling and indicative of the wrongheaded approach of the 1%, whether residing in Wall Street or Silicon Valley, or, gee, in Evansville, Indiana. The lack of care for an impact on local communities essentially makes them no different than other major corporations, of course. Then again, few corporations pretend to be as alternative or countercultural as Apple. It is a deft trick.

If efficiency and profit is indeed its only goal (if you will, "making the best product possible") then Apple should feel fine about choosing profits over community. But Apple at least should be forthright that this is a choice, not something forced exclusively by inexorable market pressures. If the profit differences are small in the end (as the Times article details) even if the pace of change might be a bit slower, is it worth helping to eviscerate the U.S. economies and with it lives and communities around the country?

Community building is not sleek and cool, and it is not efficient. Democracy is not efficient either. American democracy is in fact designed to be inefficient as possible (to its detriment, at times). But community and democracy (as well as health, environmental, and safety standards) are worth investing time, energy, and work in to improve.

Autocracy, on the other hand, is much more efficient. Capitalism operating in an autocratic system can and does achieve that peak efficiency so treasured by Steve Jobs. It does render Apple's old 1984 commercial in an ironic light, however.

I happened to read this article in conjunction with this thorough and quite persuasive post from Frank Pasquale on Balkinization, which details realities at the Chinese iphone factories with consideration of the workers as "animals" to the life and conditions in the Foxconn factory, which he draws from this piece on This American Life (which is, I have now discovered after clicking through, much less annoying to read than to have to hear, though still cloying). He links through to a lot of interesting things, including this test you can take to guage your current "slavery footprint."

Pasquale writes:

"The question for a future economics (and morals) is how to set a baseline "social minimum" for workers in an utterly precarious and unpredictable work environment.

We have the resources to do this. There have been enormous gains in productivity over the past few decades. But the gains are going disproportionately to those at the very top. In the last economic expansion, the top 1 percent of U.S. households captured two-thirds of income gains. Yes, that's 67% going to the top 1%. During the expansion, "the inflation-adjusted income of the top 1 percent of households grew more than ten times faster than the income of the bottom 90 percent of households." The thought that the gains from automation will be shared equally among social classes is about as quaint as this personal robot envisioned in 1961.

Now I'm sure that, among that top 1%, there were some incredibly hard-working geniuses. Maybe some produced productivity gains that were actually worth 200 times more than what the average member of the bottom 99% contributed. But power drives economic outcomes at least as often as productivity. Being able to slash all your workers' pay (or work them to exhaustion in an 110-degree warehouse [Amazon]) simply because there is high unemployment is not exactly a valuable skill. Any fool could improve the bottom line at "a highly profitable company" by "demanding large-scale concessions" from its employees."


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