Workers at Foxconn making Steve Jobs' wonderful iPhone
During one of those end of the year 2011 wrap-up programs on the BBC, several CEOs of major corporations were asked to give their predictions for the year ahead and years beyond. Would the U.S. and Europe emerge from what amounts to a persistent recession, or are there better days ahead? Their predictions, made in separate interviews, varied in many of the specifics, but they were basically upbeat and looked forward to economic “recovery” within the next year or so.
A recurring theme in the businessmen's statements caught my ear. Here’s my rough paraphrase and summary: “The future of a vibrant economy depends on new ideas and technological innovations, ones that will produce new levels of wealth and well-paying jobs in the decades just ahead. Look at Apple, the iPhone and iPad, for example, that’s the model for the new economy. That's where we should be looking.”
In interview after interview the good news was: Apple, Apple, Apple, Apple, Apple. Apparently, there are going to be dozens, maybe even hundreds of Apples, new corporations with jazzy new products to produce and sell, making us all rich once again. I was struck by the univocal conclusion with its one lonely exemplar. All of this came, by the way, at the same time that the news was full of hyperventilating praise for the recently deceased Steve Jobs and the economic wonders he'd generated during his career.
Today's New York Times runs a story, "How U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work," by Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher that casts a shadow over these happy fantasies.
Apple employs 43,000 people in the United States and 20,000 overseas, a small fraction of the over 400,000 American workers at General Motors in the 1950s, or the hundreds of thousands at General Electric in the 1980s. Many more people work for Apple’s contractors: an additional 700,000 people engineer, build and assemble iPads, iPhones and Apple’s other products. But almost none of them work in the United States. Instead, they work for foreign companies in Asia, Europe and elsewhere, at factories that almost all electronics designers rely upon to build their wares.
“Apple’s an example of why it’s so hard to create middle-class jobs in the U.S. now,” said Jared Bernstein, who until last year was an economic adviser to the White House.
“If it’s the pinnacle of capitalism, we should be worried.”
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The Times story pulls away the curtain from one of the central, delusional happy talk American narratives of ourtime. We are asked to put our faith in "innovation" and in wonderful new corporations that will bring the return of prosperity by generating high tech product lines that, presumably, will be made by American workers and thereby restore prosperity to the land. But what about all the contractors and sub-contractors and sub-sub contractors hiring hundreds of thousands of low wage laborers at places like Foxconn in China? The delightful tales of a "new economy" just ahead never bother to mention such dreary details. As always, people in the fading U.S. middle class are urged to be more forward-looking and "optimistic."
In that bubbly spirit, we should rewrite the lyrics of the Depression era song, "Happy Days Are Here Again."
Apple days are here again
The skies above are clear agin
So let's sing a song of cheer again
Apple days are here again!