The Apple Boycott: People Are Spouting Nonsense about Chinese Manufacturing

Tim Worstall at Forbes tackles some of the lies and uninformed rubbish of the daily news cycle. Tim credits the NYT series as being the source of the anguish, but surely a lot of this nonsense derives from the “theater” of the now-discredited Mike Daisey. If you are quoting the execrable Daisey from the This American Life episode then you need to study RETRACTING “MR. DAISEY AND THE APPLE FACTORY”:

Ira (Glass) writes:

I have difficult news. We’ve learned that Mike Daisey’s story about Apple in China – which we broadcast in January – contained significant fabrications. We’re retracting the story because we can’t vouch for its truth. This is not a story we commissioned. It was an excerpt of Mike Daisey’s acclaimed one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” in which he talks about visiting a factory in China that makes iPhones and other Apple products.

The China correspondent for the public radio show Marketplace tracked down the interpreter that Daisey hired when he visited Shenzhen China. The interpreter disputed much of what Daisey has been saying on stage and on our show. On this week’s episode of This American Life, we will devote the entire hour to detailing the errors in “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory.”

Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer Brian Reed during the fact checking we did on the story, before it was broadcast. That doesn’t excuse the fact that we never should’ve put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake.

We’re horrified to have let something like this onto public radio. Many dedicated reporters and editors – our friends and colleagues – have worked for years to build the reputation for accuracy and integrity that the journalism on public radio enjoys. It’s trusted by so many people for good reason. Our program adheres to the same journalistic standards as the other national shows, and in this case, we did not live up to those standards.

It is shocking how gullible are the producers of This American Life. It seems obvious to me that they wanted to believe Mike Daisey’s emotional story about big bad Apple destroying the lives of underage workers making iPads. So they did not factcheck properly – “the story was so good it must be true”. The only good news is that they are taking some very small responsibility for their mistakes in giving credence to Mike Daisey’s lies. But they take no responsibility for any harm done to the workers at Apple. Not a single word of apology to Apple, Apple workers or Apple shareholders. Not a single word.

Back to Tim Worstall at Forbes:

It would appear that there’s momentum being gained for the idea of boycotting Apple‘s products over conditions in the company’s manufacturing chain in China. This is a very silly idea and there is much nonsense being spouted about those conditions.

Apple, the computer giant whose sleek products have become a mainstay of modern life, is dealing with a public relations disaster and the threat of calls for a boycott of its iPhones and iPads.

The company’s public image took a dive after revelations about working conditions in the factories of some of its network of Chinese suppliers. The allegations, reported at length in the New York Times, build on previous concerns about abuses at firms that Apple uses to make its bestselling computers and phones. Now the dreaded word “boycott” has started to appear in media coverage of its activities.

“Should consumers boycott Apple?” asked a column in the Los Angeles Times as it recounted details of the bad PR fallout.

Two of the New York Times articles are here and here. Dan Lyons weighs in here.

Essentially, the list of charges is that the near 1 million people who work for Foxconn (about 230,000 of whom produce products for Apple, the others assembling for Dell, HP, just about every electronics company in fact) have to work long hours for low pay in dangerous conditions.

Well, yes, they’re poor people living in a poor country. That’s what being poor means, having to work extremely hard to make very little. Yes, that is a harsh thing to say but then reality can indeed be harsh.

To show that it’s not just uncaring neoliberals like myself who say such things why not try reading Paul Krugman on the subject of sweatshops? Specifically, here, on what would happen if we were to try and stop the manufacturing being done in such poor places:

First of all, even if we could assure the workers in Third World export industries of higher wages and better working conditions, this would do nothing for the peasants, day laborers, scavengers, and so on who make up the bulk of these countries’ populations. At best, forcing developing countries to adhere to our labor standards would create a privileged labor aristocracy, leaving the poor majority no better off.

And it might not even do that. The advantages of established First World industries are still formidable. The only reason developing countries have been able to compete with those industries is their ability to offer employers cheap labor. Deny them that ability, and you might well deny them the prospect of continuing industrial growth, even reverse the growth that has been achieved. And since export-oriented growth, for all its injustice, has been a huge boon for the workers in those nations, anything that curtails that growth is very much against their interests. A policy of good jobs in principle, but no jobs in practice, might assuage our consciences, but it is no favor to its alleged beneficiaries.

And a very important point, again from Professor Krugman, about what determines the wages that are paid:

Wages are determined in a national labor market: The basic Ricardian model envisages a single factor, labor, which can move freely between industries. When one tries to talk about trade with laymen, however, one at least sometimes realizes that they do not think about things that way at all. They think about steelworkers, textile workers, and so on; there is no such thing as a national labor market. It does not occur to them that the wages earned in one industry are largely determined by the wages similar workers are earning in other industries. This has several consequences. First, unless it is carefully explained, the standard demonstration of the gains from trade in a Ricardian model — workers can earn more by moving into the industries in which you have a comparative advantage — simply fails to register with lay intellectuals. Their picture is of aircraft workers gaining and textile workers losing, and the idea that it is useful even for the sake of argument to imagine that workers can move from one industry to the other is foreign to them. Second, the link between productivity and wages is thoroughly misunderstood. Non-economists typically think that wages should reflect productivity at the level of the individual company. So if Xerox manages to increase its productivity 20 percent, it should raise the wages it pays by the same amount; if overall manufacturing productivity has risen 30 percent, the real wages of manufacturing workers should have risen 30 percent, even if service productivity has been stagnant; if this doesn’t happen, it is a sign that something has gone wrong. In other words, my criticism of Michael Lind would baffle many non-economists.

Associated with this problem is the misunderstanding of what international trade should do to wage rates. It is a fact that some Bangladeshi apparel factories manage to achieve labor productivity close to half those of comparable installations in the United States, although overall Bangladeshi manufacturing productivity is probably only about 5 percent of the US level. Non-economists find it extremely disturbing and puzzling that wages in those productive factories are only 10 percent of US standards.

Finally, and most importantly, it is not obvious to non-economists that wages are endogenous. Someone like Goldsmith looks at Vietnam and asks, “what would happen if people who work for such low wages manage to achieve Western productivity?” The economist’s answer is, “if they achieve Western productivity, they will be paid Western wages” — as has in fact happened in Japan. But to the non-economist this conclusion is neither natural nor plausible. (And he is likely to offer those Bangladeshi factories as a counterexample, missing the distinction between factory-level and national-level productivity).

I quote at such length because it is an extremely important point. Wages paid to manufacturing workers in China are not determined by the productivity of those specific workers. They are not determined by US wages, by the profits that Apple makes nor even by the good intentions of the creative types that purchase Apple products. They are determined by the wages paid by other jobs in China and that is itself determined by the average level of productivity across the Chinese economy.

But now to the specific complaints that are being made. There are three that are being repeated around the intertubes as being particularly outrageous.

(…)

Tim’s graphic above summarizes some of Tim’s following points. But best to get over to Forbes to read the whole thing which includes all the resource-links that I left out above.

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