The High Cost of Cheap Goods, Our American Life, and Mike Daisey

The Atlantic recaps recent events at Foxconn and notes that Mike Daisey will be on this week’s This American Life:

Daisey goes to Shenzhen, China, where Foxconn employs over 400,000 workers. He talks to both factory workers and businessmen, gathering chilling information about the situation at the factory, discovering suicide nets, 36-hour shifts, 27-year-old burn outs with dismembered limbs and underage workers. Wouldn’t Apple, a company obsessed with details — so obsessed it even programmed Siri to avert uncomfortable questions about its origins, as host Ira Glass discovered — pay attention to these very problematic details, wonders Daisey.

You might remember Daisey from a few posts I did here about the high cost of cheap goods and Daisey’s interviews on TechCrunch last year.

And if you haven’t seen it, please read and share my note to Apple CEO Tim Cook  in HuffPo Tech.

Tim Cook’s Apple Legacy Can Be Written Now

Steve Jobs at the WWDC 07
Image via Wikipedia

Like many of you, I was very, very upset when I learned of Steve Jobs’ passing.   He was a technological and commercial visionary in an era that lacked many great leaders.  In lieu of trusted political, religious, and economic pioneers, Jobs became something of our proxy president, a stand-in prime minister always pointing to the future not only of his industry, but of what his industry enabled: radical departures and improvements in the ways we form, execute and share ideas, art, and change.  In some ways, his work has always been about some of the most human parts of humanness; his devices wouldn’t have made a difference if we haven’t always craved better ways to make and tell our stories.  Imagine a Jobs at NASA, at EPA, at the UN.  Imagine a Jobs in Congress.  Imagine the broadening that leaders  like Jobs might bring to our political stories, to our narratives of justice, war, and peace.  This is why the news of his death found me having to sit down and say “godd-mn.”

For all of the accolades, we were reminded in the hours following Jobs’ passing that so many of the devices he invented and brought to market have been and are still being produced by companies like FoxConn in places like Shenzhen, China, in conditions that most of us should find deplorable.   In the Venn diagram of activism and portable devices, almost all of us land in a damning place of overlap: churches, social justice agencies, occupiers of Wall Street…whether we’re Macs or PCs, iOses or Androids, we’re all part of the human rights crisis Mike Daisey brings to light in the link above.  Bill Gates is part of it.  Larry Page is part of it.  Steve Jobs was and Apple is a part of it.  Tim Cook, Apple’s new CEO, is part of it.

Tim, in the weeks and months to come, more will be written about Steve Jobs and his Apple legacy than about the war in Burma, the plight of the American homeless or the injustices endured by workers in the very factories where your amazing products are produced.  It’s not too early to begin thinking about your own Apple legacy.  End the relationship with FoxConn until conditions there are safe and just.  Make Apple a B-Corp.  Stun the world.  Again.

China’s Comedy Noir: Doublespeak, Sweatshops, and the Shenzhen Electric Bicycle Ban

On last night’s broadcast, Conan did a really funny faux-awards show for his audience. When the ridiculous Journey tribute band started singing about 6-year-old Chinese factory workers, the first thing I thought was, “okay, that shit is real and  shouldn’t be joked about.”  Then I thought, “well, actually, the fact that it’s real maybe means it should be joked about.”   Then Larry the Cable Guy said he was glad the band mentioned child labor in China because yesterday was, in fact, a big holiday there: Solstice? No. Take Your Parents To Work Day.  And so of course people laughed, but were they laughing because they thought the satirizing of Chinese practices (which produce most of our everyday goods at Wal-Mart prices) was good and funny or because of how gruesomely incongruous these things are with the values we claim to uphold? It’s our nature to laugh at things that aren’t funny, to meet uncomfortable, damning juxtapositions precisely in this way.  Some people laugh at funerals.  Some people laugh when they’re nervous or afraid or just unsure about what’s coming next.

On the artist’s side of this equation, is there a fine line between exploitative comedy and satire, or is that line bold and clear?  And do jokes like these make audiences more sympathetic or callous towards the people suffering injustice?  I don’t have an answer for that.  Conan is very smart and, by all accounts, a man with great integrity.  I’m going to assume his staff was aiming for some critical thinking with the bit, but are they at fault for culling low-brow guffaws as well?  I don’t know, but the conversation about the ethics of comedy is worth having.

Speaking of China and gruesome incongruity: it was in the news yesterday that  police in Shenzhen are beginning to enforce a ban on electric bicycles because they’ve been deemed a public safety hazard.  As Evan Osnos wrote on The New Yorker’s blog yesterday: “The bikes, which are dangerously silent, have thrived in a regulatory netherworld between bicycles and cars, and they are said to have caused more than fifteen per cent of the traffic accidents in Shenzhen last year, in which sixty-four people died and two hundred and thirty-three were injured.”

Fine, Shenzen.  Take away the People’s Democratic Modes of Transportation And Hence Livelihood.  Wait, what?  Shenzhen sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  Yes, that’s right! That’s the same region where working conditions in the factories producing most of our electronic devices are notoriously egregious, isn’t it?  Yes, yes it.

If you’re keeping score:

Dangerous Bikes: Bad

Inhumane Conditions so Westerns Can Have Cheap Goods:  Yeah, we’ll allow it.

I wrote a post a few months ago about writer and storyteller Mike Daisey’s work on this issue.  I urged folks to go read and listen to Mike’s personal experiences with Shenzhen workers as shared on TechCrunch, here.  I’ll urge it again.

Touché, Apple. Touché. And also William Faulkner, Barack Obama, 1995 etc.

NYC - West Village: White Horse Tavern
An actual genius bar. God bless you, Dylan Thomas. Image by wallyg via Flickr

Remember the Tom and Jerry cartoons where Tom and Jerry and a little mouse I always assumed to be Jerry’s nephew were set in 17th century France? The little mouse thinks he can beat Tom with his chivalry and ethics (and musketeer pastiche), and goes around saying “touché, le pussy cat?” at the most hilarious moments possible. The best. So that’s what I was thinking of with the title. (Also, I am finishing a paper about The Sound and the Fury, and it strikes me that Quentin Everloving Compson is not unlike that nephew-mouse).

On to the main thrust of this post so that I can get back to finishing that paper.

My power adapter died for the billionth time. We took the whole deal over to the Apple Store. Even though I knew that the only way to make an AppleCare (ha!) appointment at an Apple Store was via the internet (and since my computer wasn’t working, I had no such thing), it still bugs me. That’s gripe #1. Yeah, I actually booked my appointment via a public library computer. If Apple made an e-reader it would be even more ironic. Oh wait, right.

So we go to the Apple Store on time and are not seen for 35 minutes. I had no idea that Apple was looking into taking over cable. I mean, I know they swiped most of their early ideas from Xerox (oops, Xerox, that one’s on you), but who would have thought they were cribbing the finer points of customer service from the great approximation school of temporal theory. So then blah blah blah, and we get the computer back today.

We specifically told them not to mess with our desktop icons. They specifically did not listen. My desktop, my comfortable, messy, organized-to-me desktop, has been wiped clean by conformocrats and I don’t know where they put the stuff. Quite frankly, that’s unacceptable. There will be a visit to a manager after I finish my paper, because I’m sorry, that’s an arrogant violation of my expectations. Blah blah blah it runs faster if we do this…yeah, whatever. Fix the power cord issue, friend. You don’t have to be a hero. In fact, faceless backroom tech who I haven’t met, you’ve become a villain with your cavalier approach to my long-established and well-articulated organizational preferences. You waved them away like they were so many PC users, didn’t you? How’s the weather up there, thou ascendant Form? You know better and you have the shirt to prove it, smarty. Quite frankly, I’m embarrassed that we probably have the same glasses and iTunes library.

Yeah, those were all easy shots. I know. I actually think this is Apple’s way of messing with me because I sort of called them the devil last week for maintaining a squeaky-clean and hipster-certified ethical veneer all whilst enabling the sweatshop gristmills of Shenzhen, China.

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s:

  • Tom and Jerry
  • The Three Musketeers
  • Dylan Thomas
  • William Faulkner/The Sound and The Fury
  • Apple
  • Sweatshops
  • Xerox
  • cable companies
  • customer service
  • Hip stuff (see other items)

all in one compact post.  I just do what I do, friends.

If you think I’m being too hard on the good folks at the Apple Store, know that I have no idea who worked on my computer.  The friendly chap who processed the work order must not have written down the specific instructions to not go ahead and assume their tech dudes had the right to mess around with my stuff.  That’s so…preemptive.  Bam, I just added Obama to list of things this post is about.

Speaking of, I had a dream the other night that Barry O and I chilled over pizza for like two hours.  He did some explaining.  We solved a few world problems.  But the first thing I did was ask him how we’re going to prevent this government shutdown. He punted to John Boehner, who was not available in my dream for comment, so that kind of wasn’t fair of you, Dream President Obama. And you said you didn’t come to town for politics as usual.  By the way, I know I’m late to this party and all, but a note to the Republicans: 1995 called and it wants its epic fail back.  It doesn’t seem to matter if you’re doing what you think is right according to the kind of fiscal conservatism that got you elected in November.  Government shut downs don’t seem to spin out in your favor, fellas.  Take no solace in the fact that Obama isn’t Clinton.  Thing is, friends, he beat the Clintons.  He’s the uber-Clinton and the anti-Clinton all rolled into one.  Good thing you have one strong front-running candidate ready to get geared up for 2012.

But seriously, Apple, WTF? Touché, le corporate giant? Just wait until I dispatch Quentin Compson. Then we’re gonna dance.

The High Cost of Cheap Goods: Going to Hell In a Hand-Held Device

091208- Mike Daisey @ TBA08 1c
Mike Daisey image by djbrokenwindow via Flickr

Three Pillars Trading Company is a client of mine. I’m producing blog articles for this fair-trade, sustainable import business, and from time to time, I’ll be sharing pieces of them here. My first post at Three Pillars is about the disgusting conditions that factory workers in Shenzhen, China endure while they put together our computers and hand-held devices. Yes, as fellow Apple fanboy Mike Daisey exposes, even our MacBooks and iPhones.

An excerpt:

Monologist and raconteur Mike Daisey recently spent hundreds of hours exploring the treatment of industrial workers in the Shenzhen region of China. His findings are nothing short of chilling, and he’s taking to the stage (and Internet) to get the message out. Mike makes the stunningly simple observation that while most justice-minded people work very hard to integrate their ethics and consumer choices when buying socks and sneakers, very few of us ever really stop think about the fabrication and delivery chains that produce our favorite hand-held devices.

Continue reading here. Whatever you do, be sure to click through and watch the video interviews TechCrunch conducts with Daisey. They’ll make you angry, sad, and sick. The fact that people like Mike Daisey exist might also make you feel some hope. As I’ve said before, if I ever link to anything I’ve been paid to produce, I’ll say so. That’s the case here, but, as you might know, I only take jobs from organizations I can get behind.  It would be great if you surfed from here to my cool new client, but much more important to me and to Three Pillars is that you please, please, please hear what Mike Daisey has to say. In fact, here’s a direct link right to the TechCrunch article with three video segments. They are worth your time.

As for Three Pillars, one of the chief goals of their blog is to provide a place of interest and information gathering around the the kinds of issues that people interested in fair-trade goods are likely to also care about. If you do make your way there, I know the Three Pillars folks would appreciate any feedback or comments you might have about how to make the blogging experience on their site all it can be. My job is strictly on the content side and I get to pick the issues I blog about there.  If you have suggestions, please let me know.

While we’re on the subject of sustainability, and since I used “hell” in the title (that’s just a figure of speech, Rob Bell), I’ll also say this: after watching Daisey speak, I’m seriously worried about the state of the Western soul. Most of us don’t know that a company as seemingly with it as Apple is party to the things happening in Shenzen. We get great products for low Western prices, but at an unknown human cost to people with even less access to power than most of our own unemployed homeless.

I’ll be honest. This makes me feel like shit. Since I read Karl Rahner in div school (Savvy Sister, are you a fan of his? I am.), I’ve always thought his take on original sin made the most sense: everyday, we’re part of sinful, evil systems that we don’t even know about. Doing something as simple as buying a banana (let alone an gallon of gas or an iPod) might end up supporting unspeakable evil. The same goes for your retirement funds. Unless you’re in a socially aware mutual fund, chances are your IRAs are funding weapons and Chinese petro companies with dirty hands in Darfur. Shit, when I worked in finance, even the so-called “socially responsible funds” invested in Big Pharmaceuticals and Big Banks because after taking out cigarette makers,  arms makers, gambling companies, pornographers and environmentally destructive firms, Banking and Medicine were the only two industries left. If you want a brief rundown on how powerful those industries are, consider if this is true where you live like it is here: most of the most consistent new construction going on prior to the banking crisis and even after was and is for new banks and new drugstores. I’m not saying prescription drugs aren’t legit or that there’s something wrong with taking medicine as directed, but we all know that on the R&D and supply ends, opportunity for corporate abuse is rife. I don’t think I need to say anything at all about banks and financial institutions. You know where I’m going.

Where does all this bullshit evil come from in the first place? I know the following:

  1. everyone we meet is fighting a great war.
  2. Karl Barth, (Karl Rahner’s Protestant Number) said that evil is the aggregation of humankind’s repeated choice of Das Nichtige (very basically: choosing “Not God” (aka “Nothingness”) instead of God, who is life) played out in history.   He’s not very far from Rahner here when it comes down to it: Evil is a given, and it gets amplified as we continue to choose it (or, finally, participate it in unknowingly because it’s so entrenched).  Its the manifestation of everything that isn’t God, actualized by aggregate choices and non-choices framed by the earlier actions of others (which, in fact, may not have been truly free choices, given #1).
  3. be kind, because (see #1).
Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBase
Crunch.

A dear friend of mine, wry with a sort of common-sense Pennsylvania German-Lutheran fatalism would say this leaves us pretty screwed.  But I’m not so sure about that in the end. Shortly after I got out of the mutual fund industry, another friend of mine with many years in the retirement-planning business told me that it was impossible to invest with your conscience. As you might expect, I disagree. You probably do, too. Whether you’re a person a faith or simply a person of faithful ethics, you already know that voting with your dollars, so to speak, requires certain sacrifices. I’m due for a phone upgrade this month. Oh, how I want an iPhone. But maybe I won’t get anything. I know the phone I would have bought will still be made in shit-hole conditions and will still be sold. I know it will be the best looking chunk of original sin on the market. How funny that it’s made by a company who’s logo is a piece of bitten fruit. Well, not funny ha ha. Funny strange. Actually, not so funny at all.

So, friends, what we do we about all of this?