Thursday, January 12, 2012

This American Life - Should We Feel Bad About Capitalism?

This American Life - Should We Feel Bad About Capitalism?

This past week on This American Life, the episode was about a guy who flew to Shenzhen and interviewed workers at Foxconn who made apple products. You can listen to the full episode here.

As I listened to it in the car, I was just thinking, wow. This would be a great tool to play to someone that doesn't really follow politics because it lays out the horrible exploitation and daily suffering of the people who make our toys in a clear and matter of fact manner and more importantly, it connects the product to the work.

what he found was things we're all aware of
  • 13 year old kids working in the factories
  • hours of work that approach 16 a day when a new product is coming out
  • dorms with 15 to a room
  • factory floors where youre not allowed to utter a word
  • dangerous neurotoxic chemicals harming the workers
  • crippled 20 year olds who can barely manipulate things with their hands due to the repetitive motion of putting these tiny electronics together
  • massive turnover rates due to these conditions
  • low compliance rates to apple's own working standards that haven't improved year to year
Which, all of this should make your average liberal Iphone using hipster feel pretty disgusted with themselves. But then it happened and from the slow monotone voice that I had been hearing for the past 40 minutes, I did not expect such a turn. You could almost say that the second act hit the towers..

In Act 2 of the program Ira Glass really wanted to know if we should feel weird about utilizing these products that are manufactured under such harsh working conditions. If you just want to be spoiled, it happens 54 minutes into the show.
"and the mainstream view that we hear from lots of economists is no, we shouldnt feel weird"
Which he was citing noted liberal Paul Krugman since as a result of these conditions people are moving up from abject poverty to something still awful, but still better. I have to vent this out, but saying that sweatshops are better than nothing is like shitting in someone's mouth because they don't have any food.

Then Nicholas Kristof is interviewed to say that grimness of the factories is better than the grimness of the rice patty. I, at this point just didn't know what to think. He then goes on to read part of his article "Two Cheers for Sweatshops" Which, I guess is a perfect way to make yourself feel better about playing Angry Birds on your iphone.

At this point Ira Glass really gets to the point here and flat out says "So sweatshops are bad, but we should feel okay about it." Which I guess just white washes this whole issue and makes you feel like the most effective way to fight poverty is to create sweatshops. You know, instead of actually paying a fair wage that someone can live on.

I'm not sure why I should even feel any better about any of these things. Industrialization might be good, but that doesn't mean we should support lower standard labor practices than what we would have in our very own country.

Hmm, I guess this didn't happen on the rice paddies so much;
As American consumers ogle over shiny new gadgets at this week's Consumer Electronic's Show, the workers that make those products are threatening mass suicide for the horrid working conditions at Foxconn. 300 employees who worked making the Xbox 360 stood at the edge of the factory building, about to jump, after their boss reneged on promised compensation, reports English news site Want China Times. It's not like this is the first time working conditions at Foxconn have made news outside China. But iPhone and Xbox sales surely haven't lagged in the wake of those revelations and neither Apple nor Microsoft has done much of anything to fix things.

Instead of the raise they requested, these workers were given the following ultimatum: quit with compensation, or keep their jobs with no pay increase. Most quit and never got the money. That's when the mass suicide threat came in. The incident actually caused a factory wide shutdown, reports Record China.

After the incident, Microsoft gave Kotaku's Brian Ashcraft the following statement.

Foxconn has been an important partner of ours and remains an important partner. I trust them as a responsible company to continue to evolve their process and work relationships. That is something we remain committed to—the safe and ethical treatment of people who build our products. That's a core value of our company.

Sympathetic corporate statements aside, the conditions haven't much improved. Beyond this threat -- the mayor eventually talked the angry workers down -- suicides persist. Apple has given similar responses, saying it ensures safe working conditions and fair employee treatment.

That translates to making employees sign "no suicide" pacts and letting 13 year-olds work half-day long shifts, as Mike Daisey, a self-proclaimed Apple fanboy, details in 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.

I guess one of the differences between our era and the Dystopian images in Sci-fi literature is that we have soulless word machines like Krugman, Kristof and glass to tell us that these murderous, anti-human institutions are actually good for everyone involved and win the highest prizes from the establishment for their efforts.

Krugman thinks a return to 1984-65 is possible for the united states. He also thinks the path to prosperity in a capitalist context is free market plus high taxes and social spending which is pretty much true. So maybe he's not all wrong. But I know for damn sure that suggesting a shit situation is made better off the blood of slave labor is wrong.

Though, I guess it's getting better, right? Apple is switching to Pegatron apparently. Not that it fixes any underlying problem. Which is, if you buy a computer or a phone ever, it's not manufactured by Dell, HP, Apple, HTC or whoever the fuck it has on the label. There are about 8 ODM companies that handle all of the manufacturing of computers. The different brands just handle final assembly. But you sure can bet that parts of that product were from the following:
pegatron (spin off from asus)
From that list Foxconn is far and away the worse of them in their treatment of workers. Their mainland China factory has been called "Mordor" by their foreign partners since they basically opened. Foxconn also had a plant in India they had to shut down after they poisoned the entire workforce with the pesticides they were spraying on the grounds.

Basically this means that the Apple contract is now going to the best of the worst instead of the worst of the worst.

It's still very discerning that very serious people who make policy believe that sweatshops are an incremental step towards "development"

The lesson learned from all this is that most people who feel something about capitalism don't feel weird so much as they should feel exhausted or sick or in pain towards that system.

The real answer I was looking for, and that everyone should feel towards capitalism is "Bad"

I guess it was just that the show tried to be 'balanced' and ended up on the side of pro sweatshop. Which rubbed me the wrong way. Then again, the show is called This American Life. So it's accurately reflecting the mindset of its listener-ship

I listen to NPR a lot. It's a whole lot better than Fox News in terms of sources to get your information from. But sometimes I have to dig my nails into the steering wheel with some of the things they say.

The scary thing is that the average listener is convinced that they are listening to the the left wing politics, which I guess is the worse part of it. Most of what is happening on the programs is cheerleading for war in Iran and why the president is still a pretty good dude. Oh and that the economy is really not as bad as we think it is. At least Marketplace is honest about their position.

But even with this episode, This American Life is not irredeemable. It's not like NPR news or something where listening to Steve Inskeep toss softballs to some health care industry spokeswoman in an interview about why single payer will never work is enough to grow tumors in the back of your skull.

But it's like Ira is American Liberalism personified

There were a couple of good episodes of This American Life discussing and explaining the financial crisis and the conclusion of both was basically that the banks that were failing should have been nationalized instead of bailed out.

If there's one thing that is really bad about This American Life, it's the ads. You would think that it being on Public radio it wouldn't matter, but oh how wrong you are. The ads are the worst part. They're all for insurance or "ethical" investment firms or hospital companies plugging new sci-fi treatments or shit like monitoring services for your online reputation and I feel like I'm in the movie Robocop.

Shit like Support for NPR comes from *Beat* MetLife. Or maybe even Angie's list - Which is really just yelp for old white people. Or maybe reputation defender can defend your online rep on Facebook. But among the worst are the plugs for Nova Nordisk. Every time they play, I think of the company's business practices in greece (and their subsequent resolution) and i get so angry.

But maybe I need a half ass morning edition story about "those darn hackers" punctuated by a plug for Palantir before I can truly feel like I'm living my cyberpunk fantasy.

For what it's worth, This American Life does have some good episodes and it's just a case of being hit or miss. And while the misses make me cringe, they do have a lot of interesting and entertaining stuff. If you never heard it, perhaps you should listen to the one episode that was about the field trip to the Reagan Museum.

But to get back to the question at hand - Should we feel weird about sweatshops? I say we shouldn't just feel weird about capitalism. I think we should feel far worse. It's like being complicit in death and exploitation and just brushing it off as some awkward moment in a Seinfeld episode.

Then again, you can't eat anything, wear anything, use anything or go anywhere without being complicit in death and exploitation. So maybe we should just get used to it. Because even if you kill yourself, you're still complicit in death.. your own.

Really makes you think, doesn't it?

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