Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Middle Class Retooling

This article in the New York Times, published January 21st, talks about how Apple (and other electronics manufacturers) works to make their consumer electronics less expensive, and details the requirements of manufacturing as well as the requirements of American workers versus Chinese workers.

While I get that globalization and the like make it all the more difficult for such work to be performed by Americans (since the Chinese are willing to live in dorms and work 6 12-hour days a week in order to pay their families back home or not pay anyone but a bank account somewhere), the part that's so depressing about it is that it appears there's no end in sight.

Workers willing to work long hours for low wages is as old as history. They're always available, there will always be someone who'd prefer 12 hours a day in an air-conditioned building and a warm place to sleep versus starving to death. Well, mostly, anyway.

What will Americans do now? Foxconn hired 85,000 engineers (so-called) to oversee the 250,000 workers in the plant. These engineers don't need a BS to do their job, something the equivalent of an AA would do. While it might take 6 months for an American manufacturing firm to find this many engineers, in China it took three weeks to ramp up. Why?

Simple. Infrastructure. Which we don't invest in much anymore.

Even if you could hire this many employees to work a single building like this in the States, OSHA would disallow it on the basis of safety. Foxconn has had to hire traffic cops to guide employees coming and going from the building during shift change.

Essentially, what they're telling us is that, in order to make it in the middle class, you really need to rethink the idea of human dignity and worth. We really need to get back to the days when humans were simply interchangeable cogs in a great machine, hired for cheap when young, and discarded as soon as the part wears out or a cheaper, younger, hungrier version becomes available. Metropolis wasn't just a movie, it was the shape of things to come.

Side note: I wonder if we know what happens to former Foxconn workers? Anyone done that bit of reporting yet? We know that many of them kill themselves (or threaten to do so)...

As a consumer in a consumer society (and an Apple fanboy to boot), I know there are things that are expected of any modern person in America: you own a car, a cellphone, maybe a laptop or a pad computer - but some kind of computer and some sort of portable computing device. Many businesses are asking their employees to provide their own devices at work, and are building new wireless networks that are at once more simplified and more complex in order to both facilitate the employee bringing in their own gear, but also protecting company information. In the old days, policemen had to provide their own uniforms, their own nightsticks, even their own guns. (ammo was provided, generally) So it's good to know there's been progress in this regard.

So, as far as progress is concerned, we've managed to outsource much of our manufacturing, we're underfunding school systems, so fewer and fewer high-caliber people will be entering the workforce (and we won't need them anyway, so long as there's a China), we've built more prisons than anywhere else, and we keep building the armed forces larger and larger. We'll need people to pick crops (and the Hispanics are being scared off by our own draconian immigration laws, as well as the decline of such opportunities), serve food, wash cars, trim lawns, etc., etc.

Was this what the Founding Fathers had in mind? A great nation, wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, wherein 90% of the population will eventually (if current trends maintain) be living on the margins?

No comments: