Made in China

There is a particular detail that is most interesting to me in the aftermath of Mr. Daisey and the Apple factory episode of This American Life and its subsequent retraction, and that is that even the shameless, fabricated and dramatized Apple bashing was a high point for both This American Life podcast (most downloaded episode) and Mike Daisey’s career, who considers this monologue to be his best work ever made.

In other words, it doesn’t even take good journalism–the original piece was, in fact, a downright fabrication–to successfully lead an ever-ready lynch mob on yet another outraged march to 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino. The question is, why is the public so eager–desperate even–to find a scapegoat, and for what exactly?

Mike Daisey was determined to stick the bad guy label on Apple. He was particularly keen on dramatizing only the parts of Chinese workers' conditions that would have shock value to his potential audience. However, the Foxconn suicides were at the rate still lower than the national average, and the slave-like labor he describes is consensual: the workers willingly sign contracts, they agree on the length of their shifts and they stay in employment because the wages at Foxconn are better than most other companies in China. If a thousand people quit one day, there would be a thousand other Chinese eagerly lined up to start working literally the next day.

But before we uncover where the real villain lies between a block of aluminum and the finished iPad in your hands, we first have to face the facts why those jobs went to China in the first place.

It’s not the manufacturing costs. The iPhone, theoretically, could still cost around $650 even if it was produced in the United States, under U.S. labor laws and standards. What U.S. can’t provide is the scale of manufacturing.

Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher for The NY Times:

Apple’s executives had estimated that about 8,700 industrial engineers were needed to oversee and guide the 200,000 assembly-line workers eventually involved in manufacturing iPhones. The company’s analysts had forecast it would take as long as nine months to find that many qualified engineers in the United States.

In China, it took 15 days.

Jennifer Rigoni, former Apple’s worldwide supply demand manager:

They could hire 3,000 people overnight. What U.S. plant can find 3,000 people overnight and convince them to live in dorms?

Apple’s staff can design the magical gadgets you have in your hand. They can even program all the software, and run the services such as iCloud and Siri in the U.S. But they can’t produce the hardware fast enough and supply America (and the rest of the world) at the rate we demand.

But the average consumer doesn’t take “no” as an answer. Upon hearing there won’t be new iPhones, that they are delayed or not in stock, we slam our fists on to the table and demand satisfaction. We wave our money in the air yelling “I need one”, and money makes stuff happen.

Charles Duhigg in an interview with Ira Glass:

There were times in this nation when we had harsh working conditions as part of our economic development. We decided as a nation that that was unacceptable. We passed laws in order to prevent those harsh working conditions from ever being inflicted on American workers again.

And what has happened today is that rather than exporting that standard of life–which is within our capacity to do–we have exported harsh working conditions to another nation.

It doesn’t make sense any more to delay uncovering who’s the real bad guy. It isn’t Apple, or their manufacturers. The bad guy is you. You, who watched that keynote and immediately wanted iPhone or iPad. You, who clapped when the Apple CEO unveiled product pricing that was even lower than expected. You, who cheered when the shipping date turned out to be only weeks away.

That is, you’re only the bad guy if you believe that there’s evil to be accounted for in the first place.

Being guilt-ridden is in this case a personal choice, not a matter of circumstance.