Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory – A Lesson in Comparative Economic Systems

One of the core lessons that I try to get across in my introductory Comparative Economic Systems classes is that economic systems are complex. Reality is much more complex than either simple theory or ideology.  Countries simply cannot be easily categorized with simple labels such as capitalist, socialist, or communist.  Those labels usually obscure more than they illuminate.

The labels are the work of ideologues and theorists.  Pure capitalism or socialism or communism exists only in the mathematical axioms of textbooks, the novels of Ayn Rand, or the writings of some political power grabber. Real economic systems are the creatures of politics, history, the available resources, culture, religion, and some economic theory.

Another lesson I try to impart is that while we might all want to improve economic conditions, how to do that effectively is also complex.  There are no silver bullets or universal magic solutions.  There are costs and benefits to any proposed policy or practice.  The key to progress is evaluating those costs and benefits wisely and making conscious decisions.

Last weekend I heard  a story on the This American Life radio.  It was called Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory.  It’s about a man who goes to visit the workers at Foxconn, the company that manufacturers Apple products in China.  It’s a long story, but it’s gripping and powerful.  It struck me that it also powerfully illustrates the two lessons I’m trying to teach in class:  economic systems aren’t that simple and making things better isn’t always obvious.

To listen for yourself, go to: This American Life #454 – Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory. Here’s their summary:

Host Ira Glass speaks with an Apple device about its origin. (2 minutes)

Mike Daisey performs an excerpt that was adapted for radio from his one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” A lifelong Apple superfan, Daisey sees some photos online from the inside of a factory that makes iPhones, starts to wonder about the people working there, and flies to China to meet them. His show restarts a run at New York’s Public Theater later this month. (39 minutes)

What should we make of what Mike Daisey saw in China? Our staff did weeks of fact checking to corroborate Daisey’s findings. Ira talks with Ian Spaulding, founder and managing director of INFACT Global Partners, which goes into Chinese factories and helps them meet social responsibility standards set by Western companies (Apple’s Supplier Responsibility page is here), and with Nicholas Kristof, columnist for The New York Times who has reported in Asian factories. In the podcast and streaming versions of the program he also speaks with Debby Chan Sze Wan, a project manager at the advocacy group SACOM, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, based in Hong Kong. They’ve put out three reports investigating conditions at Foxconn (October 2010, May 2011, Sept 2011). Each report surveyed over 100 Foxconn workers, and they even had a researcher go undercover and take a job at the Shenzhen plant. (15 minutes)