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)
2 thoughts on “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory – A Lesson in Comparative Economic Systems”
I can’t even come up with words to describe my reaction to the podcast…
I was drawn to locate the Foxconn plant in Guandong, China on Google Earth so I could see it, and then wandered aimlessly around Shenzhen and Hong Kong on GE… just looking at picture after picture posted there.
As I type I’m literally surrounded by high tech gadgetry – high-performance, custom-built computers… big screen monitors… terabytes upon terabytes of disk drives… etc. – that I use all day, every day.
I feel different now than I did before.
In response to the question for the Econproph.com blog, on what is China’s System and I would have to say capitalism because these factories profit huge while only paying their workers terrible wages with terrible working conditions. Often working these poor people 14-16 sometimes even longer hours per day. Mr Daisy had discovered while standing out side the guarded gates of FOXCONN factory that a man had died after a 34 hour shift! I am lost for words as well, because as we are in this technological world where I use high tech Iphone and computers at work as well as at home, I do feel a bit, I guess guilty feeling after knowing that this is our world, this is happening right now, it is true. I didn’t know where all my “crap” comes from. A huge city in China called Shenzhen, it is bigger than New York and yet I had never heard of this city until listening to American Life and have Mr. Daisy point that out.
Is Foxconn and Apple good or bad for the workers? I think terrible. As much money as these companies bring in from shipping to America, they have more than enough to supply better working wages, screenings for underage workers and better working conditions. I say shame on them. An alternative is for someone “who cares” to step in and stick it to these companies, fine them or something to make sure they are better regulated and treating the employees way better than they are.
This Program has made me feel disgusted at how our system allows these things to happen, just for profit. To make better production, lets expose our fellow humans to dangerous chemicals/neurotoxins that cripple them to the point where they shake so bad they cant even hold a cup. I know theses things have happened for years but what ever happened to the “caring” process of these corporations? I feel things need to change for the better of the “people”, the working class, not the capitalist class.
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