|Number 506||April 27, 2012|
This Week: "The System"
You'll notice that one of my headlines this week mentions "The System." It may sound like a cliché, but there really IS a "system," the rules of which govern much more of our lives than we probably want to admit. I touch on it this week, and will have more to say on the subject of "The System" in future issues.
I've got a lot of pieces in the works at the moment. So many that I fear they are clogging up the Nygaard Notes system. That is, when I work on 5 or 6 subjects simultaneously, it makes it difficult to get any one of them ready for publication. And that is my explanation for the longer-than-usual gaps between recent editions of the Notes. Of course, the gaps could have to do with the other parts of my life being more demanding than usual lately.
Maybe it's due to my computer screen being too old. If anyone has a flat-screen LCD monitor they would like to donate to Nygaard Notes, please get in touch. My eyes would appreciate it.
Welcome back to the Northland, all ye who migrate!
I subscribe to a monthly column from War Times/Tiempo de Guerras that is called "Month in Review." It's a boring title, but the publication is far from boring. This week's "Quote" of the Week comes from the April 7th column, headed "NEW MOMENT, NEW MOVEMENT: Ideas about Antiwar, Antimilitarist Strategies for the Years Ahead." It's a great piece on movement strategy. In it, the War Times collective notes that "The U.S. is an empire in decline," and then concisely summarize the corrosive effects of the increasingly militarized mentality that grips our nation in Age of Fear that is the post-9/11 USA:
"The military-industrial complex and the militarist approaches to human relations it advocates will [in the coming years] buttress regressive policies and structures on all fronts of social struggle. Military spending and militarist hostility to 'enemies' drain resources from social programs; bolster the elite's austerity-for-the-masses program; distort the economy generally; foster racist, anti-immigrant and sexist views and practices; are key excuses to curtail civil liberties; and are a major force in continuing dependence on fossil fuels and threatening environmental disaster. In other words, militarism as both an institutional reality and set of ideas is an obstacle not only to peaceful relations among nations and peoples but to all social progress."
Helping to counter that "set of ideas" is a big part of the reason that I send out Nygaard Notes to as many people as I can.
Back in December I wrote a piece called "Steve Jobs in China" in which I commented on the media coverage of the death of Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs. While there were over 1,000 news articles on his legacy, mostly glowing and positive, there were few mentions of the reliance of Apple Inc., the multinational corporation, on the exploitation of Chinese workers in the production of iPhones, iPads, and the other products that Apple sells. In the most recent quarter Apple reported "record revenue of $26.74 billion and record net quarterly profit of $6 billion" on a gross margin of 38.5 percent.
I briefly summarized some of the horrendous conditions under which workers toil in China to produce those record profits. This stimulated a provocative email from a friend and Nygaard Notes reader, who said in part:
"How do you stay integrated into our society without this stuff [electronics, that is]. I read Nygaard Notes on my Mac computer. Do you think there are more ethical companies to patronize? What electronics do you use and from whom do you purchase them—are there good alternatives? Besides the greater task of addressing the capitalist system are there specific groups putting pressure on Apple and others to change these conditions that we can support? I have trouble keeping connected to alternative media without going on-line now and my 10 year old son is complaining because we haven't given him access to a computer or his own phone or iPod like many of his friends have. He feels un-normal."
I had no answer for her. A couple of weeks after she wrote to me Apple announced that it was going to respond to the criticism by agreeing to allow "independent inspections of its supply chain," meaning Foxconn Technology, the company whose exploitation of workers I highlighted in December. (No doubt the Nygaard Notes story was crucial in forcing this concession!)
The concession is, unfortunately, a weak one, as the "independent" group is not all that independent. The New York Times quoted the executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a university-backed factory-monitoring group, saying that "we don't think it's appropriate for [the Fair Labor Association] to call themselves independent investigators because they're in part funded by companies." Another human rights leader, Jeff Ballinger, director of Press for Change, a labor rights group, went so far as to say that "The Fair Labor Association is largely a fig leaf." And press reports filed just days after the inspections supposedly began had Auret van Heerden, president of the Fair Labor Association, saying that Foxconn's "facilities are first-class" and "Foxconn is really not a sweatshop." (Maybe they should do their inspections before making a judgement? I'm just sayin'...)
More reason to doubt that real change will result from the inspections comes from "a former executive in Apple's supplier responsibility group," who told the NY Times in January that "There is a genuine, companywide commitment to the code of conduct. But taking it to the next level and creating real change conflicts with secrecy and business goals, and so there's only so far we can go."
Besides the fig leaf inspections and the barriers imposed by "business goals," there is another reason to suspect that the likelihood of real change at Foxconn's China facilities is low. The reason is that Apple, as big and powerful as it is, remains embedded in a system that essentially demands exploitation. The next article explores the idea of individuals and institutions "playing by the rules" when it is the rules themselves that are the problem.
In all of the reporting over the past couple of months on the human rights and labor rights associated with the Apple Corporation's manufacturing operations in China, there's a theme that keeps popping up. I think the theme highlights an important reality, and a January 21st article in the New York Times will illustrate that reality quite well.
The article was headlined "How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work." In it the Times did some arithmetic showing that using domestic labor wouldn't add too much to the cost of an iPhone "because labor is such a small part of technology manufacturing." Then the Times added that "such calculations are, in many respects, meaningless because building the iPhone in the United States would demand much more than hiring Americans—it would require transforming the national and global economies." [Emphasis added.]
The Times noted that part of the reason that Apple products are made overseas is because of the "flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers." But it's not just Apple. While it's true that almost all of Apple's employees "work for foreign companies in Asia, Europe and elsewhere," it's also true that they work "at factories that almost all electronics designers rely upon to build their wares." Indeed, a single contractor, Foxconn, "has dozens of facilities in Asia and Eastern Europe, and in Mexico and Brazil, and it assembles an estimated 40 percent of the world's consumer electronics for customers like Amazon, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, Nintendo, Nokia, Samsung and Sony."
The Times article concludes by quoting the chief financial officer of Corning, Inc, which makes the unscratchable glass screens for iPhones. James B. Flaws, who is also Corning's vice chairman, indirectly underlines the point that there is something at work here that is bigger than Apple (as huge as Apple surely is). He says that the company could manufacture all its glass domestically—and implies that they would like to—but he notes that this would "require a total overhaul in how the industry is structured." [Emphasis added.] Then Flaws ruefully notes that "The consumer electronics business has become an Asian business. As an American, I worry about that, but there's nothing I can do to stop it." He's right. Were he to resign in protest, someone would be found in about one nanosecond to replace him. That is "how the industry is structured."
A part of "the industry," and of many industries, is that economic desperation in rapidly-urbanizing nations is producing workers whose "flexibility, diligence and industrial skills," as the Times notes, "have so outpaced their American counterparts that 'Made in the U.S.A.' is no longer a viable option for most Apple products." [Emphasis added.] Here I ask the reader to substitute the words "powerlessness" and "exploitability" for the words "flexibility" and "diligence." For it is surely true, if these workers had any power, that it would not be the case that Apple could "earn over $400,000 in profit per employee," as they did last year. That is, more of that $400,000 would go to the workers. Thus the Times reports that "Apple executives say that going overseas, at this point, is their only option." And they are correct, in the sense that they are competing in an amoral marketplace in which those who will not exploit will not survive.
Consider the phrases I emphasized above: That bringing jobs home to the United States would require "transforming the national and global economies" or "a total overhaul in how the industry is structured." And now recall the comment by the Apple executive in the previous article, who said that a "companywide commitment to the code of conduct" in regard to workers' rights must always yield to "business goals," with the result that "there's only so far we can go" in terms of doing the right thing.
The important reality revealed in news accounts like this one is, I hope, easy to see. And that reality is that the rules governing the modern-day manufacture of computers, or anything else, are set not by individuals, who may or may not be ethical and well-meaning. And they are not set by huge corporations, like Apple, who may or may not be committed to a code of conduct. And they are not set by governments, not even the government of the most powerful nation in the world. The reality is that there is something that is bigger than any person's will, bigger than any corporation, bigger even than any government, that sets and enforces the rules.
What we have is a world system that makes and enforces "the rules," a system that might be called the global capitalist system. And to say that the U.S. is "an Empire in decline" is to note that lots of people are beginning to see how "the system" works, and are deepening their efforts to challenge that system. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement to anti-globalization organizing to the "Pink Tide" in Latin America to what might be called a "Defend the Commons" movement, people are getting together and developing new tools that are being used to chip away at the foundations of our world system. It's a time of great tumult, great danger, and great hope.
In the last issue of the Notes I talked about the federal budget, but I ran out of room to offer some resources to learn more about this important but chronically-underreported subject. So, here are some places to go to learn more.
Probably the furthest-right plan so far is the plan put forward by Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan. I talked about it in the last issue. It's called The Path to Prosperity. All 99 pages of it can be found HERE.
The other budget I talked about was the Congressional Progressive Caucus plan, called The Budget for All. That can be found HERE.
The Congressional Black Caucus also released a budget that is close enough to the Progressive Caucus budget that I didn't summarize it separately. Still, it's worth a look, I think
The House Republican Caucus also put out a budget proposal. It promises to balance the budget without raising any taxes, which means major budget cuts for everyone but the Pentagon. Have a look if you like.
There is more information on the White House website about the 2013 federal budget proposed by President Obama than anybody wants to know. Find it all HERE.
Looming over all of this is the Budget Control Act of 2011, which requires automatic spending cuts that will take effect in January of 2013 unless Congress can agree on a plan of their own to "control" the budget. Can they agree on anything? We'll see.
Having given all those official budget websites, I should say that it's pretty hard to get actual information from them, as anybody who proposes a budget tends to present it in glowing terms, using language designed to provoke a certain response. "The Path To Prosperity" is not a phrase aimed at enlightenment, for example. So, with that in mind, here are a few sources for critical analysis of some of the proposals.
Just last week the Congressional Budget Office released its analysis of the 2013 budget proposed by the Obama administration.
A much shorter and punchier piece on the Obama budget comes in the form of a little 3-page summary analysis from the National Priorities Project.
For a look at the effects of the Budget Control Act, go look at a report called "Self-Inflicted Wounds: Protecting Families and Our Economy from Bad Budget Choices." It's put out by the Coalition on Human Needs and, at 55 pages, is pretty enlightening. It includes charts detailing the impact of the mandated budget cuts in each state. It was just updated on April 3rd, so it should have the latest.
The Ryan budget has been analyzed by several groups that I respect. One is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which put out a little four-page analysis that is, in turn, based on a very difficult-to-understand 17-page analysis by the Congressional Budget Office. The CBPP paper is HERE. A second brief CBPP analysis is HERE.
A brief head-to-head comparison of the Ryan and Progressive Caucus budgets comes from the National Priorities Project. It's called "Competing Visions."
The Economic Policy Institute put out a "Technical Analysis" of the Progressive Caucus 2013 budget proposal. It's not all that technical; I found it easy to understand, anyway. Find it online at this address.