What price an iPhone?

In The Twenty-One Balloons—one of my all-time favorite childhood books—a kindly professor attempts to fly across the Pacific by balloon but instead crash lands onto the diamond-rich island of Krakatoa. There, he discovers a fantastical community where, apart from the few obligations imposed by a “Restaurant Government,” the lucky inhabitants spend their days “trying to make life more pleasant for ourselves and each other.”

There was a time when this happy vision had much in common with how we imagined The Future. Without giving it too much thought, those of us who grew up watching The Jetsons and dreaming of magical robots assumed that labor-saving devices would mean more free time for everyone, as we all shared in the benefits of new technologies.

But that’s not how it’s turned out. Almost without noticing, we’ve traded our egalitarian Jetsons-era paradigm—which incidentally coincided with a thriving American middle class—for one that requires ever-more from the world’s poorest and most vulnerable while piling up riches for an ultra-rich and every smaller global elite.

Not convinced?

Take a look at the New York Times’ exhaustive piece on How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work. The story goes like this:  Apple has moved almost all of its manufacturing overseas because this was its “only option.” The “flexibility, diligence and industrial skills” that Apple requires are in far greater supply overseas than among U.S. workers. “The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” one Apple executive told the Times.

Who can argue with “speed and flexibility”? Such goals sound reasonable enough, right?

But drill down beneath the abstractions, and the facts tell a different story. What does all this talk of “speed and flexibility” actually mean in practice?  The reality is this:

One former executive described how the company relied upon a Chinese factory to revamp iPhone manufacturing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.

A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.

Meanwhile,  Apple’s profits continue to soar to stratospheric levels, with the company earning more than $400,000 in profit per employee, more than Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobil, or Google, according to the Times. “Apple shares are up $24.3 billion today. Maybe now they can afford to pay their Chinese workers more than $1 an hour,” humorist Andy Borowitz tweeted.

But what truly mystifies—and saddens me—isn’t the fact that international corporations (even Apple!) tend to focus on short-term profit at almost any cost (though even this assumption is of fairly recent vintage, as New York Times economics reporter Louis Uchitelle explained in The Disposable American) but rather that so many of us seem to accept this as a matter of course. That so few of us are saying: “Are you fucking kidding me?”

How has this come to pass? It seems to me that, in our anxiety over U.S. competitiveness, we’ve come to unthinkingly conflate two quite different things:  First, the question of education and skills, a legitimate concern. Second, the question of “diligence and flexibility”—words that are all-too-often code for a willingness to tolerate the sort of working conditions that decades of labor activism and legislation have sought to consign to history.  (Thomas L. Friedman’s “Average is Over” column in yesterday’s Times illustrates this quite nicely.)

You don’t have to look far for evidence that Apple’s business model is toxic.  (While I’m not suggesting that Apple is alone here, the company’s epic cool factor does make it an especially galling target.) Just today, the Times followed up its report on Apple’s outsourcing with a piece chillingly titled: “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad,” rife with stories of fatal factory explosions, suicides, routinely dangerous working conditions, and work-related injuries. The “dormitories” where workers live? Reporters found up to 20 people stuffed into a three-room apartment.  An audit of Apple’s suppliers last year found at least half the workers at 93 facilities exceeded the 60-hours-a-week limit established in Apple’s own supplier code of conduct.

And the rationale for this frenzied activity and human suffering? Pushing iPhones into the world more quickly and in larger numbers, responding to our rapacious cries for more Angry Birds and Siri. “What U.S. plant can find 3,000 people overnight and convince them to live in dorms?” Apple’s Jennifer Rigoni rhetorically asked the Times.

As an iPhone owner I have this to say: I would have been willing to wait.