This New York Times story, telling ugly stories of human suffering at Chinese outsourcers, isn’t about Apple. It’s pure politics and economics.
It’s Simple · The management of well-connected Chinese companies needn’t worry much about regulation or law enforcement, because China is governed by a corrupt autocracy. They needn’t worry much about unions or other worker activism because that government has as a matter of industrial policy disempowered labor, making real unionism impossible.
We’ve seen this movie before. The description of 21st-century Chinese political reality applies pretty well to 19th-century Europe. Not surprisingly, so do the descriptions of the sufferings of industrial laborers.
History says: The systemic pressures of capitalism will always, in the absence of countervailing forces, lead to brutal exploitation. Fortunately, history also teaches that capitalism can still create prosperity even when fenced in with safety, environmental, and labor-law regulation.
Some will push back, pointing out that China’s policies have lifted the best part of a billion people out of grinding rural poverty; also that people take Foxconn jobs eagerly because they are an escape from the village.
I stand by my point; Europe’s industrial revolution’s backdrop was a mass migration out of the countryside, and people lined up for jobs in Dickens’ dark satanic mills because it was better than starving down on the farm.
That’s not good enough. It seems to me that it should hardly need saying that just because there are worse alternatives, it’s not OK to brutalize people so that people in my timezone can pay less for electronic lifestyle baubles.
Something’s Gotta Give · In the short term, the most likely outcome is: no change. In a society where there’s no transparency and no rule of law, it will remain possible, and immensely profitable, to sweep the problems under the rug, dodge accountability, and continue with Business As Usual.
But not for long, where “long” is measured in generations. I suspect that the longer we go on with Business As Usual, the more violent will be the inevitable breakthrough to modernity.
But I’m optimistic. Europe figured out that messy, petty, parliamentary politics leading to a messy, petty, regulatory framework are sort of optimal, if by “optimal” you mean “we haven’t been able to figure out anything better”. I haven’t seen any evidence that the Chinese aren’t as smart or courageous as my ethnic group; given the same opportunities, there’s no good reason they shouldn’t get the same or better results.
Prediction · I totally guarantee this one: Eventually, the cost of buying anything that requires human intervention in the manufacturing process is going up. The sooner the better.