January 2012 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

January 2012

#Sidney's Picks: The Best of the Week's News

  • Hundreds of domestic women and their children rallied outside California’s state capitol building on Tuesday to urge legislators to pass a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Domestic workers are not protected by many standard labor laws. Therefore they are routinely subjected to working conditions that would not be tolerated in any other sector. Many who “live in” lack basic amenities: space to cook their own meals, time off between shifts, or even their own beds. “What I’d like would be a bed where I could sleep by myself,” a Filipina caregiver who shares a bed with her client told In These Times reporter David Bacon.
  • “The Grey Box: An Investigative Look at Solitary Confinement,” by Susan Greene of the Dart Society is a harrowing look at solitary confinement in America. Up to 80,000 American prisoners are housed in isolation on any given day. We associate solitary with the most dangerous criminals, but some isolated inmates have no record of violence inside or outside of prison. Solitary confinement was denounced as barbaric in the mid-to-late 1800s and largely abandoned, but solitary came roaring back in 1983 with horrifying consequences.
  • Adam Gopnik’s provocative New Yorker essay on mass incarceration in America delves into the history the prison industrial complex. There are over 6 million people “under correctional supervision” in the U.S. today, more than Stalin imprisoned at the height of the Gulag. Gopnik contrasts two competing accounts of how America became the world’s leading jailer. The so-called “Northern” hypothesis is that our prison system grew out of 19th century reform movements that championed “rehabilitative” imprisonment as a more humane alternative to corporal and capital punishment. That’s ironic, considering the brutal conditions that prevail in prisons today, including unchecked rape. The even-more-depressing “Southern” hypothesis is that the prison industrial complex is an outgrowth of the old slave plantation system. The burgeoning prison labor sector adds credence to the latter view.
  • The New York Times ran two sensational stories on Apple and China this week. The first attempted to answer a simple question posed by President Barack Obama to Steve Jobs, “Why aren’t iPhones made in the U.S.A.?” The second story exposed brutal working conditions at Chinese factories where Apple products are made.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

The Human Cost of an iPad

Charles Duhigg and David Barboza of the New York Times documented brutal working conditions at Apple factories in China:

In the last decade, Apple has become one of the mightiest, richest and most successful companies in the world, in part by mastering global manufacturing. Apple and its high-technology peers — as well as dozens of other American industries — have achieved a pace of innovation nearly unmatched in modern history.

However, the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions, according to employees inside those plants, worker advocates and documents published by companies themselves. Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious — sometimes deadly — safety problems.

Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.

More troubling, the groups say, is some suppliers’ disregard for workers’ health. Two years ago, 137 workers at an Apple supplier in eastern China were injured after they were ordered to use a poisonous chemical to clean iPhone screens. Within seven months last year, two explosions at iPad factories, including in Chengdu, killed four people and injured 77. Before those blasts, Apple had been alerted to hazardous conditions inside the Chengdu plant, according to a Chinese group that published that warning.

Apple claims that it holds all its suppliers to high standards, but privately, insiders conceded to the Times that the company sometimes lets suppliers off the hook for violations because it’s costly and time consuming to replace them. As one labor expert explained, Foxconn is basically the only company in the world that can meet Apple’s needs, so “[t]here’s a lot of rationalization.”

We’re trying really hard to make things better,” one former Apple executive told the Times. “But most people would still be really disturbed if they saw where their iPhone comes from.”

The company developed a code of conduct in 2005 and it has since audited nearly 400 suppliers and suppliers of suppliers. Much of what we know about abuses comes from Apple’s own investigations.

Officially, violators have 90 days to fix the problem, but critics note that the same problems keep cropping up year after year, which suggests accomodation rather than enforcement. It’s interesting that violators get 90 whole days to fix an industrial health and safety violation in a sector prized for its lightening-fast flexibility. If a factory can redesign a screw in three hours to the customer’s exact specifications, why can’t it fix a workplace hazard just as quickly? Maybe because the customer doesn’t care about the hazard as long as the screws keep rolling in.

At some level, everyone knows that no manufacturing system can meet Apple’s incessant and ever-escalating demands for production, flexibility, and low prices without hurting people. “You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards,” a current Apple executive confided to the Times. “And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.”

Duhigg’s in-depth investigation of Apple’s manufacturing system ran on Monday. The piece, which set out to explain why iPads aren’t made in the United States, electrified readers and spurred vigorous debate online. Could America win those jobs back? Given the miserable working conditions that Apple assembly workers endure, would we even want to? As long as we’re considering a complete economic makeover to revive high tech manufacturing, are there other models, like extensive automation, that would be more acceptable to Americans?

[Photo credit: waferbaby, Creative Commons.]

"It's Just Reality": Elizabeth Warren on the Daily Show

Massachusetts Democratic senate candidate Elizabeth Warren stopped by The Daily Show last night to talk about why the U.S. isn’t investing in its future. She notes that we spend half as much on research as we did in the 1960s, as a percentage of GDP. Investment in community colleges and other infrastructure for upward social mobility is way down.

Warren, ex-top TARP overseer and creator of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, argues that the government has stopped working for ordinary people because legislators are in thrall to corporations that hire armies of lawyers and lobbyists to shape public policy.

[HT: Rolling Stone.]

Introverts-R-Us: A Quiet Revolution

In 2003, Johnathan Rauch’s essay “Caring for Your Introvert” became a surprise smash hit for the Atlantic Montly. This short piece may have been the first journalistic attempt to grapple with the rights of introverts in a culture that glorifies extraversion.

Rauch’s case for understanding of introvert-Americans may have been the reasonable, low-key clarion call that sparked the introverts’ rights movement. As of 2006 the essay had drawn more traffic than anything else the Atlantic had ever published.

Rauch defined introverts as people who find social interactions tiring, as opposed to stimulating. Extraverts are energized by companionship. Introverts may enjoy company, but like exercise, social interaction is work for them and they need time alone to recover.

Susan Cain is the author of the new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. She talks about the work in a recent interview with with Scientific American Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.

Cain defines introverts as people who prefer lower levels of stimulation, social and otherwise. That translates into a preference for solitude, or small group interactions, over loud, raucous gatherings. Introversion is distinct from shyness, which is defined as the fear of negative social judgement.

About one half to one third of the population is introverted, according to the latest research. “But you’d never guess that, right?” Cain says, “That’s because introverts learn from an early age to act like pretend-extroverts.”

The author traveled around the U.S., documenting our extraversion-loving society, from motivational seminars to mega-churches where introverted congregants fear the wrath of God for needing their alone time. Which made me wonder if the church is really concerned about solitude, per se… Then again, religions have good reasons to worry about people with too much time to think.

Cain notes that introversion is associated with creativity and independent thought. She argues that American schools and workplaces have become obsessed with groupwork, which is draining for introverts, and which can foster groupthink for all concerned. She would like to see a society where creative people are given space to think and not simply herded into endless, shallow, rapid-fire brainstorming sessions. Research suggests that brainstorming, for all its popularity, is not a particularly efficient way to generate creative ideas.

The author challenges myths about introverts, such as the notion that introversion is incompatible with leadership ability. “Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks were all introverts, and so are many of today’s business leaders, from Douglas Conant of Campbell Soup to Larry Page at Google,” she tells Cook.

Quiet is going on this introvert’s reading list.

[Image credit: nyoin, Creative Commons.]

Celebrity Maternity: The Jay-Z/Beyonce NICU Scandal in Context

The first couple of hip hop made headlines when Beyonce gave birth to a baby girl, Blue Ivy Carter, at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan earlier this month. The couple reportedly paid $1.3 million to renovate a birthing suite.

A new father complained that Jay-Z and Beyonce’s private security guards barred him from seeing his twin girls in the neonatal intensive care unit. Mothers in a breastfeeding group also complained that private security guards had been rude to them. The dad just wants an apology, but the mothers were reportedly mulling a lawsuit.

Amanda Marcotte argues in the American Prospect this episode has no larger implications because it comes down to the parents’ word against Lenox Hill’s denial and the Carters’ silence. Sure, if we assume that the father is lying about being denied access to his critically ill children, then his story can be written off.

We could also write off these stories if we assume that all the security was absolutely necessary and appropriate to protect the Carter family and other patients from maurading paparazzis. But since when is it safe to make that assumption about any private security force? Private security is highly suspect because it wields authority without transparency on behalf of narrow moneyed interests.

Parents also claimed that security cameras were covered to thwart picture-hungry tabloids at bay. If that’s true, that’s inexcusable. The cameras are there to protect all patients and staff members. You never know when a violent ex is going to show up and cause a scene. Furthermore, the cameras might document an overreach by private security, if one occurred.

Regardless of the merits of the parents’ complaints, reporting by Hillman Prize-winner Nina Bernstein raises the possibility that the Jay-Z/Beyonce brouhaha is a symptom of a disturbing trend. Hospitals are competing to attract the carriage trade. In an era of declining reimbursements, many institutions are becoming increasingly dependent on an elite cash-paying clientele. Hospitals lure these well-heeled patrons with butlers, concierges, marble bathrooms, personal chefs, and other luxurious amenities.

Hospitals are supposed to be in the business of providing quality care to all. If celebrities and CEOs are just paying for high threadcount sheets and lobster tails, that’s one thing. However, this competition raises questions about whether hospitals might be willing to compromise the convenience or even the care of other patients in order to attract a much more lucrative celebrity clientele.

I’m perfectly at home here — totally private, totally catered,” Nancy Hemenway, a senior financial services executive boasted to the Times about her luxury care at Mount Sinai. “I have a primary-care physician who also acts as ringmaster for all my other doctors. And I see no people in training — only the best of the best.”

VIPs expect to be catered to. Some will have outsized needs for security and privacy that will affect other patients. The celebrities are shopping around and the hospitals are open for business. Lenox Hill is a private hospital, but it accepts public funds to provide health care. If the hospital wants to compete in the celebrity maternity market, what say does a Medicaid patient, or the taxpayer, have in the matter?

[Photo credit: Drew Allen, Creative Commons.]

Why Aren't iPhones Made in the USA?

Last February, at a dinner for Silicone Valley luminaries, President Obama asked Steve Jobs what it would take for iPhones to be made in the USA. Jobs essentially told the president that was never going to happen.

Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher of the New York Times set out to explain why not. They interviewed “more than three dozen current and former Apple employees and contractors” as well as “economists, manufacturing experts, international trade specialists, technology analysts, academic researchers, employees at Apple’s suppliers, competitors and corporate partners, and government officials.”:

Apple’s an example of why it’s so hard to create middle-class jobs in the U.S. now,” said Jared Bernstein, who until last year was an economic adviser to the White House.

If it’s the pinnacle of capitalism, we should be worried.”

Apple executives say that going overseas, at this point, is their only option. 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.

The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”

Similar stories could be told about almost any electronics company — and outsourcing has also become common in hundreds of industries, including accounting, legal services, banking, auto manufacturing and pharmaceuticals.

Experts say cheap labor is only part of the reason Apple assembles iPhones in Asia. Even more appealing to Apple is the fact that the supply chains that sustain an iPhone factory are also based on Asia. In other words, if you want to make iPhones, it’s cheaper to be near the factories that make the iPhone screws, the iPhone gaskets, and so on. China has most of those subcomponent factories, and the infrastructure to get the screws to the iPhone factory on short notice. The U.S. doesn’t have that infrastructure anymore.

So, why are all these component factories in China? The three main reasons seem to be economies of scale, Chinese economic policy, and cheap, readily exploitable labor. Of course, Chinese labor is artificially cheap and “flexible” because the totalitarian government squelches workers’ attempts to organize.

The least convincing argument is the purported skill gap between Chinese and U.S. workers. “We shouldn’t be criticized for using Chinese workers,” a current Apple executive was quoted as saying. “The U.S. has stopped producing people with the skills we need.”

Duhigg and Bradsher make a convincing case that the U.S. isn’t training enough engineers. But does the skills argument work when it comes to lower-level assembly line employees at FoxConn, a company that is notorious for recruiting huge numbers of young workers from the countryside? Nobody is born knowing how to solder an iPhone component. FoxConn must provide on-the-job training to much of its workforce. Granted, the marginal cost of training additional workers is much smaller for a company that already has a workforce of 1 million.

After reading the story, it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for retooling the U.S. economy to create jobs like those of iPhone-makers at FoxConn. The reporters focus on skilled workers, but the reality is that most of the work of making an iPhone has been broken down to its most menial elements and outsourced to low-paid, low-skill employees. This model is sustainable, for corporations if not for humans, because there is a huge pool of desperate workers who will happily take a FoxConn worker’s job. Relatively speaking, the U.S. has a population gap and a misery gap.

Maybe the solution for the U.S. is automation coupled with progressive taxation and income redistribution. Let the machines do the work while the people share more equally in the profits.

[Photo credit: JaredEarle, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: The Best of the Week's News

  • Labor leaders are debating whether to take their protest over Indiana’s proposed “right to work law” to the biggest stage in the country, Indianapolis during the Super Bowl, the Associated Press reports.
  • With over one million signatures submitted a recall election for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is all but assured. However, as Roger Bybee reports at Working In These Times, a strict state voter ID law passed in 2011 may disenfranchise many Wisconsin voters on election day. A lawsuit to seeking to overturn the law gets underway this week. 
  • GOP candidates in South Carolina are fulminating about the National Labor Relations Board, Josh Eidelson of AlterNet reports. Mitt Romney assailed the NLRB as an  “unaccountable and out-of-control agency” and Newt Gingrich promised the Chamber of Commerce that he’d look into eliminating the board if he became president.
  • Amanda Marcotte of Slate explains why the Obama administration’s decision to stand up to the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops and refuse to expand religious exemptions for birth control coverage is a big deal for women’s health.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

 

Recall Recap: The Latest From Wisconsin

Sidney-winner John Nichols of The Nation went on Democracy Now! yesterday to talk about the ongoing campaign to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker for stripping public employees of their collective bargaining rights. The pro-recall contingent needed 540,000 signatures, and they obtained over a million, making the campaign to unseat Walker the largest recall effort in U.S. history.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And John, most people don’t realize that those million signatures represent about almost a half of the electorate in Wisconsin. Could you—when you say the proportion that the signatures represent.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well—yes, they represent almost half of the electorate in the last election, in 2010, and what you might reasonably presume to be the electorate that would participate in a recall election. It’s not all the electorate. There—Wisconsin, up until very recently, didn’t require you to be registered to vote before you went to vote. So, you know, we don’t know. A recall election could actually pull in hundreds of thousands of additional voters. This is a very exciting and very charged thing. But what is important to remember is that the size of that proportion of the existing electorate has never been achieved before.

A state board must now review the signatures to ensure that they are valid. If the pro-recall faction has gathered enough signatures, Walker will face a new election, and possibly a primary challenge within his own party.

Walker didn’t campaign on an anti-collective bargaining platform, instead he foisted the controversial and unpopular law on the electorate as one of his first acts of office. The voters of Wisconsin may finally have their say on collective bargaining rights.

Nichols’ forthcoming book is entitled, Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street.

Girl Talk: Irin Carmon vs. Caitlin Flanagan

Sidney-winner Irin Carmon went head-to-head on NPR with noted anti-feminist crank and author of the new book “Girl Land,” Caitlin Flanagan.

Read Carmon’s review of “Girl Land” in Salon.

[Photo credit: mag3737, Creative Commons.]

Indiana: House Dems Occupy Rotunda Over "Right To Work" Bill

Democratic members of the Indiana State House caucused in the rotunda on Wednesday morning to demand a referendum on proposed “right to work” legislation that would cripple organized labor:

The Indiana House remained at a standstill this morning, with most Democrats refusing to come to the floor as they protest the controversial “right to work” bill and demand to offer an amendment seeking a public referendum on it.

Democrats met in the Statehouse Rotunda, with labor protesters surrounding them and more watching from the balconies above, cheering as Democrats promised to fight this issue.

As their chants of “Power to the People” rang in the Statehouse, Republicans attempted to come into session on the 3rd floor, but again did not have the necessary quorum of 67 legislators to do business. There are 60 Republicans, and this morning four Democrats joined them on the floor while the remainder of the Democrats were in the Rotunda.

The Democrats are staying off the State House floor to postpone a vote on the bill, which would otherwise pass the GOP-controlled body. The Dems say they can’t vote because they’re busy working on an amendment to hold a right-to-work referendum.

Proponents of the bill say that “right to work” legislation would create jobs by attracting manufacturers from non right-to-work states. However, as Prof. Gordon Lafer argues in The Nation, right-to-work legislation is an outdated tactic for attracting manufacturing jobs. These days, companies looking for cheap labor aren’t shopping between states, they’re taking their work overseas.

[Photo credit: The Indiana State House Rotunda, by Jim Bowen, Creative Commons.]

Pages