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The blind spot for iPhone lovers: why Apple builds them in China

It’s never pleasant to point out progressive hypocrisy, but here it is, plain and simple. We love our techy gadgets, and for many of you, the level of iPhone/iPad/Apple devotion is something I can’t grasp (I’m a Droid girl, myself). I know plenty of progressive folks who wait on lines for hours outside of the Apple Store to get the blessed devices, knowing full well they are made in China, where wages and work environments would otherwise be subjects of your outrage and disdain. But the truth hurts – we are just like most of America, with the bottom line more important than principle. (The Week):

When President Obama famously dined with a handful of Silicon Valley titans a year ago, he had a question for Apple chief Steve Jobs, say Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher in The New York Times: What would it take to make iPhones in the United States? Jobs’ answer was unambiguous and sobering: “Those jobs aren’t coming back.”

Now, in a lengthy story, Duhigg and Bradsher explain — based on conversations with executives at Apple and its tech rivals, economists, and government officials — why Apple and just about every player in the consumer-electronics universe has all but given up on “Made in the USA.”

What are the factors discussed? Some easily guessed, others more complex. Those jobs not coming back are related to the parts used to build the revered devices.

“The entire supply chain is in China now,” a former high-ranking Apple executive tells The Times. “You need a thousand rubber gaskets? That’s the factory next door. You need a million screws? That factory is a block away. You need that screw made a little bit different? It will take three hours.”

According to the piece, labor costs, the most obvious factor, is actually not as large a factor if you disregard the working environment and such (hard to do, but even Apple looks at the bottom line). It would only cost the company an additional $65 to the retail price of each phone. But the aggressive labor environment in China means all tech gadget manufacturers will continue sending work there. An example from the NYT piece, “How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work“:

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.”

“Companies once felt an obligation to support American workers, even when it wasn’t the best financial choice,” said Betsey Stevenson, the chief economist at the Labor Department until last September. “That’s disappeared. Profits and efficiency have trumped generosity.”

Yes, even the beloved Apple. Do progressives feel any better, swiping your techy fingers across the device’s screen, about your support for an innovative all-American company that no longer supports the American workforce?  Mind you, I’m just beating up on iPhone and iPad lovers to prove a point — all American consumers generally avoid these moral dilemmas and buy the cheapest items. But that the blind spot is pretty damning; for all of the political activism and chest-thumping the left does related to unfair wages, poor labor conditions and outsourcing of jobs and manufacturing, without a thought, we pull devices out of our pockets and purses every day that epitomize the problem. We salivate at the latest release of a laptop, phone or tablet, giving a pass to tech world that we don’t to, say, corporate farmers exploiting workers.

I’m not saying there’s any easy solution to this; clearly the global economy has changed corporate America and the American consumer  in ways that are unlikely to change without upsetting the economic apple cart (no pun intended) and uncover these blind spots about profits, labor and working conditions.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding