Last week’s hairshirt NYT piece got a lot of attention — it was AR’s lead link on Sunday and pointed at by Josh, Reformed Broker, — bemoaning “America’s inability” to manufacture or assemble iPhones and other electronic gizmos. However, it entirely missed the point, thinks Baruch. It is always en vogue to bemoan one’s own nation’s manufacturing competitiveness, in the case of Southern Europe, possibly fairly. But most of the time it ignores the great dynamic of economic development, that as economies increase in wealth, intellectual property and sophistication, pure manufacturing becomes less and less attractive an activity. America has the most sophisticated economy on the planet; the idea that it is bad that people who participate in it no longer fit bits of plastic together is a wrong one.
The other point that the article makes rings truer, that making iPhones isn’t much fun:
. . . 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.
Assembling iPhones is a repetitive and gruelling manual job. It is hard on the eyes, on the stamina and probably on the spirit. The majority of the workers at the Foxconn (also known as Hon Hai) plant are young, resilient recent immigrants to the city, for whom the alternative to doing this is working on the family smallholding or some other menial job in the Chinese boondocks. They don’t need engineering degrees, though do need skills and motivations I and probably a lot of Americans don’t have, e.g. being able to put small parts together in exactly the same way, again and again for hours and hours all the while standing up, Don Rumsfeld like. Being in a position where you can be woken up at 12.30 am to do a 12 hour shift fortified only with a biscuit and a cup of tea is not something I would wish on my fellow countrymen — at least not all of them.
I don’t think the NYT seriously wants their fellow Americans to work like this either (and by the way, since when was a foreman’s job on an assembly line “middle class”?). It’s the sort of thing workers in developed countries stopped doing since the 1970s and 1980s, and trades unions have been fighting against for decades before. We shouldn’t go back.
Don’t get me wrong — I don’t disparage the necessity of mind-numbing manual work, I certainly don’t look down on those who do it, nor hate the bosses who oversee them. It is a fact of life. However, it has to be for something worthwhile, however, and in large part I think it is in the case of Foxconn and Apple. For the Turkish and Greek Gastarbeiter in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s factory manual labour was a stepping stone to better things, and similarly, one hopes the Chinese building iPhones will be able to save some money to take back home or stay in the city to start a business, get married and educate some (well, typically only one) kids, or, at worst, buy an xBox. You have to look at the alternatives open to the people doing the work; for a Chinese late teen or 20-something the more realistic alternative to the Foxconn plant is a life of rural toil, tedium and poverty. For the average US teen it would be college (and some debt) and/or relatively bearable job in a service industry, possibly cutting hair. The American shouldn’t have to compete with his Chinese counterpart — the menu of his or her life choices is so much richer.
The other idea implicit in the article I have a problem with is that iPhones and the physical location of the plants that supply them have disproportionally favoured the Chinese economy over the US. Well, when it comes to assembly, the amount that stays in China is an infinitesimal fraction of the total added value of an iPhone. Foxconn earns something like a 5% gross margin and a 2-3% EBIT margin on its assembly business and for business from Apple it might even be less. Indeed, some analysts think Foxconn only earns a positive margin because it can throw in a few components of its own into the deal. Its notable that no-one else has ever been able to take any of Apple’s assembly business from Foxconn. Many have tried and lost money, such are the competitive razor thin margin this business operates at.
Compare that to the 30% to 50% gross margins (and 20-30% EBIT) a semiconductor supplier earns selling a chip into the iPhone — almost all the semi content in the iPhone is from US companies, and by no means not all the chips are fabbed in China, although I agree with the article that many are. I’m not even talking about the great margins that a software company selling code into the iPhone foodchain makes, nor the insanely great margins Apple operates at, just the hardware foodchain. Which part of that foodchain does the NYT really want American companies to be at?
My final comment is that the article ignores the flipside of the equation, the dual nature of employees like Eric Saragoza, the mid-level Apple engineer who got laid off in 2002. Scant comfort for him of course, but he is also a consumer. The huge benefit of the constant price down in technology is that consumers get to be able to buy amazing, life changing products at increasingly affordable prices, while incentivising the companies who make them with great margins. iPhones and iPads have changed my life moderately, but have transformed the lives of millions of people in a more profound way. This is what technology does, and I don’t know another way of ensuring that it happens. Very often the ability to make something new and useful for significantly less is just as impactful as the ability to make that new and useful thing in the first place — it opens the door to new business models, to new uses, to things the inventors may not have dreamed of. Look at Tim Berners-Lee and the internet*. Benefits like these are immeasurable and general to all, and you only notice what happened later on, while Eric Saragoza’s job loss was immediate, specific, and personal. It makes a good, heart rending story. “Everything is slowly getting better for most everyone” should make a good story too, but in practice will be less affecting, and get fewer links.
Baruch is not an American and the decline of the middle class there is not his uppermost concern; in fact he cares as much about the Chinese factory workers toiling away at Foxconn. He thinks the dynamics of what the NYT is writing about is actually fantastic for almost everyone, and actually strengthens the global middle class by adding more people to it, in China. This is wholly a Good Thing, for all the problems we actually should be concerned about, like war, poverty, the environment, healthcare, education and the personal outcomes of ourselves and our fellow humans, all these things are mitigated by expanding the middle class, because only people with some disposable wealth of time and income are able to think about them.
* You think he ever thought he would end up using his invention for finding Angry Birds cheats like the rest of us? Of course not.