What does Apple owe it’s workers? I’ve read some silly proposals since the big New York Times story on the difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions in it’s factories. For instance, the idea that Apple should give some of it’s massive cash horde to workers in China. But Apple and its shareholders don’t owe these workers anything, and they certainly haven’t taken anything from them. In fact, in operating out of self-interest they have helped bid up the wages of the workers there. It is profit seeking by corporations, and not their charity or generosity, that has and continues to greatly improved the lives of the global poor.

Since Apple is already giving so much to the workers of China as a byproduct of self-interest, why of all the charitable causes they could spend their profits on should they decide to use them on workers in China who are relatively well off compared to the rest of China? People in China are clamoring for jobs in Foxconn, why should Apple provide charity to the relatively lucky ones who have jobs already? This is to say nothing of the extremely poor in many areas of the world. This also makes the questionable presumption that it is corporations rather than shareholders who should be engaging in charity.

The most positive thing you can say of the criticism of Apple is that there are probably some margins where more safety, health, and working conditions can be achieved at a relatively low-cost, and that by being profit motivated Apple is likely to press it’s supply chain to find these least-cost improvements. If anyone is going to find welfare improving changes to make, it will be them and not regulators or other government entities.

The most negative thing you can say is that this whole incident creates the false appearance that, once again, Apple and other multi-national corporations are doing something wrong when in fact they are having an extremely positive impact. Public opinion isn’t a nuanced thing, and the general perception here does not seem to be of a tremendously good process that is doing a lot for the global poor, but could perhaps be slightly improved on the margin, but more importantly should not be significantly impeded. Instead we’re seeing guilt, shame, and outrage directed broadly at Apple, globalization, and ourselves.

Another risk is that public outrage pushes Foxconn and other manufacturers to replace workers with robots faster than they would if they simply were minimizing costs. There is nothing wrong with mechanization per se, and it is in many cases inevitable. But mechanization is a good thing because it is cost minimizing and productivity enhancing, if done on the margin for PR it lacks it lacks that benefit.

Arguments like I’m making here spur a lot of righteous indignation, and complaints that I and others who refuse to scream that something must be done are uncaring and we simply place no value on the lives of the Chinese. I’m afraid these people don’t even understand what the disagreement is about. Or as Paul Krugman once put so aptly:

Such moral outrage is common among the opponents of globalization–of the transfer of technology and capital from high-wage to low-wage countries and the resulting growth of labor-intensive Third World exports. These critics take it as a given that anyone with a good word for this process is naive or corrupt and, in either case, a de facto agent of global capital in its oppression of workers here and abroad.

But matters are not that simple, and the moral lines are not that clear. In fact, let me make a counter-accusation: The lofty moral tone of the opponents of globalization is possible only because they have chosen not to think their position through. While fat-cat capitalists might benefit from globalization, the biggest beneficiaries are, yes, Third World workers.

Trust me: I really don’t care that much about paying a little more for my Apple products, just like I doubt Paul Krugman cares about paying a little more for his sneakers. I also value the welfare of the workers of China very highly. More highly, it would seem, than those who constantly call on politicians and corporations to “bring back our jobs from overseas”, and complain about outsourcing. Those who would paint this disagreement as being between those who care about poor foreigners and those who don’t are either lying of confused.

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