iPods, China, WoW, Suicide, and Explosions

There’s a good chance you own a Foxconn product. They make stuff for Apple, HP, Dell, Nintendo, Microsoft, Intel Cisco, and other hi-tech giants. If you’ve never heard of them, don’t feel bad.

But listen up.

In 2010 there was a rash of suicides at Foxconn plants in China. Workers were jumping off factory and dormitory roofs. An article in Wired from 2010 describes leisurely hour-long lunches and concludes that “those unskilled laborers who get jobs at Foxconn are the luckiest”. But a 2006 study by the Daily Mail paints a very different picture of work conditions at Foxconn.

‘We have to work too hard and I am always tired. It’s like being in the army. They make us stand still for hours. If we move we are punished by being made to stand still for longer. [...] We have to work overtime if we are told to and can only go back to the dormitories when our boss gives us permission,’ says Zang Lan. ‘If they ask for overtime we must do it. After working 15 hours until 11.30pm, we feel so tired.’

The Hong Kong advocacy group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) has been following the situation at Foxconn factories for a while. When the suicides got big press attention, Apple said it would demand changes and make sure that Foxconn changed, as they promised to do. But according to SACOM, Apple and Foxconn have failed to keep their promises.

Apparently the only thing Foxconn did was put up nets, so that workers physically could not jump off the buildings.

And then there was the explosion at a Foxconn factory in Chengdu last week. When I first saw the headlines about this incident, I was amazed by how worried everyone was that iPad production might be slowed. “What will it mean for Apple stock?” one news report asked. “Will there be enough iPads for Christmas?” asked another.

It wasn’t until I dug to the bottom of the second article that I learned that three workers had died. How twisted is that? The news doesn’t even want to talk about the dead workers until after we soothe the fears of stock traders and consumption trend-watchers.

Then I found the Make IT Fair campaign, of which SACOM is a member organization, and it said that the explosion was the result of gross negligence on the part of Foxconn.

In March and April, SACOM conducted investigations at Foxconn’s plants in Chengdu. The work safety in both northern and southern campuses is alarming.

During my research, I learned about a 2008 law in China that made some tiny little changes to make workers’ lives better in that country. Guess who lobbied against it? Wal-Mart and other corporations, including Google, UPS, Microsoft, Nike, AT&T, and Intel, through the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.

China’s proposed legislation will not eliminate its labor problems. The law will not provide Chinese workers with the right to independent trade unions with leaders of their own choosing and the right to strike. But foreign corporations are attacking the legislation not because it provides workers too little protection but because it provides them too much.

But wait, there’s more! Today I came across this fun article, about prisoners in China. It features an interview with Liu Dali, who served over two years in a Chinese work camp for “‘illegally petitioning’ federal authorities about corruption in his local government”. So after spending a full day digging trenches and carving chopsticks, how did the guards help him relax?

They made him farm gold.

The scheme, a practice referred to among gamers as “gold farming,” required some 300 prisoners at the Jixi labor camp to gather currency (usually by repeating monotonous tasks) in multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft, which the guards then hawked online for cash.

I’ve always viewed the concept of gold-farming as repugnant, but I read a defense of it somewhere recently. (“I have a busy work life. I want the best sword but I don’t have time to quest for it. It’s better than lots of other jobs in China!”) Just remember this, if you decide to buy that +3 Plate Mail on WoW: It may be lacquered with the blood of a Chinese political prisoner.

TimeWaster™

Annie Leonard is my favorite internet person right now. Her Story of Stuff series is excellent and entertaining. Apropos of the above, here’s The Story of Electronics.

Today I’m listening to: Brother Ali!

Counter-Friction: The Machine and Debt

In my classroom I make available a form that says “I Want an Answer!”. If a student has a question which does not directly relate to the class, or if I don’t have time to answer, I will ask them to fill out one of these forms and I can answer when I have some time.

The results vary. Usually the questions are mundane (“Why do we have to do [name of assignment]?”), and many times they’re just fooling around. (“Why does it hurt when I pee?”) But sometimes I get some very interesting questions. I once had a student who regularly (2-3 times a week) presented me with philosophical questions like “If I rid myself of all desire, could I totally avoid suffering?”. I’d write back at length, and he seemed genuinely interested in my answers. It was great. (Thoreau said: “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”)

So anyway. Recently two students asked my opinions on “the machine” and government debt. I wrote long responses (the only kind I know how to write, it seems) and I figured I’d post them here.

Question: Why do people call the government “the machine”? Also I do not understand why some people are so against “the machine” even when it has let them live a comfortable life. I have mostly heard this from the younger generation like mine. I feel like most of their animosity toward the “machine” is caused by their dislike of the laws that are in place.

My response: The first instance I know of in which someone mentions “the machine” in a manner similar to your question is Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience“. I encourage you to read it, because it is an excellent piece of writing from one of our nation’s most important thinkers.

Thoreau wrote:

If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth — certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.

I think your concern (“‘the machine’ … has let [many people] live a comfortable life”) matches Thoreau’s idea here that many times the injustices of our system take care of themselves. You’re quite right that our system of government has provided most of us with very comfortable lives, and material abundance.

However, there are also huge problems with our system of government, and — as you point out — these mostly relate to the laws that are (or are not) in place. For example, most of the people who are in charge of regulating dangerous industries like natural gas extraction have worked for large resource-extracting corporations. Once they become regulators, they refuse to enact meaningful regulation (probably because they have the best interests of their former employers in mind, not the people they are supposed to protect). The movie Gasland explores this phenomenon in some depth.

There are many other such examples, from war profiteering to education reform. The fact that so many issues face similar problems means that sometimes the entire system seems corrupt. Many young people, especially, feel overwhelmed by the size and complexity of these problems, and become frustrated by their efforts to understand individual issues in isolation. As a result, they may lash out at a mythical “machine”, since it’s much easier to blame one large monster than trying to examine dozens of smaller monsters. (Thus when I was a teenager, one of my favorite songs from the thrash metal band Corrosion of Conformity said: “If the system had one neck / you know I’d gladly break it”.)

Of course, I believe there are problems with the entire system of government itself. For one thing, we recognize corporations as people, with all the rights (but few of the responsibilities) that real people have. We also have a system of runaway spending on campaigns, and it’s very difficult for candidates outside of the established Republican-Democrat orthodoxy to get access to debates, the media, etc.

However, the more I work on issues of social justice (East Timor, for example), the more I realize that there are many people within the system — and many elements of our governmental system itself — that are positive and excellent and superb. Again, it’s a matter of recognizing all the shades of grey in the jungle of black and white that surrounds us. It’s much easier to think of the entire “machine” as being corrupt, and even easier to just give up on the idea of participating in democratic processes. But Harriet Tubman never gave up. Frederick Douglass never gave up. Neither did Harvey Milk or Emma Goldman.

So neither can we.

Question: How do you think we, as a nation and state, should deal with the growing state and national debt?

My Response: The question of debt is a sticky and complicated one. The first thing we should do is look at where it came from. To this end, I recommend a very well-made documentary film called IOUSA. It explains the historical necessity of debt in the US (usually because of war), and the explosive rise of recent peacetime debt.

On both the state and national levels, our debt is the result of taking in less money than we spend. (Obviously.) While there are clearly some things that we should spend less money on (bloated, inefficient weapons systems in the US military come immediately to mind), the biggest cause of our debt, in my opinion, is the huge drop in tax rates over the past thirty years. Beginning with the Reagan administration, US tax rates for wealthy individuals and corporations have been cut over and over. What hasn’t been cut has been filled with loopholes that allow the wealthiest Americans to evade their economics responsibilities to the nation.

As the New York Times recently reported, GE paid no taxes at all in 2010, despite making $14.2 billion in profits. Theirs is not an isolated example; as the journalists Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele have documented in numerous books (including America: What Went Wrong? and America: Who Really Pays the Taxes?), this is part of a much larger trend that has obliterated our tax base over the course of several decades.

Unfortunately, this slow and steady process has allowed some politicians to pretend like there is no wealth at all to be had, either on the state or federal level. Thus I am very skeptical indeed when people like our illustrious governor claim that our state is “broke”. The state government coffers might be empty, but that’s because we’ve provided wave after wave of tax breaks to wealthy people in the name of “stimulating job growth”. The problem with this formulation is that businesses don’t grow just because their owners have some extra capital. Of course that’s necessary, but businesses only grow when there is demand for their products or services. And if the entire economy is in a tailspin (as it has been recently), then businesses are foolish to grow, because no one has the money to buy their products or services. Right? There’s plenty more I could say on this matter, but I feel like I’m getting off topic.

How do we deal with the incredible debt we’re currently accumulating in the US? Well, obviously I feel that we should raise taxes on wealthy Americans. I myself am happy to pay taxes, so long as I know they will go to improving roads, and keeping libraries open, funding fire departments, and making class sizes smaller. Rich people should do the same.

At the same time, there’s no question that we’re also spending a lot of money (and will spend even more in the future) on Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. As you probably know, the generation known as the Baby Boomers are beginning to retire, and there are fewer and fewer people now working (and therefore paying into the Social Security system) than twenty years ago. However, the Social Security Administration (SSA) realized long ago that this would happen, and planned for it in the form of the Social Security Trust Fund. Baby Boomers (and others) have been paying into this fund for decades, and now that the Baby Boomers are starting to retire, we’re drawing out of it.

Will it be enough? Maybe. At the end of 2010 the fund had $2.6 trillion, so there’s more than a little wiggle room there. The SSA says that the fund will run out in 2042. In the meantime, medical care (in the form of Medicare — which is available to all elderly Americans — and Medicaid — which is available to poor Americans) is also becoming more and more expensive.

Part of this is because we’re living longer. Part of it is the increased cost of drugs. Part of it is insurance costs and malpractice lawsuits, and lots of other causes as well. As a result, there are many different suggestions for how we deal with these costs.

The US pays more for heath care than any other nation in the industrialized world, but we’re way down on the list of major health indicators (infant mortality, quality of life, etc). This is probably because we don’t have the single-payer universal health care system that every other industrialized nation has. So I’m in favor of a true universal health system, like the universal education system and the universal highway system that we all enjoy.

What I am not in favor of is the proposal that many people keep advocating whereby we push back the retirement age. If you’ll indulge me, I need to rant about this a little.

Some people point out (rightly) that when Social Security was first created, in the 1930s, life expectancy in the US was around 65. Today life expectancy in the US is 78.7 years. This is impressive, no doubt. However, it’s not as though we’re shifting all stages of the human life cycle along some spectrum. Puberty doesn’t happen later in life, right? It’s not like menopause or male-pattern baldness arrive later than they used to. We still begin suffering from arthritis and alzheimer’s and calcium imbalances at the same stage of life; it’s just that we’ve found ways to lengthen this final old-age stage.

The thinking used to be: “Okay, Grandpa, you worked for forty-five years, from the age of 20 to the age of 65, and now your body is starting to break down, so you deserve some time to rest.” Well, what has changed? People still put in 45 years of work, and our bodies still start to break down at the age of 65. We’ve just found ways to ameliorate this breakdown process, and let people live. But it’s not like people in their late 60s have lots of energy or less fatigue.

There are many other ways we can reduce the debt, but I think I’ve rambled on enough for now. The producers of that movie I mentioned, IOUSA, also made a follow-up film, called IOUSA: Solutions, which examines some of these possibilities. I don’t like it as much as the original movie (it features some “experts” from The Heritage Foundation, an organization that I don’t trust), but it’s worth a look if you’re interested in this issue.

TimeWaster™

Try playing with this for just five minutes and then stop. I dare you.

Today I’m listening to: Muslamic Ray Guns!

Context:

David Foster Wallace: 2005 Commencement

Yesterday was a really horrible day for me. Insomnia, explosions in Chinese factories where iPads are made (and all the news was about how inconvenienced Apple fanboys will be), recalcitrant students, etc etc. I was all set to write a long multilayered piece about these things and Fight Club and the Tao Te Ching and whatnot, but instead I was exhausted so instead I played Portal 2 for the third time.

I may still write that piece, but this morning I found something very soothing for my soul. It’s almost as though this thing were placed in front of me because the universe knew it was precisely what I needed: the commencement speech delivered by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005.

Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

Please read the whole thing.

The United Kingdom Explained

Ever since I first joined the o35s (now G4TE) and then co-founded the VeteranGamers, I’ve tried to make sense of all the different names for the regions and countries over there in the UK.

Well, yesterday an England-born student at school gave a very interesting presentation about his home country. It included this amusing but very informative video breaking it all down. Enjoy!

Making Sense of Common

Right now a bunch of people, mostly on the right, are whining about Michelle Obama inviting the rapper Common to the White House. For those who don’t know, Common is usually described as a “conscious rapper”, someone who works to make sure his lyrics have some meaning to them (as opposed to the more usual guns, drugs, thugs, money content of Snoop, Eminem, and Lil Wayne).

I like Common, a lot. His 2005 album Be is a superb blend of funk, word, and sound. The title track alone is worth the cost of purchase. (“Bush pushing lies, killers immortalized / We got arms but won’t reach for the skies / Waiting for the Lord to rise
I look into my daughter’s eyes / And realize that I’m gonna learn through her / The Messiah might even return through her / If I’m gonna do it, I gotta change the world through her”)

As usual, the commentary (especially from our friends at FoxNews) is coarse, unsophisticated, hypocritical, and misleading. But I feel that there’s some simpleminded commentary from other places too, so I want to go deeper than the Sith-like “you’re with Common or you’re with FoxNews” dichotomy. I can’t promise to be quick, because there are some complicated issues at play. First we need to talk about Assata.

Background: Assata Shakur

The Wikipedia article on Assata Shakur is a Featured Article, which (as I’ve said elsewhere) indicates a relatively high level of reliability and the careful attention of at least one dedicated editor. Ms. Shakur was a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. (TPCQ: “You know, Homey, you are a member of a very exclusive club.” “The Black Panthers?”) For the record: Yes, she is related to Tupac; Assata is his step-father’s sister.

Given the FBI’s concerted efforts to destroy the Panthers (including the assassination of Fred Hampton), it’s not a stretch to say that the BLA probably wouldn’t have come about without the radicalization caused by repression from the US government. And given the frequency and severity of police brutality in the black community during the 20th century, it’s also fair to say that the BLA saw itself as taking up arms in a war which had mostly been a one-way affair.

That said, I am repulsed by the bank robberies which the BLA apparently conducted. There are many allegations of murder as well (mostly of police officers), with murky details and few convictions. (As a passionate believer in nonviolence, I obviously also condemn the use of violence as a political tactic.)

One of the BLA members who was convicted of murder was Assata Shakur, after a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike which left State Trooper Werner Foerster and BLA member Zayd Shakur (no relation) dead (and Assata badly wounded). The trial was a complicated affair (as you can imagine), with many conflicting accounts coming from many different witnesses. (I encourage you to read the entire summary.) One of the details most frequently cited by supporters of Shakur is the testimony from a neurologist and a pathologist, indicating that the nature of Assata’s wounds (and the sequence of events which both sides agree upon) made it impossible for her to have fired the shots that killed Foerster.

After she was convicted, Assata was sent to a series of prisons in New Jersey, where she gave birth to her daughter Kakuya. In November 1979 a group of BLA members held two prison guards hostage and helped Assata escape. By 1984 she had reached Cuba, where she was granted political asylum and wrote her autobiography.

Common’s Track

On his groundbreaking 2000 album Like Water for Chocolate, Common released a track called “A Song for Assata”:

The lyrics tell the story of the shootout’s aftermath, just as Assata is entering the hospital. They show a deep concern for her suffering at the hands of brutal police officers, and the demoralizing effects of prison. He highlights the medical testimony (“Assata had been convicted of a murder she couldna done / Medical evidence shown she couldna shot the gun”) and points out (rightly) that the goals of Assata Shakur and others in the Black Panthers and the BLA were sculpted from deep dreams of freedom for black people in the United States.

The song ends with a quote from Assata about the nature of freedom: “Freedom! you askin me about freedom. I’ll be honest with you. I know a whole more about what freedom isn’t than about what it is, ’cause I’ve never been free. I can only share my vision with you of the future, about what freedom is.”

I’ll say here that I don’t think I can join the nearly uncritical adoration that many rappers offer to Assata Shakur (not just Common, but also dead prez and Paris — though the latter track is about African-American women in general). I’m deeply troubled by the broad brush with which the BLA painted American society and police officers in particular.

Of course, maybe that’s easy for me to say, since I’m a well-to-do white guy living a comfortable life of privilege and security. I see the police as a protective force, and I’ve never been harassed or brutalized by an officer of the law. I will say without hesitation that — while I disagree with her tactics — I have a lot of respect for the sacrifices and dedication which Ms. Shakur has shown in the struggle for freedom and justice. I haven’t read her autobiography yet, but I know she has a lot to teach us about strength, conviction, and hard work.

The Backlash and Responses

Okay, enough with the balancing act; let’s talk FoxNews. As soon as the Obamas invited Common to the White House, narrow-minded and misleading rhetoric began spewing (as it often does) from Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin, and others. Karl Rove called Common a “thug”. Bill O’Reilly said: “Murdered police officers is not something you rap about lightly. Common has no idea what happened, yet he has taken an irresponsible position.” (Notice how Bill insinuates that the rapper lacks facts, while Mr. O’Reilly knows everything about the turnpike shootout — despite the fact that you just learned more facts about that incident from the freaking blog of an overworked English teacher than you ever would by watching his show!)

In addition to “Song for Assata”, some have mentioned a poem Common did on Def Poetry Jam, “A Letter to the Law” (transcribed here).

Again, this is not the usual DMX / Onyx gun-waving celebration set. (Common rarely raps about anything “lightly”.) This is a careful exploration of violence as a consequence of political repression, and more than anything, this is what drives me crazy: conservatives have always hated hip-hop, but FoxNews is guilty of confusing intelligent, nuanced lyrics with truly bloodthirsty tracks (which — let’s be honest — are out there).

Thank Jebus for Jon Stewart and the Daily Show writers, who took Hannity out behind the studio and spanked him hard.

Part One:

Part Two:

Tim Wise and some other folks also discussed the issue on CNN:

Davey D also posted an interesting and important piece:

We should’ve responded by telling these folks to come hollar at us when their police brethren are willing to hold accountable the police ‘thugs’ who are rarely punished for their egregious transgressions. We should be up in arms insisting that those officers who went bursting in the home of 7 year old Aiyana Stanely Jones and killed her as they showed off for a reality TV show, be brought to justice.

Palintology

But — once again — the prize for Most Absurd Commentary must go to Sarah Palin. I’ve been pretty good about ignoring her lately (especially with Bachmann and Paul in the mix), but this is simply too insane. Watch all of this interview if you can, but definitely skip to 3:40:

If you don’t have time (or don’t believe your ears), she said: “I’m not anti-rap. In fact, like Bret Baier, I know the words to ‘Rapper’s Delight’ too.” (This is apparently a reference to a hideous moment at a Bob Hope benefit during which FoxNews anchor Bret Baier mutilated the lyrics to the Sugar Hill Gang song. It should be a surprise to no one that he leaped immediately to the part about “Guess what, America? We love you”, which appears four minutes into the actual song.)

What makes me angry about Palin here is that she’s trying to claim some sort of legitimacy as a fan of hip-hop. She’s probably never listened to anything by Common ever in her life. It’s really telling that she and her buddy Bret have to go all the way back to 1979 to find a rap song they can even pretend to like. (Although I’m sure she’d enjoy “The Jesus Lean” or “Baby Got Book”.)

And this is the point: The question of Assata Shakur’s involvement with the BLA is too complex for sound byte politics. The history of police brutality and the black community’s various responses to it should not be stereotyped or pigeonholed for the sake of simplistic partisan rhetoric. And while it’s valid to question the way Common presents Assata’s story, it is a disgrace of artistic integrity to suggest that his prolific body of work can be condemned on the basis on one or two lines.

TimeWaster™

Here’s my favorite track ever from Common, “The Light”. We played it at our wedding.

Today I’m listening to: Common!

Good grief, that took almost two hours!

UPDATE: For some reason, O’Reilly invited Jon Stewart onto his show. Jon displayed masterful patience, let Bill run his mouth for three minutes, and then struck with the tenacity of a rattlesnake. You can hear Bill’s people laughing at one point.

Yet another example of why Jon Stewart is so much more than a mere comedian.

Part two here.