B12 Solipsism

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People Are Spouting Nonsense about Chinese Manufacturing

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Apple Store in Soho
Apple Store in Soho

But facts are so boring…

Wages paid to manufacturing workers in China are not determined by the productivity of those specific workers. They are not determined by US wages, by the profits that Apple makes nor even by the good intentions of the creative types that purchase Apple products. They are determined by the wages paid by other jobs in China and that is itself determined by the average level of productivity across the Chinese economy.

But now to the specific complaints that are being made. There are three that are being repeated around the intertubes as being particularly outrageous.

The first is the spate of suicides at the Foxconn plants. Suicides did indeed take place and each and every one an individual tragedy. Both for those who died and for those they left behind to mourn them. However, we are talking about some 18 suicides in 2010. What we actually want to know is whether that is a high or a low number. Suicide does happen in every society and country, so before we start blaming working conditions we’d like to know whether that rate is higher or lower than that in the surrounding society.

The general suicide rate in China is 22 per 100,000 people. That is a high rate by international standards but that is the one that we should be looking at to try and judge the suicide rate at Foxconn.

Foxconn employs some 1 million people in total so, if the Foxconn workforce were to have the same suicide rate as the general Chinese population (which, to be accurate, it won’t for suicide is not equally divided over age groups and the workforce is predominantly young) we would expect to see 220 suicides among such a number each year.

We actually have an outcry therefore about a suicide rate which is under one tenth of the general suicide rate in the country under discussion. If people were being rational about this instead of spouting nonsense then this would be something that was praised, not vilified.

(click here to continue reading The Apple Boycott: People Are Spouting Nonsense about Chinese Manufacturing – Forbes.)

About that first point, Paul Krugman writes:

First of all, even if we could assure the workers in Third World export industries of higher wages and better working conditions, this would do nothing for the peasants, day laborers, scavengers, and so on who make up the bulk of these countries’ populations. At best, forcing developing countries to adhere to our labor standards would create a privileged labor aristocracy, leaving the poor majority no better off.And it might not even do that. The advantages of established First World industries are still formidable. The only reason developing countries have been able to compete with those industries is their ability to offer employers cheap labor. Deny them that ability, and you might well deny them the prospect of continuing industrial growth, even reverse the growth that has been achieved. And since export-oriented growth, for all its injustice, has been a huge boon for the workers in those nations, anything that curtails that growth is very much against their interests. A policy of good jobs in principle, but no jobs in practice, might assuage our consciences, but it is no favor to its alleged beneficiaries.

and also wrote:

Wages are determined in a national labor market: The basic Ricardian model envisages a single factor, labor, which can move freely between industries. When one tries to talk about trade with laymen, however, one at least sometimes realizes that they do not think about things that way at all. They think about steelworkers, textile workers, and so on; there is no such thing as a national labor market. It does not occur to them that the wages earned in one industry are largely determined by the wages similar workers are earning in other industries. This has several consequences. First, unless it is carefully explained, the standard demonstration of the gains from trade in a Ricardian model — workers can earn more by moving into the industries in which you have a comparative advantage — simply fails to register with lay intellectuals. Their picture is of aircraft workers gaining and textile workers losing, and the idea that it is useful even for the sake of argument to imagine that workers can move from one industry to the other is foreign to them. Second, the link between productivity and wages is thoroughly misunderstood. Non-economists typically think that wages should reflect productivity at the level of the individual company. So if Xerox manages to increase its productivity 20 percent, it should raise the wages it pays by the same amount; if overall manufacturing productivity has risen 30 percent, the real wages of manufacturing workers should have risen 30 percent, even if service productivity has been stagnant; if this doesn’t happen, it is a sign that something has gone wrong. In other words, my criticism of Michael Lind would baffle many non-economists.

Associated with this problem is the misunderstanding of what international trade should do to wage rates. It is a fact that some Bangladeshi apparel factories manage to achieve labor productivity close to half those of comparable installations in the United States, although overall Bangladeshi manufacturing productivity is probably only about 5 percent of the US level. Non-economists find it extremely disturbing and puzzling that wages in those productive factories are only 10 percent of US standards.

Finally, and most importantly, it is not obvious to non-economists that wages are endogenous. Someone like Goldsmith looks at Vietnam and asks, “what would happen if people who work for such low wages manage to achieve Western productivity?” The economist’s answer is, “if they achieve Western productivity, they will be paid Western wages” — as has in fact happened in Japan. But to the non-economist this conclusion is neither natural nor plausible. (And he is likely to offer those Bangladeshi factories as a counterexample, missing the distinction between factory-level and national-level productivity).

Written by Seth Anderson

January 29th, 2012 at 4:55 pm

Posted in Apple,Business

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