Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Shine Has Gone Off Apple

Bottom line (noun) 1. the last line of a financial statement, used for showing net profit or loss; the deciding or crucial factor; the 
ultimate result     --Random House Dictionary

Two hundred and thirty thousand employees: that’s how many folks work at one of the world’s largest manufacturing facilities, in Shenzhen, China. They make that most ubiquitous and loved of consumer products: the Apple iPhone. They work at an astonishing rate, churning out some 10,000 phones per day, in a plant that runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, without stopping. In fact, though Apple Computer still employs 43,000 people in the United States, the vast number of their employees now work overseas in places like China.  More than 700,000 Apple employees and contractors produce millions of computers, iPhones, iPads, and iTouches every year.  In a recent New York Times article about the steep loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States, especially during the current recession, one reported high level conversation shocked me.  It made me think about just what the “bottom line” is for “All American” companies like Apple Computer. 

The chat took place between President Obama and the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs at a White House dinner.   Obama: “What would it take to make iPhones in the United States? Why can’t that work come home?"  Jobs: “Those jobs aren’t coming back.”   The article goes on to explain the main reason Apple makes most of their products off shore: low labor costs and high corporate profits. That’s the bottom line. 

So the iPhone millions of us hold in our hands was made by a 12 hour shift worker who earns $17 a day and lives in a company provided dormitory. According to the article, if Apple chose to make iPhones here in America, the price for the phone would go up by about $65, apparently not an option for a company which boasted per American employee profits of some $400,000 last year, making it a more profitable company than Google, Goldman Sachs or Exxon Mobil.  As one unnamed current Apple Executive was quoted as saying, “We sell iPhones in over a hundred countries. We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.” 
Now the consumer part of me gets this equation and adherence to the bottom line.  I want what I want, the best, and I also want to pay as little for it as possible, right?  If that means it is made in China, under the protective umbrella of an oppressive autocratic regime, by employees who work in conditions I’d never stomach, who get paid less in a day than I spend on coffee in a week, that’s alright—isn’t it? I want the American based companies I hold stock in, like Apple, which someday will fund my pension, to maximize their return on investment and pump up the stock price. If the best way to do that is to export jobs and close factories in the United States, I should be ok with that, yes?   Globalization is the economic rule which rules now, correct? 

But the American part of me, the human part of me, whose heart breaks for the unemployed and laid off factory folks, who laments the extinction of well paying blue collar manufacturing jobs in the United States? I am deeply troubled by the actions of Apple and a burgeoning list of so-called “American” companies that seem to be American in name only.  Apple may have its headquarters in the good old US of A. and sell itself as American as apple pie (excuse the cliché and pun) but the truth is otherwise. 

Apple’s bottom line is record profits, soaring stock prices and a new CEO, Tim Cook, whose pay for 2011 was $378 million in salary and stock grants.  All which trumps any notion that Apple may also have a responsibility, even a duty, as a U.S. company to make stuff here too.  To employ more Americans and not just the cheapest worker.  To even charge just a little more for their oh so worshipped products by making them domestically and in doing so sacrifice just a bit of their bottom line. 

Apple’s bottom line ignores the truth that Apple is Apple because it was born in a country whose people and educational resources and entrepreneurial spirit and freedoms directly led to its birth.  Not a lot of Apple Computers or General Motors or Intel type companies born in China. America still has an amazingly free and wide open enterprise system which, more than almost any other place on the earth, provides the environment to start a company from scratch and then make something that the world needs and will buy.    

Apple is not alone in this corporate hypocrisy.  General Electric, whose DNA goes back to America’s most famous inventor Thomas Edison, paid not one dime in corporate taxes in 2010, not a penny.  Nothing in 2009 either.  But in 2010 it made $14.2 billion in profits. Is that really fair? Is that really American?  Ironically GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt serves as the chairperson of President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.  Now I’m a GE stockholder but really: zero in taxes?  As the federal debt spirals and the economy sputters, the iconic American industrial giant GE which “brings good things to life” apparently doesn’t include tax responsibility in that tag line.  Must not fit into the bottom line.

So in 2012 which bottom line finally matters the most in America? Profits or people?  Productivity or just a little company compassion? Record corporate revenues or responsible corporate citizenship?   

Yes, the iPhone is amazing.  But for me, the shine has gone off that Apple.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Why The Super Bowl is Really Super

Super (adjective) 1. very good, first rate or excellent             --Random House Dictionary

New England Patriots 23--Baltimore Ravens 20.

Did you hear the one sound, just one, throughout New England last Sunday night at about 6:10 pm?  It is rare that millions of folks experience the same moment all at once, or share an event as singular, or mutually participate in a collective drama, but that is exactly what happened, on a chilly January night, on the twenty-second day of the first month of the year 2012 in these parts. If you listened and could have somehow eavesdropped on folks you’d have heard a united and joyful cheer, rolling forth and outward across six states. 

From living rooms packed with families and sports bars packed with strangers, from folks driving in their cars and listening oh so intently to the radio, to people gathered around TVs in the basement or on the back porch or at work.  Together. All when the New England Patriots defeated the Baltimore Ravens in the American Football Conference championship game on a nail-biting, heart attack inducing, last second missed field goal kick, guaranteeing a trip to the Super Bowl in ten days and not just for one team but for a whole region and millions of fans too.

I don’t mean to sound overblown and hyperbolic about just what this one game and one victory really means.  Though a lifelong sports fan, especially of hometown teams the Patriots and Red Sox and Bruins and Celtics, I’m old enough and wise enough to remember that after all, it was just a game and is just a game. Though like millions of others I played sports as a kid and still today compete in various games of competition, I’m realistic enough to know that professional sports are finally just that, sports. An hours’ long diversion from the real life dramas we all play out and face.  A larger story we all get to participate in, where the actors are well known and the narrative is exciting but a story where there is finally little at stake, at least in the real world. Professional sports are entertainment, like a good escapist movie or a song that makes us want to dance.  When the game ends all of the emotions poured forth between the lines of play disappear, along with all the hyped hype and all the words typed and all the pseudo glory psyched.  Pro sports are culture wide escape, a pause, a time out from real life. It won’t provide a cure for cancer or end a war or fix the economy.  

But last Sunday’s Pats’ victory and now the run up to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis on February 5th: it is all going to mean a lot of fun for millions of us in the Boston area and beyond.  In times when it feels as if there is always so much which divides us as humans—race, class, politics, religion—pro sports provide a temporary respite from our fractured world, a chance to share in something together, bigger than ourselves, a rare opportunity to cheer as one. 

In a season when at least for the next two months we New Englanders still have to face into more snowstorms and more ice cold temperatures and more gray days before spring arrives, the road to the Super Bowl and that big game is a graceful gift, unexpected and a surprise.  For the next week and a half everyone (or almost everyone) will become a big sports fan. We’ll bask in a region wide celebration and grandmothers will sport brand new Patriots baseball hats and cheer at the top of their lungs and toddlers will get all dressed up in red, white and blue and folks will plan for Super Bowl parties and invite neighbors and friends and guess what? It will all be good. 

It won’t sort out the 2012 Presidential election.  Won’t contribute a dime towards paying down the national debt.  Won’t resurrect a stumbling economy or make any more certain these uncertain times we find ourselves calling home in 2012.  Yet our Super Bowl bound New England Patriots will give us a chance to cheer and to laugh and to hope and to play together in the coming days.  We’ll get to root as one when the players take the field and play just a game.  Play just for fun. Play for nothing more than the joy of competition. 

And that is absolutely super.  GO PATS!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Making Room at The Inn for All God's Children

  “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”      --Luke 2:7

 No room at the inn. 

Sorry: we’re all filled up. No vacancies tonight. Go home? Well…I’ve got no home to go home to.  Just my car in the parking lot. Just an old box stretched out over a heating grate by the subway entrance.  Just a cramped motel room I’ve been living in with my kids for the past eight months. Just a hard bed in a scary shelter along with seventy five other strangers. No room.

There’s something about a chilly winter’s January eve in New England that always convicts me, makes me sad at the truth that tonight, thousands of folks, my neighbors in fact, won’t find a room at the inn or any where.  They don’t have a house or apartment key jangling at the end of a keychain, so comforting in its dependability. They work hard but it’s at a minimum wage job with no benefits and that check at the end of the week just can’t pay the rent, not even close. They suffer from drug addictions or alcoholism or mental illness and aren’t healthy enough to care for themselves and so they call the street home.  They are veterans so scarred by war that they keep on fighting the battle of life, except now the struggle is against inner demons and the winter cold. 

The numbers are certainly enough to cause a chill to run up my spine, even as tonight I’ll be all warm and snug and safe in my bed and home.

*3,600: families with children in Massachusetts’ Emergency Assistance (EA) shelter program.

*1,498: Bay State families with children being sheltered in motels.

*7,000: Massachusetts families assisted with emergency shelter during the past twelve months

*8: average age of a person experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts

*3,000: average number of shelter beds occupied on a given night in Massachusetts

*43,600,000: Americans living in poverty

*$22,128 per year: poverty level for a family of four in the United States

*2010: highest number of people living in poverty in the United States since 1959 when the federal government began the measurement.

*Average rent for a two bedroom apartment in the city of Boston: $2,100 a month

Now I could respond to those numbers in so many ways.  Blame “those folks” for not pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.  We live in an opportunity economy, right?  I could be so put off and shocked by the numbers that I’m numbed and do nothing.  What can I do as just one person?  Or maybe, just maybe, I could decide to do something to help them, inspired by a faith of compassion or made tender hearted by another’s suffering or just remembering that I am my brother’s keeper, my sister’s too.

For lots of folks there is no room at the inn but it doesn’t have to stay that way.  So next Saturday and Sunday, January 21st and 22nd, youth and adults from the church I serve at 25 South Main Street in Sherborn will “sleep out” in a makeshift wooden shelter on the front lawn of our faith community.  For twenty-four hours we’ll hold a vigil to remind us, and hopefully our wider community, that the homeless and the hungry are with us and are so much more than nameless statistics or cold numbers.  And that as a citizens and folks of faith we can do and must do something.  We’ll also be collecting non-perishable food for a Place to Turn, the largest food pantry in metro west. 

Now spending a couple hours in the cold will never ever compare to the conditions that the homeless and hungry endure.  But our hope is inspired by a wise teacher who 2,000 years ago came into a world which had no room for him or his young parents. 

So please…stop by and say hello or honk your horn when you drive by or drop off some food donations or just say a prayer.  Tonight there is no room at the inn.  But maybe one night soon, all God’s children will have a warm and safe place to call home.


Monday, January 9, 2012

The Difference Between "American Idol" and Politics: None

"A new poll showed that if the election was held today, people would be confused because it is normally held in November."     --Kevin Nealon

It’s official. There’s a new reality TV show champ on the American boob tube, a 24/7 circus like spectacle which portrays the trivial as profound and the minor as major. Right before our eyes it transforms six folks into overblown pop culture cartoon figures.  No, it’s not the Kardashian clan, nor the warblers on “American Idol”, the hoofers on “So You Think You Can Dance”, or even the poor souls on “Wife Swap” or “Hoarders”.  At least those offerings are only on once or twice a week and play on a minor cable channel like 954.  This “show” is instead shown wall to wall and every day, on all three major networks and on all the news channels too, is given blanket coverage on the net and is finally impossible to escape. 

It’s the race for the Presidency of the United States among the Republican candidates: Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and Jon Huntsman. Let’s not forget those already voted off the island: Herman Cain (for not being able to keep his hands to himself), Michelle Bachman (who got one vote for each of the 99 Iowa counties she visited) and Tim Pawlenty (the first to declare last March and the first to drop out and it’s ok if you don’t know who he is).

To be clear: if a GOP person was in the White House and a bunch of Democratic folks were wrestling for the Presidency, I’d already be fed up with that race too.  Not because whomever is going to be sworn in as President in January 2013 isn’t important.  In light of all the major challenges our country faces, who the next President will be or if a second term for our current President is in the offing: this is a very important question. The man or woman who takes the oath in January 2013 will face one of the most daunting tasks in the history of our nation. They should be given fair and appropriate levels of coverage by the media so we in the electorate can make a wise decision.  But really…that’s not what is happening now. Not by a long shot.

Instead this race feels more like a media saturated death march, a slow, slogging, often silly game show, a horse race even, all gleefully handicapped by voracious talking heads who crown themselves the arbiters of truth.  Consider that the race began earlier than ever before, earlier than any other Presidential election in our history, ten months before even one caucus vote was cast, 600 days before the election next November. 

That the candidates have now slugged it out in twenty debates since last spring, the most ever, and last weekend they debated twice in less than twelve hours. That right there, to catch every gaffe and glitch, every pre-rehearsed “spontaneous” laugh line, every well coiffed haircut and every right in focus carefully placed American flag lapel pin is…the camera. That post debate, the media room where the candidates’ handlers gather to talk to reporters is unashamedly called “the spin room”.

I know I should be more grateful that in the mess called American democracy and the mess called a free press we as Americans are still blessed with such open and transparent if not perfect electoral politics.  Pity the poor folks of Egypt who are dying to secure these rights or the Russians who live under the violent lash of the dictator Putin or the Chinese who have but one party to vote for.  I am thankful that candidates have to test their mettle in the fire of running for office.  I just wish it was dialed down a bit and featured more heat and substance and less froth and slickness. 

For finally politics is not a game. It is not a reality show. It is not a sport or a gladiator like competition.  Governing, like any great calling, having a faith in God or raising a family or serving the world: it matters.  It is important.  And what we do politically in 2012 ultimately will determine the future of our nation and our world and those stakes are just too high to be trusted to pre-programmed candidates or a ratings obsessed media.

So please…just wake me up next September when the real Presidential election season begins. For now I’m sticking to “Storage Wars” on A&E as my favorite reality TV show.  Lots of fun to watch and absolutely nothing at stake. See you in the fall.