“Lazy” Americans and the Decline of the American Middle Class

The NY Times had a great article on Apple and why Apple employs so few people in the U.S.: Apple, America, and the Squeezed Middle Class. We’ve talked about Tyler Cowan’s Great Stagnation and how Google, Twitter, and Facebook don’t need lots of bodies to make their products, but Apple, a company that manufactures electronic components, does need lots of people. They just don’t hire them here. Apple made $400,000 per employee last year, in large part because they outsource their work overseas. Apple says that the labor costs aren’t the major reason for outsourcing, that there are other logistical reasons for centralizing their work in Asia. But when Foxconn, the company that assembles iPhones, pays many of its workers $17 a day, it’s a bit hard to believe that labor costs don’t play a role.

Check this out:

The facility has 230,000 employees, many working six days a week, often spending up to 12 hours a day at the plant. Over a quarter of Foxconn’s work force lives in company barracks and many workers earn less than $17 a day. When one Apple executive arrived during a shift change, his car was stuck in a river of employees streaming past. “The scale is unimaginable,” he said.

And that’s the hard part about all this. If we assume that labor costs aren’t that big of a deal (I don’t believe this, but let’s accept it for the sake of argument), it’s still hard to expect Americans to leave their families and occupy dorms where they work 6 days a week, 12 hours a day, and are on call if anything needs immediate attention. I’ve heard some Chinese calling Americans “lazy” for not wanting to do this, but is that really fair? Does it make sense for people used to living in the middle class to sacrifice everything for their company, living apart from their families and lives outside of work?

Akrypti from 8Asians posted this excellent piece a while ago on Chinese factories, and I agree that these megacompanies are making life better in China. These jobs are better than many others in the region, so it’s hard to accuse Apple of exploiting Chinese if the Chinese want these jobs. Instead, I think these companies are exploiting Americans. Their intellectual property and physical resources are protected by the American government and military, which is funded by American taxpayers, many of whom are denied employment by these companies which either subcontract out their work to countries with lower standards of living or only hire H1B visa holders. One might even well argue that their robust sales come from the fact that they are American companies.

As for Americans, I’m sure some people will read this and point to a defect in American culture, a kind of middle class entitlement that Americans seem to have. I agree with these people that many Americans do feel entitled (see AM/AF Couple’s excellent comment here), but I also think it’s perfectly fair to ask American companies to hire Americans who pay taxes into a system that makes their work possible.

I think the best response I’ve seen to this whole “lazy American” complaint is here, where a blogger responds to the marine in the picture below:

The blogger Max Udargo writes:

Do you really want the bar set this high?  Do you really want to live in a society where just getting by requires a person to hold down two jobs and work 60 to 70 hours a week?  Is that your idea of the American Dream?

Do you really want to spend the rest of your life working two jobs and 60 to 70 hours a week?  Do you think you can?  Because, let me tell you, kid, that’s not going to be as easy when you’re 50 as it was when you were 20.

And what happens if you get sick?  You say you don’t have health insurance, but since you’re a veteran I assume you have some government-provided health care through the VA system.  I know my father, a Vietnam-era veteran of the Air Force, still gets most of his medical needs met through the VA, but I don’t know what your situation is.  But even if you have access to health care, it doesn’t mean disease or injury might not interfere with your ability to put in those 60- to 70-hour work weeks.

And that’s the issue with American “entitlement.” One feels spoiled by asking for decent working conditions, but do we really want to live in a world where a person is forced to give his entire life for pure survival? And is it really fair for companies to rely on the protection of the American government paid for by American workers who can no longer get jobs because American companies won’t hire them? As Ha Joon Chang mentions in 23 Things, capital has a nationality. These companies won’t relocate–they know that their livelihood is dependent on being in America. While the rich are buying off the government with their lobbyists, it should be still possible to form a voting block that can deliver justice to the American people.

7 thoughts on ““Lazy” Americans and the Decline of the American Middle Class

  1. As a former marine, I can’t help but feel a lot of contempt for that guy who posted that picture. Not because he called the OWS protestors whiners, that’s perfectly within his rights. But I do find it ironic that in an effort to delegitimize the whole “99%” tumblr he had unwittingly confirmed their argument that many Americans work so hard and go through so much with little to show for it thereby illustrating that hard work and good education won’t exactly spell success due to policy decisions made far beyond their control.

    I don’t know much about this guy but since he claims to be a former marine, I can make a few very safe assumptions. One, as a veteran he could be, depending on his health status, be entitled to VA healthcare or even TriCare (a civilian health insurance that was ironically criticized for being too good of a health insurance). Oh and to pay for college, he probably used his GI Bill which is….that’s right, another entitlement program paid mainly through a small tax.

    If he didn’t play the veteran card then I prob wouldn’t even respond but if there’s a group that gets plenty of entitlement programs, it’s veterans, which I’m fine with. It’s just that I personally don’t go around bashing people I don’t know while condemning entitlement programs.

  2. I had a chance to look through that tumblr site. Man, it’s so sad. These people are working themselves to the bone, with no time or energy to even think about the long-term future of the country or of their own lives. It’s sad that they’re bashing people and condemning entitlement programs while they too take advantage of them.

    I think my favorite is the real estate agent who reneged on the terms of his mortgage, got help from family, and now tells others that they ought to get help from family too:


    What he doesn’t get is that he did get government help–the government bailed out the banks that lost money when he allowed his home to go into foreclosure and his car to be repo’ed. The government probably also bought his loan through Fannie or Freddie. No government help, my ass.

  3. I remember just before the ’08 recession hit there was a movement to revamp the GI Bill entitlements so it would cover more educational expenses. During that time sympathy for veterans were high due to the peak of war in Iraq. So the student veterans basically got organized and pushed through what essentially is an expansion of government entitlements. I can’t help but wonder if they would’ve waited til today to do that, they would be shouted down by the “53%”



  4. There are a lot of veterans (supposedly) on that site. I can kind of understand it–military guys are usually conservative and have a get-it-done attitude. But living in the trenches has to be different from living in society. Not sure if they get that.

  5. I don’t know why everyone seems to think the notion of the decline of the middle class is such a bad thing. First of all, its inevitable. The world is a radically different place from the post-WWII era, which was when the middle class took shape. Is it reasonable to assume that the middle-class lifestyle, which is largely about consumerism, remain unaffected?

    An American with a lot less shopping malls, suburban sprawl, McMansions, etc. is a turn for the better. Joe Bageant expresses well his disdain for the middle-class way of life:

    And so here we are sixty years after the Big War with an expanded American sense of middle class entitlement. Ramcharged by extreme American capitalism and abetted by the carnie barkers of Madison Avenue, everyone in the middle class now feels entitled to the full-blown suburban lifestyle, every last digitized, low fat, high density, energy sucking bit of it. It all starts with a college degree. Then in return for knocking down those hard earned Cs in university business or technical schools, the children and grandchildren of people who thought a big closet was one so deep you could reach your entire arm into it (“That sucker must be two feet deep Helen! Now THAT’S storage!”) feel entitled to 3,000-4,000 square-foot houses. And forget the lone old family wagon. The suburban middle class expects a car for every family member, not to mention an investment portfolio, several household cell phones, multiple television screens, (36 percent of buyers under age 35 rated having a “home theater” as important or very important in their lives, according to National Association of Home Builders), multiple baths, central air conditioning, DVD players, washer-dryer combinations, laptops, iPods, answering machines, MP3 players, patio furniture, outdoor gas barbecues, digital cameras, car audio, security and navigational systems, microwave ovens, camcorders, HDTV receivers, satellite systems, VCRs, Xbox controllers, water purifiers, coffee/espresso maker combos, closet organizers, software, mountain bikes, camping and hiking equipment, software …

    Part of the reason why Foxconn exists, where the working condition is just one step above outright slavery, is because America is still the largest and most important market in the world and Americans are not well-informed citizens but mindless consumers. BTW, America has its own workplace hellholes…just ask any Walmart “associate” working long hours, making shit wages, no benefits whatsoever, and probably needs food stamps to supplement their pathetic income. America’s indentured servants exist too, they just happen to be on a different part of the global supply chain. Mobs like that in the picture showing all those Chinese eager for these shitty jobs, exist in America too when the stores open their doors on Black Friday for a stampeding shopping frenzy.

    Bemoaning the loss of jobs assembling iPhones as “good, solid middle-income manufacturing jobs” is highly debatable in an age of global wage and labor arbitrage. Whether toiling for Chinese mega-sweatshops assembling widgets for indifferent multinational corporations or American mega-big-box stores selling the same…same shit.

  6. But kobu, how can we have literature and art without money to support artists and writers?

    About Apple….check this out:


    “More troubling, the groups say, is some suppliers’ disregard for workers’ health. Two years ago, 137 workers at an Apple supplier in eastern China were injured after they were ordered to use a poisonous chemical to clean iPhone screens. Within seven months last year, two explosions at iPad factories, including in Chengdu, killed four people and injured 77. Before those blasts, Apple had been alerted to hazardous conditions inside the Chengdu plant, according to a Chinese group that published that warning. “

  7. Work for a new election system!

    http://video.app.msn.com/watch/video/repairing-election-system-could-save-economy/6osmk1z?cpkey=b97869e2-3d1c-4e60-879b-226ed7d56cec%7c%7c%7c%7c Must see this interview discussion

    Season 2012 : Episode 0209
    Feb. 9: Daily Beast contributor Mark McKinnon and Elliot Ackerman of Americans Elect 2012 join MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan in Austin, Texas to discuss the ways in which they’re working to help make elections work for America



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