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I keep hearing about overseas manufacturing versus goods that are made-in-America. Barack Obama raised the issue in the State of the Union address last night (full text found here). Obama described incentives to bring manufacturing jobs back the the US:

Long before the recession, jobs and manufacturing began leaving our shores. Technology made businesses more efficient, but also made some jobs obsolete. […]  Tonight, I want to speak about how we move forward, and lay out a blueprint for an economy that’s built to last — an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and a renewal of American values. […] Now, this blueprint begins with American manufacturing.

Obama went on to describe how the auto industry, especially GM, Chrysler and Ford, has rebounded, adding “nearly 160,000 jobs” in the process.

We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back.

What’s happening in Detroit can happen in other industries. […] We can’t bring every job back that’s left our shore. But right now, it’s getting more expensive to do business in places like China. Meanwhile, America is more productive. A few weeks ago, the CEO of Master Lock told me that it now makes business sense for him to bring jobs back home. (Applause.) Today, for the first time in 15 years, Master Lock’s unionized plant in Milwaukee is running at full capacity. (Applause.)

Obama outlined three tax dis/incentives to encourage businesses to bring manufacturing back to the US: no tax deductions for businesseses that outsource jobs – instead, tax deductions should be for companies that bring jobs back to the US; multinational companies should pay a basic minimum tax, rather than avoiding taxes “by moving jobs and profits overseas” – and again, money instead should be for companies that stay and hire in the US; and finally, American manufacturers should get bigger tax cuts, while doubling tax deductions for high-tech manufacturers, with financing assistance for new plants, equipment, or training when moving to certain communities.

So my message is simple. It is time to stop rewarding businesses that ship jobs overseas, and start rewarding companies that create jobs right here in America. Send me these tax reforms, and I will sign them right away.

Simple, okay. The New York Times considered a similar problem in its article, “Apple, America, and a Squeezed Middle Class,” which described why Apple has moved its operations to China.

It isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad. Rather, Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that “Made in the U.S.A.” is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.

The article points out that Apple does not directly employ many of the workers who assemble Apple products. Instead, Apple turns to subcontractors for manufacturing. Apple may directly employ the person who writes the software for the iPhone, but probably not the worker who cuts the glass front. That worker is probably employed by a subcontractor instead. I’m not convinced Obama’s call to tax multinational corporations would impact the decision to hire an overseas subcontractor.

Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher do a great job for The New York Times in describing a central dilemma for Apple: Steve Jobs demands a different screen for the phone, one that won’t scratch. It has to be GLAAA-A-A-ASS! (Surely I’m not the only one who read that interaction as a kind of Jobsian temper tantrum?) What this explains is how Global Commodity Chains work. Normally I would link to Wikipedia’s page for Global Commodity Chains, but there isn’t one – presumably because it is a part of some other theoretical construct and I just forget which. Instead, I will wrack my brain for that sociology course I took in… Spring 2009? Global Commodity Chains specifically describe the way goods are produced in a globalized market. A chain begins with the source of the raw materials. Common examples of raw materials might be wood, minerals, metals, “rare earth metals,” crude oil, etc. Those materials go to manufacturing facilities, where workers turn them into parts. The parts are assembled into products. The products ship out to the (usually big box) stores that will retail them, so that consumers can then buy them. Every stop along the chain is thought of as a “node.”

Some people try to integrate research in Global Commodity Chains with World Systems Theory, in order to explain the relationships between countries: some primarily produce and export raw materials – usually the Developing World or Periphery, some manufacture goods (sometimes these are also producers of raw materials) – the Developing World or Semi-Periphery, and the countries where people buy the finished products – the Developed World, or Core. I find this especially important – remember, I’m in Latin American Studies – because those relationships are often one-way, wherein materials from one country are bought in another country. Because of government (and corporate) corruption, concentration of wealth and ownership of land, the technological investments needed to extract those materials, among other reasons, the benefits of raw material exports tends to be limited to a handful of wealthy individuals in the country that exports the materials. Sometimes, the materials are extracted by foreign companies that may not have a real interest or stake in benefiting the country where they extract materials – so wages suffer, the environment suffers, etc. In some cases, the corporations disrupt the ability of people to live independently of an income, in order to create a labor pool. It is this scenario that characterized development in Latin America, and is also the reason why the US is often seen as a pariah.

In the case of Apple’s manufacturing, the company considered sourcing its glass screens in the US, but the costs associated with developing the product were high. Instead, Apple went with a company in China that already had the facilities and resources to carry out testing. I think of those facilities and resources as the infrastructure of manufacturing. The New York Times article points out that in terms of worker wages, paying US wages would add $65 to the cost of each iPhone. It’s not about the wages – it’s the infrastructure needed to coordinate a global supply and commodity chain. You have to include shipping materials, components, and products. It seems that today’s factories are increasingly specialized as well, which is understandable considering development officials have long promoted comparative advantage, and it makes sense that you would see factories acting similarly by focusing on making one type of product very, very efficiently. The manufacturing infrastructure is what makes all these factories able to coordinate in a way that streamlines shipping and overall production as well. China is in a great position to achieve such infrastructure, because the government continues to subsidize its industrial development, in a socialist market economy that seems to blend command and market economies. In much the same way that foreign corporations built Latin American transportation infrastructure, China’s government is subsidizing it’s manufacturing infrastructure. The US would need a large level of investment to reconstitute our own manufacturing infrastructure, as well as an ability to incentivize doing so – and I suspect it will take more than tax breaks (especially when you consider that the US has many free trade agreements that limit the subsidies and incentives it can offer).

With all that in mind, the problem with using US labor has never been just about the wages. The thing that unions have done, to the apparent chagrin of people like the Indiana state republicans, has been to not only raise wages but to improve the working conditions in our own factories. US workers can make time-and-a-half for overtime – which kicks in after the 40 hour work week. We don’t put our children to work in factories. We no longer lock our poor inside factories during the work day. We also enforce environmental standards so that factories don’t turn our land into a wasteland. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not heralding the US or its unions as the end all and be all of labor standards. But when Apple points to the Chinese factory’s willingness to roust 3,000 workers from sleep in the middle of the night to start putting in the shiny, unscratchable glass screen, I don’t stop to wonder what went wrong with US workers. Instead, I wonder why the hell Apple can’t wait 12 hours to restart production. What I’m left with from that story is a narrative of a corporation that wants its product perfect, on the timeline of an arrogant and demanding caudillo, with more regard to profit than to the workers producing its product. And Apple isn’t even responsible, because it isn’t Apple’s plant that produces that product – it’s an unaffiliated subcontractor.

If the US is serious about reconstituting its manufacturing sector, we need to be serious about rebuilding the plants that make those little, seemingly-insignificant products that provide the components for the fancy gadgetry. The developed, core nations are understood to be so because they excel in high-tech industry. The US, as the uber-core nation, or (waning) hegemonic power, or whatever you want to call it, has kept at the forefront of the high-tech industry and innovation. The US rose to that position largely because of manufacturing innovations in the auto industry. But in the recent economic troubles, it is the semi-periphery that has (so far) stayed steady, while the US and Europe flail to regain their footing. The professor of that sociology class in 2009 described the flaw in betting that the finance industry would ever constitute a replacement for true high-tech industries, and I think his words ring even truer today. The thing is, the semi-periphery isn’t mid-tech industry somewhere between low tech and high tech; the semi-periphery has some remnants of low tech industry and some influx of high tech industry. That’s where China is currently successful – by using it’s lower tech industries to support its higher tech industries to make products extremely efficiently and cheaply. Maybe what the US needs is a renewed appreciation for the low tech (with updates). We still need our mills and our gasket manufacturers and our component factories – at least, if our goal is to stay at the forefront of global industry. These can be small, local(er) businesses, which is also cool. Maybe, while we’re at it, we can reconsider the worth of our shiny gadgetry, pay our workers a livable wage, and consider how to scale back our wanton consumerism so that, instead of boatloads of cheap crap, we focus on quality items that we recognize for what they are – luxury goods.

I haven’t posted in a bit, mostly because we’ve been running around trying to get ready for Christmas while taking turns being sick. My partner won the being sick contest; he spent all last week in bed with flu-turned-pneumonia. Despite the illnesses, Christmas is coming at full speed, and in my home baking takes a center role in the seasonal preparations. I’ve been adventurous this year, with mixed results.

I had a bit of nostalgia after the St. Nikolaus celebration at the Athaneum. St. Nikolaus day was one of my favorites as a child, because it seemed like something special for our family, like a secret. We put our shoes out on Dec. 5, and woke to find them filled with German chocolate and chocolate eggs with tiny toys hidden within. St. Nikolaus would visit the Deutsche Schulen, along with Ruprecht. In our variation, Ruprecht is allowed a reprieve from hell (or purgatory?) once a year to serve St. Nikolaus. He wore a tattered cloak, crossed with bells and chains that he would shake at the children. He carried a switch, and eagerly brandished it at the children who might have been naughty enough to earn a beating. He also carried the bag of gifts for St. Nikolaus, with oranges, nuts in-the-shell, and chocolate coins. St. Nikolaus was kindly but stern, and inquired into our behavior, grades, and German-language skills. Now, the celebration is held at the Athanaeum, and includes gingerbread house-making, a puppet show, and a traditional tree lighting ceremony that includes the Indianapolis Maennerchor.

Of course, after the St. Nikolaus celebration, in my moment of nostalgia and baking for my daughter’s ICC Christmas party, I decided to bake apple kuchen. Suffice it to say, I suspect the kuchen would have been better if the dough had risen and I had used sufficient butter in the topping. The oatmeal-cranberry-chocolate chip cookies turned out much better. (I only used one kind of chocolate chip and added a teaspoon of orange zest to the batter.)

In the midst of all this holiday baking, we are still dealing with my daughter’s seeming sugar intolerance, and the oh-so-wonderful behavior that comes with it. So last night when I finally got around to making muffins for her school lunch, I sought out some information about soaking grains. We tried a recipe that soaks flour and rolled oats overnight in milk and apple cider vinegar, and it was meh, but I think that it just needed more seasoning and blueberries or something. I don’t tend to prefer things like apple cinnamon, but things that are a bit ‘brighter’ so to speak – like cranberry and orange. I also put out our steel cut oats and buckwheat in buttermilk (1 tsp cultured buttermilk/cup water) – we’ll see how that works in the morning.

My daughter has two days of school after today, and I still have to make their Christmas pajamas. The expense of buying fabric to make our own versus the cost of buying pajamas from Walmart or Target was pretty frustrating, and might just become a new post, together with an article about Walmart, labor, and unions I read recently. In the meantime, I’ll rejoice over this article as though it were written as a holiday present just for me – at least until I can open my new tea infuser and copies of Tolstoy and Chekov.

Happy Holidays!

It’s Tuesday! We got some wonderful produce in this week, although the season has decisively shifted towards fall. It was a rainy, chill morning. The rain has been an interesting backdrop to some of what my family has been discussing over the IPS intersession, as a lead up to Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF. Because I’m the kind of mom who thinks that school breaks are a great time to do learning projects, we are learning about what UNICEF is and what it does, both as a research project but also so that she understands what she is raising money to achieve. It turns out that UNICEF does quite a bit, and since the girl is still six, we are focusing on a particular aspect of what UNICEF does – providing clean water. But it’s Food Themed Tuesday! Yep: water is integral to food, agriculture, and health, and our agricultural practices certainly impact the water supply, by diverting water to fields for export crops, by polluting water supply with pesticides and herbicides, by replacing tree lines with crops that do little to prevent erosion, among other things. Crops don’t only provide the vegetables we eat; we grow crops for energy, for livestock feed, for genetic breeding and research, and we often do so following agro-industrial standards that are more suited for profits than for sustainability.

We watched Blue Gold this afternoon, and while it’s obviously intended to be a persuasive film, it makes a lot of good points along the way. It reminded me that water scarcity isn’t just an issue in the Horn of Africa, but a problem for everyone – especially those of us in the industrialized countries. We have achieved a point of industrialization wherein we are able to sustain the pretense of having beaten nature. We build vast cities in the desert, ship in water (not by truck but via pipeline), and call it good. We are frontier minded, but the frontier is vanishing beneath the haze of urban industry. How many of us drink bottled water because it’s ‘safer’ than tap water, without considering how often they share a source?

It’s funny, but as I was looking up information about Veolia water, the huge transnational corporation that ran our local water utility in a “public-private partnership” since 2002, I discovered that the city ended that contract early (for $29 million), transferring control this year to Citizens’ Energy Group, a “public trust” run like a not-for-profit. Waste water is still managed by United Water, affiliated with Suez, another private transnational group. I also found out that water prices are expected to triple over the next 15 years. To review, control of Indianapolis’ water utility changed hands 2 times in 10 years, with significant changes each time.

Indianapolis is not yet at the point where most people consider water shortages a critical issue. But dry periods over the last several summers, and also spring rains heavy enough that the ground can’t hold the water, suggest that water supply will be increasingly tenuous. Farmers planted corn (an Indiana staple) late this year, with smaller yields because of the early floods, and harvests scanter still with the dry weather in July. Increasingly, nature forebodes a reassertion of its whims, and we are unaccustomed to meeting nature on its terms. A great deal of attention is paid to finding realistic water supplies in developing nations, but few people spend their time pondering the changes that we in the industrialized world must make to persist into the future. Societal collapse seems inconceivable, yet history chides us quietly to the contrary. In yet another example of how we seem to be rushing headlong into a precarious future, I wonder, what changes will come, and can we act in time to forestall the most extreme consequences?

Well, I lost about a week of blogging, as well as sleeping, to the Occupy Indy initiative. I lost a couple more days to visiting grandma, but that’s another story. I’m really proud and excited for the Occupation, though. I admit I’m surprised it took off here – Indy’s not exactly known for this kind of thing. While my participation has been limited, I’m excited enough to want to take a moment to describe just why it is that I’m so keen on this movement-or-whatever-it-is-and-might-become.

The Occupy movements are really exciting because they are using  long-held activist methods, while developing a message that encompasses a range of ideologies. The methods of consensus based decision-making are really interesting here. Seasoned activists may be used to the tedium of consensus meetings like the General Assemblies and often are impatient with them. After all, a meeting where everyone has to agree will take a lot longer than a meeting where a few people can decide for everyone else. But this is what is really striking about the Occupy movement. The conversations here may still reflect the same arguments with which we are accustomed; on Saturday evening in Indianapolis there was a fair bit of discussion about voting, and a couple of people attributed the current state of affairs to lack of voter participation. That’s a fairly common conversation, and it depends on the assumption that it is possible for one person to appropriately represent another’s interests in government. That is representative government. Here’s the kicker, though: the people having this fairly mundane conversation were also participating in a different kind of democratic process – direct democracy through consensus based decision-making. Ok, so maybe I’m a dork who’s easily excited by tedious processes.

To understand why I get giddy about this, you might need to understand how I perceive governance and government. I understand governance as a collective process of making decisions, rules, and so forth that apply to the whole society. Government is the institution that applies those decisions (although a lot of government works to maintain the government). In the United States, decisions are made by the Congress and the Senate, by the president, upheld by the courts, and enforced by the police – a process generally repeated at more local levels of government. We elect people to represent us in government, and we are supposed to trust those people to make decisions that reflect our needs and desires.

The Occupy movements reflect the need for people to feel they have a voice in their own governance. “We are the 99%” implicitly refers to the abundance of influence that the 1% have on government, influence that is tied directly to the amount of money the 1% has at its disposal. In effect, the Occupy movement consists of people who are standing up to demand a voice, a role, in their own governance. Frustration with corporations is a part of this, in that corporate entities are more represented in government through their lobbying and business and personal connections to the representatives. OF COURSE the Occupy message is incoherent – there is a plethora of issues that tie in to lack of representation in government, from the state of public education, the wars waged, the bail out of banks in the midst of ongoing foreclosures, homelessness, joblessness, and on, and on. These are all issues that we deal with as the middle class, the lower class – the 99%. And here, in the midst of these seemingly incoherent occupations, here are people who perhaps for the first time are participating in their own governance through the consensus process. If they, with their myriad needs and perspectives, can come to agreement on what their message is  through this process – in a matter of weeks, even – then maybe we can begin to imagine how government would work if governance were also a consensus process, wherein we all participated in governance rather than asking and allowing others to do so on our behalf.

Ultimately, I’m excited because the Occupy movement stands to be more than a movement. I’ve heard mentions of a new political party, but I don’t think that will come – the people involved have such diverse perspectives and ideologies that I don’t see them combining to a shared platform. What the people do share is a need for government to recognize them and their needs. Maybe, just maybe, the people involved in these movements will be able to experience a way of participating in their own governance in a meaningful way, and in so doing, remind us all what democracy looks like.

This is my response to Melina Kennedy‘s appearance today on No Limits. Ms. Kennedy is a mayoral candidate. No Limits is a local radio program.

I asked a question about immigration and mayoral initiatives regarding the issue, and was pleased to hear of Ms. Kennedy’s support of the Indiana Compact and keeping immigration under federal purview. Unfortunately, it seems that in many ways immigration is off the radar locally. While Ms. Kennedy referenced SB 590, which pitted state against federal authority, she did not address other initiatives like HB 1402 or the international tuition rates to be charged students without documentation (regardless of how long they’ve lived in the US: if they had been raised here, attended school here, graduated here, paid state and local taxes here, and so forth – you could call it the Anti-DREAM Act, if you like).

Also: the man who presented HB 1402 had no evidence that universities had a problem with students tuition rates, or any data about what percent of students the law would pertain to, or what effect it might have. This was just some guy who thought it would be more fair even though he didn’t previously know that immigrants without legal documentation pay the same state and local taxes that support our universities as do legal residents of Indiana – residency is a tax status. OK, big breath – in, out – and carry on.

I am looking for initiatives in my community that address these issues. The issue is not whether immigrants are or should be here, because they are here. Indianapolis is promoted by the governor, businesses, and economic development committees alike as a “global city” – how will we respond to the changes in our city? Will we renew old allegations surrounding “white flight” with gentrification and continue to marginalize minority groups and the poor? Or can we find new and creative ways to meet this issue and discover approaches wherein we all benefit?

Ms. Kennedy said today that she hopes improvements in early childhood education will be a hallmark of her tenure as mayor. To achieve this goal, she will have to address a myriad of issues plaguing IPS. Getting people to think of IPS as a place to educate their kids is part of that; there are also a whole host of kids already in IPS whose performance suffers from all the traditional reasons that urban students fail to succeed. We need to improve our neighborhoods and to show our kids that there are opportunities for them in life. Many of those kids just lost the opportunity to go to college, no matter how well they do in primary and secondary schools. What will they do instead?

“All the traditional reasons that urban students fail to succeed” are in key ways amplified for children of immigrants. If we cannot find ways to address immigration at a local level, we will continue to have a large group of people who are poor, disenfranchised, with few options (in addition to the other groups who are poor, disenfranchised, with few options). I agree that the Indiana Compact is a good start; Indiana has no business looking to reform federal policy. But if the State Congress can so severely limit the ability of good, hardworking kids to attend university, surely there are other proactive steps we can take as a community to build up all the residents. We need to act – and create policy – according to the understanding that people are human regardless of citizenship, and no person can be “illegal.”

International Law tells us that countries have a duty to protect all  people within the territory of that country. We learned this lesson from atrocities like genocide. We also learned that policies leading to atrocities begin with institutionalization of “otherness,” of hierarchies of belonging and citizenship. Slavery was possible in that the slaves were considered three-fifths a person – less than human – and that was a constitutional compromise. Society has changed, but it still regards many of the people who come here chasing the American Dream to be less than citizens. There are clear reasons for maintaining precise methods by which one may become a citizen. Yet, if we regard a group of people as ‘illegal’ and therefore unworthy of citizenship, we go beyond promoting legal entry and instead castigate and marginalize that group of people, and alienate others who identify with that group. There are institutional tiers that deal with different aspects of immigration: international treaties; federal laws, regulations, and enforcement; state laws (like tuition accessibility); yet we still live and function at a local level. What can we do here, where we live, work, play, and learn, to build tolerance and support structures in our communities? Can we integrate the still-disparate groups in our communities into one thriving, multi-cultural, beautiful and safe place to be? Those final steps of community building can only occur at a local level. I would hope any mayoral candidate would be willing to pursue that kind of community as a point of policy.