Let's Do

Monday, October 10, 2011

Reader Snedcat emails me a link to a type of article I would have otherwise ignored, but since it is particularly "good", I have decided to briefly comment on its main points...

After the passing of Steve Jobs, it was inevitable that, as a capitalist, he would be attacked, sooner or later, for his alleged moral flaws. At Gawker, an article titled, "What Everyone Is Too Polite to Say About Steve Jobs", does exactly that.

One thing he wasn't, though, was perfect. Indeed there were things Jobs did while at Apple that were deeply disturbing. Rude, dismissive, hostile, spiteful: Apple employees -- the ones not bound by confidentiality agreements -- have had a different story to tell over the years about Jobs and the bullying, manipulation and fear that followed him around Apple. Jobs contributed to global problems, too. Apple's success has been built literally on the backs of Chinese workers, many of them children and all of them enduring long shifts and the specter of brutal penalties for mistakes. And, for all his talk of enabling individual expression, Jobs imposed paranoid rules that centralized control of who could say what on his devices and in his company.
Since this article is written from the angle of bringing new information to light for readers who are assumed to agree with the author's implicit equation of altruism with morality -- I don't -- we will set aside that fact for a moment and look at the quality of this "information" by looking at a few of Jobs's alleged sins.

Jobs is called a terrible employer for saying things like the following (as quoted by Gawker from Fortune) during a half-hour "public" humiliation of a group of workers, which he finished by replacing its head:
"Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?" Having received a satisfactory answer, he continued, "So why the fuck doesn't it do that?"

"You've tarnished Apple's reputation," he told them. "You should hate each other for having let each other down."
Never mind that this was not really public, but occurred at a company meeting; that (even if it had been) any of his employees who did not like being made an example of was free to look for other work; that the answer to his question should have been so obvious as to have implicitly guided the thinking of this team and rendered such a meeting unnecessary; or that, perhaps Jobs had reasons to believe that his making an example of this team would serve his boss, the paying customer, best: A boss telling his employees that they are not doing what he is paying them to do is moral fodder for the likes of Gawker, on the grounds, I suppose, that it was harsh.

The great products this man churned out had to be created somehow. Part of that "somehow" is getting teams on the same page about what they are doing. Even if we grant that this wasn't the best way to deal with this situation, the fact is that Jobs harmed no one.

Jobs is condemned because, "Apple's success has been built literally on the backs of Chinese workers," and because he employed children as laborers. The alleged brutality of child labor and long factory shifts has been examined and found better than the alternative ad nauseam, but let's think about it again, anyway, by considering a column the economist Thomas Sowell wrote nearly a decade ago.
A recent front-page story in The New York Times was headlined: "In Ecuador's Banana Fields, Child Labor is Key to Profits." This is part of an ongoing orgy of indignation by the intelligentsia at low-paid labor in the Third World.

The question they never ask is: Compared to what? But people for whom indignation is a way of life seldom pause to compare the available options. Instead, they are ready to foreclose some of the options of poor people, who have painfully few options to begin with.

Buried on an inside page is the response of low-income Ecuadorians when their children were dismissed from the banana plantations, as a result of adverse publicity created by activists from wealthier countries. "They fired all the children, but the work they did helped us," an Ecuadorian mother complained.

In other words, the poor in Ecuador are now poorer, while the activists from affluent countries are triumphant. None of this is peculiar to this particular industry or to Ecuador. Whenever there is a World Trade Organization meeting, you can depend on affluent young people to engage in riots over such things as "sweatshop labor" in the Third World. [emphasis in original]
Andrew Bernstein refuted this anachronistic idea even more thoroughly five years ago in his book, The Capitalist Manifesto. But Bernstein and Sowell are hardly the first people to show that the animus against child labor is naive at best. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to consider what aspect of Jobs's decision to hire workers in China was worthy of moral condemnation, and why Gawker holds long-refuted smears against capitalism out as "fact." All I will add is that the betterment of his workers was not why Jobs hired them (nor is it why he should have), but it was a fortunate result of the fact that he traded his money for their labor.

And, finally, Jobs is damned for being "authoritarian" because of his company's vertical integration, and for practicing "censorship" because he limits what people can sell or display in his own store. If you don't like someone else limiting your choices -- I don't -- then take your business elsewhere -- Regarding Apple, I usually do. Unlike a government entity, Apple doesn't have the power to fine or imprison you simply for not purchasing products you don't like. If you want to see something, like gay porn or political ads, that Jobs doesn't permit in his outlets, go to another outlet: He can't stop you from doing what you want when you're not using his property.

Incidentally, this piece is remarkably bad on the issue of rights in general and property rights in particular: Jobs is damned for deciding what he'll give "floor space" to (or not), and yet if someone wants to subject his customers to smut or political hectoring, that someone is to be free to run roughshod all over Jobs's store, Jobs and his paying customers be damned. (Or should some third party dictate what iTunes offers?) Who's the authoritarian here? And, considering how this would work in practice, who's the censor?

There's more I could say about this smear piece, but I think I've done enough for now to show that Gawker is, in fact, doing the exact opposite of what it claims to be doing, which is to provide a "balanced" picture of a man -- who isn't, by the way, around any longer around to defend himself. And this is just the tip of the iceberg: The piece also uses altruism, a code of morality Ayn Rand eloquently argued is immoral and impractical -- and, as such, impossible to practice consistently -- to drag a man so many justly admire through the mud on the grounds that he "wasn't ... perfect."

This article kicked off its list of "lowlights" by stating the following, "After celebrating Jobs' achievements, we should talk freely about the dark side of Jobs and the company he co-founded." Yes. But let's really talk about them, rather than dropping all rational context and then slinging random facts around like mud, and hoping that common, but unwarranted emotional associations make cowardly accusations stick.

If we really do this, then we can even better understand why we admire Jobs, and what is wrong, on so many levels, with the thinking behind his detractors.

-- CAV


Today: Minor edits. 


Karl Meisenbach said...

EXCELLENT article Sir!

Gus Van Horn said...


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write, "Never mind that this was not really public, but occurred at a company meeting...A boss telling his employees that they are not doing what he is paying them to do is moral fodder for the likes of Gawker, on the grounds, I suppose, that it was harsh."

Yes, exactly. This is one of the blisters of the modern age that especially irks me, the idea that civility (redefined to mean a namby-pamby milquetoast acceptance of anyone else's foibles or failings, however troublesome they might be for you) must rule all interactions at all costs. Sometimes a brusque warning not to waste my time or an even brusquer statement that you have wasted my time is all the civility a body deserves, and their tender feelings be damned. In a rational world namby-pambyism wouldn't even be allowed in kindergarten; in our world it's been allowed to infiltrate business and seems de rigeur in academia. A generation of thin-skinned or no-skinned kindergarteners infantilized by our school system to demand that nobody prick their tender and touchy "self-esteem" lest Big Nanny in the Jackboots give you far worse than an ugly look...Truly sad or infuriating, depending on one's mood that day.

Gus Van Horn said...

And, for all that, check out the slimy way the Fortune story made it SOUND LIKE the meeting was public.

With that ilk, anything is okay for them to do, but you calling a spade a spade is a horrendous moral failing.

kelleyn said...

"Wasn't perfect"...grrrrr. It's impossible to achieve on the level of a Steve Jobs if you don't make some mistakes along the way. Trial and error are a part of learning and a part of life. Anyone who holds himself back for fear of making a mistake isn't progressing and isn't living. Anyone who never makes a mistake is hiding under a rock. And the bigger your actions and goals, the more risk you'll assume, and the bigger the mistakes you'll make.

That's assuming that the "lowlights" being pointed out are actual mistakes. According to a certain mentality, enforcing your boundaries and telling the truth are "mistakes" or worse. I don't agree.

These detractors aren't just piling on Steve, they're piling on us. They're rubbing salt in an open wound and they know it. They're punishing anyone who dares to achieve and to hold values, even on the smallest level. It just goes to show what filthy, subhuman creatures they are.

Gus Van Horn said...

"These detractors aren't just piling on Steve, they're piling on us."

Good point. This is indeed an attack on admiration and its lowness only underscored by the fact that it was leveled while people are mourning.