Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Chinese Factory

One of the interesting things that appeared early in the new year was this report from the New York Times on the reasons Apple makes its products in China. (Some further background: this long report on working conditions in the factories of Apple's suppliers, and this follow-up report).

The NYT article and some discussions of it have concluded that making things in China is not about worker wages, but about workforce flexibility, readiness and 'appropriate' skill levels:

“[Foxconn] could hire 3,000 people overnight,” said Jennifer Rigoni, who was Apple’s worldwide supply demand manager until 2010, but declined to discuss specifics of her work. “What U.S. plant can find 3,000 people overnight and convince them to live in dorms?” 

This is disingenuous. The reason you can have an army of workers practically on site ready to leap out of bed at midnight and start making i-Pads is because they'll put up with it for what they get paid. In the end, this comes back to cost.  There are actually plenty of Americans prepared to live in barracks and jump to attention when needed. However, I'm guessing that Apple or other companies wouldn't be prepared to offer the same pay, benefits and pensions that one receives in the military.

It's also worth deconstructing the ahistorical statement that "if it weren't for the factory jobs, they'd all be unemployed and even poorer" This [long] piece by John Bellamy Foster and Robert W McChesney on  global stagnation and China argues that the "floating population" which does the majority of the most menial and hazardous work in Chinese factories was created by a complex process of proletarianisation during the post-Mao reform period, including the disestablishment of state-owned enterprises and (sometimes illegal) land privatization. The authors argue that this has created a reserve army of labour and enabled superexplotation. They cite figures showing rapidly increasing inequality in China and a steep drop in consumption, and particularly wages, as a share of GDP.

Then, just to complicate matters, you can read this news item on an announced wage rise by Foxconn and evolving labour market dynamics in China, with people now apparently more reluctant to migrate to the coast, forcing factories to relocate to the interior; and the Chinese administration desperate to increase the GDP share of consumption to counteract depressed export markets.

Could it be that the theorised capitalist development pathway of modernisation, labour absorbtion, and Kuznet's U-shaped curves is actually happening in China?  Will the contradictions of capitalist production necessitate a Fordist solution? It's worth noting that the Foxconn factory workers' reported new wage of $400 per month is about 50 percent more than the minimum wage in Peru, which for many workers in the formal economy is the standard wage. Will China become a middle class country even more rapidly than its southeast Asian neighbours? Will low-wage manufacturing eventually move to non-oil producing African countries, repeating the cycle?

Of course, no one knows. But one thing is for sure: in earlier cycles of capitalist development, improvement n wages, working conditions and labour rights didn't just happen automatically: they had to be fought for in distinct political struggles. So, it's always relevant to do what is possible to support these struggles, even if it is just putting consumer pressure on companies like Apple.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Aconcagua Gear by Category #3 Feet

This is the third post discussing the gear needed on Aconcagua. Here are the first and second posts.

Trekking footwear

You need some robust footwear for the 3-day trek to base camp, over dry but often rather rocky terrain. I wore my reliable Asolo leather tramping boots, which for long walks are just as comfortable as shoes. A couple of people struggled with blisters. For me, they can be completely avoided by having boots that fit properly, combined with the right socks. A couple of the people in the group wore running shoes all the way to base camp. They got away with it, but I personally wouldn't recommend this. Given the terrain, running shoes aren't great either for keeping your feet and ankles protected or for security of footing.

 Double plastic boots

 These are quite possibly the most important single item of gear. Keeping your feet warm and dry is essential high up on the mountain. The gear list insisted on double plastic boots as obligatory. Literally getting cold feet is one of the main reasons for failing to summit Aconcagua.

 The main options presented by the gear list were the Asolo 8000 and Scarpa Inverno (known as the Vega in the UK). I ended up getting the Scarpa boots since they were the only ones the local gear importer could get in an appropriate size (andI'd like to thank Bivouac for all their help with this). They were perfectly adequate: robust, plenty warm enough with the factory liners, and easy enough to get on and off. However, the Invernos were very large and clunky. They made a duck-like gait basically inevitable, and they were so broad they created some problems for fitting gaiters and strapping crampons. Thanks to some advice from a local ski store, I inserted some silicon wedges into the heels, which notably reduced the duck-like gait. If I had my time again, I'd like to try the Asolos. A couple of team members had these and they seemed to be smaller and less clunky while being just as warm. On the other hand, some of the reviews suggest they aren't great for wide feet (like mine).

 It's worth noting that I ended up getting a pair of the Invernos at least 1 1/2 sizes bigger than my usual boot size, which was not due to wearing thicker socks. Boots are one of the things that you really must try before you buy (or have the option and time to exchange if you buy online).

The gear list specifically advised people on the Aconcagua expedition not to bring Himalayan-style boots with integrated gaiters such as the Millet Everest, since it's thought that they may suffer damage on the sharp scree of Aconcagua. As it happened, several expedition members did bring these boots, and they turned out to be ideal in the heavy snow we experienced. So, they can work out well, and might be an option if you're planning to use them on further expeditions to the Himalayas or Alaska. But you can risk damage if conditions are dry.

A piece of advice: don't try to delay wearing your plastic boots by continuing from Base Camp up to Camp 1 in your trekking boots. This will simply mean that you will have to carry your plastic boots at some point and you'll put off getting used to them. At the speed you will be walking up the mountain, plastics are perfectly acceptable.  

Special liners Adventure Consultants recommended getting some Intuition liners to wear instead of the factory liners in our plastic boots. These are specialist liners made by a small Canadian company using an innovative foam developed in New Zealand. They can be heat molded to better fit your boots and feet. The liner made for climbing boots is called the Denali. They are said to be warmer, lighter and quicker-drying than factory liners. I took the advice and sent away for some Intuition liners, based on my foot measurements. When they arrived, they turned out to be too small, even after heat molding. The company very kindly (and quickly) agreed to replace them with the next size up. However, even these were a bit tight around my toes, even after more heat molding. In the end, I took them to Argentina but at base camp decided to go with the factory liners, which fit perfectly and were plenty warm enough. There are people, including a couple of our guides, who swear by the Intuition liners. If you decide to get these, make sure you have the ability and time to get the right size and ensure they fit your feet and boots.

 Regardless of which liners you end up using, when you are at the high camps you need to sleep with them in your sleeping bag to help them dry out.  


For almost any long trekking or climbing expedition, I wear liner socks. I find that by wicking away sweat to the outer sock layer, they keep my feet drier, warmer (and, paradoxically, also cooler in hot conditions). I find that cheap, synthetic liners from the Cool Max brand work best. For outer layers I usually wear Icebreaker merino socks, of varying weights depending on the conditions. However, for Aconcagua summit day I got the thicket, warmest synthetic mountaineering socks I could find. These were reserved, unworn, for the day itself, along with a clean pair of liner socks.

 In a previous post, I suggested that you could get away with fewer base layers, maybe only one set, on the high mountain. However, I do not recommend skimping on socks. Having something clean and dry on your feet makes a big difference, and I did not regret taking 5 full sets of socks with me. Above 5,000 metres, where it's freezing cold and doing anything saps precious oxygen and energy, your priorities become clear. I think I only managed to clean my teeth 2 or 3 times after we left base camp. But on a snowy afternoon at camp 1, I made a special effort to trudge down to a mostly-frozen stream. Using a small lump of soap and numbing water that gushed beneath a hole in the ice, I washed my dirty liner socks (to be dried by being hung up inside the tent and then joining the growing collection of items inside my sleeping bag).  

Footwear around camp

The gear list advised us to take some old running shoes for river crossings and wearing around camp, and some down booties for wearing in the tent and around camp. I used the running shoes for the one river crossing and then left them at base camp. The booties turned out to be redundant inside the tent, and useless in the deep snow we had at all our camps. As I've suggested previously, I would replace both of these with a pair of sandals, or maybe some old tennis-style shoes that can be really squashed up.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Thinking Alike

I doubt that Danyl McLachlan reads this blog let alone takes any inspiration from it. Most likely, the similarity of his latest satire to the analogy at the end of my previous post is a case of independently arriving at the same view of the relationship between the government's stated priorities and what it is actually doing.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Joining the Dots in New Zealand

I'll outsource comment on the latest welfare reform news to Gordon Campbell. who once again makes the point that:

...welfare is not the root cause of the problem. Blaming the welfare system for the current existence of poverty is like seeing the incidence of Third World diseases in this country, and blaming it on the existence of hospitals. Similarly, the social safety net does not cause people to live in poverty and be out of work – it is an effect, not a cause. And the current state of the welfare rolls is precisely what you would expect to find when the jobs market is barely off its sick bed after the global recession.

Also, Danyl Mclachlan, who puts things into context with posts and home made charts here, here and here

Meanwhile, ongoing cuts to the public service are now seeing some push back, while so far they haven't really even achieved their stated objective.

The welfare reforms and public service cuts have this much in common: they have been presented as being about economics, but really they are about ideology. As Campbell and many other commentators have noted, increased burden on the welfare system is a result of economic conditions, not a cause. Similarly, so-called reforms of the public service bear little relation to any of the big challenges facing New Zealand.

The claim that it's about "moving resources from the back office to the front line" is misleading. (It would be interesting to do a discourse analysis of what is actually being signified by "back office" and "front line", but that's for another post.)  The main point is, there just aren't that many resources to move to the front line. Public servants are a small part of the workforce, and the bureaucracy makes up a tiny fraction of the costs of public services. In another moment, I'll try to put together a summary of this book chapter on the history of the public sector workforce in New Zealand.

 It's not very surprising that few savings have been achieved through the job cuts to date, since, as I've argued before, you could disestablish the entire bureaucracy and all its functions, and you still wouldn't save very much.  

A friend of mine who is a self-styled centrist argues that it's a question of swings and roundabouts. Centre-left governments, he says, will by inclination tend to expand government functions, implementing ambitious new programmes and being reluctant to diestablish any existing ones. Centre-right governments will tend to be more sceptical, trimming and making efficiencies. If you accept that argument, you might expect a rightist government to maybe be a bit stingier with their departments' and ministries' budgets. They might reorganize a bit and make some changes where there's evidence the benefits will outweigh the costs. You wouldn't, however, expect them to respond to a range of serious economic, social and environmental challenges by making the elimination of public service jobs one of their most important policy platforms.

Then, it's hard to find rational arguments for beating up on welfare recipients during a recession, either.

I've been trying to come up with an analogy for this approach. The best I could do so far is that it's like repsonding to the discovery that your house has some serious leaks by deciding to clean out your cupboards.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Paradoxes of Neoliberalism, New Zealand Style, Updated

A while back I asked in a post why the more-market ideologues in New Zealand were so obsessed with privatizing public assets: shouldn't the John and Jane Galts be heroically creating new products and marketing them to the world?

This op-ed from financial analyst Brian Gaynor, discussed here by Gordon Campbell, documents what has resulted from this obsession over the past 30 years. In 1981, the majority of New Zealand's largest listed companies originated in the private sector and had an export orientation. Now, says Gaynor, the sharemarket is "ruled by former state-owned or monopolistic organisations." Seven out of the 12 largest listed companies were formerly owned by the government or local authorities. Not one is export-oriented.

So, in the brave new world of deregulation, trade liberalisation and free markets, it seems capital in New Zealand has become much less dynamic and outward looking.

Friday, March 02, 2012

New Blog Reading

My new favourite blog is The Realignment Project, which presents a progressive, social democatic vision (In the US context) that is both broad and detailed. Its co-founders are Steven Attewell and Daraka Larimore-Hall, two PhD students at the University of California Santa Barbara who are also active in the Democractic Party. 

Their discussion of inequality is a good starting point, but I particularly like their posts on the politics or urban design and transport, such as High-Speed Rail in an Age of Ideology and Public Sector Aesthetics - Why They Matter

Thursday, March 01, 2012

More on Wellington Transport: the Bus Review

The Wellington Regional Council is undertaking a second round of consultation on its review of bus services. After a first round of consultation, it has prepared some proposals for how to reorganise routes to respond to people's desires for greater frequency and more services in the evening and on weekends, within the current budget.

The WRC reports that it has followed "best practice public transport design principles" in designing the new routes. The main change is that routes are divided into three tiers: 'core', 'secondary' and 'peak only'. The core routes would run along main corridors with a 15-minute frequency, 7 days, early morning to late evening. The secondary routes are more suburban-oriented branches and loops, most with an all-week 30-minute frequency. The peak-only routes are a combination of local loops to fringe areas and more direct routes from suburbs to the CBD in peak hours.

The trade off for the increased hours and frequency is that more journeys will require a change of buses than at present, many through major connection points such as the Cable Car, Wellington Station, Johnsonville, Kilbirnie, Brookly and Karori Tunnel. WRC says connections will be free for travel on the same company, and major connection points will offer shelter

After having a look and applying the proposed new system to places I or people I know have lived, I'm cautiously positive. The Brooklyn area in particular would be much better served than at present. On the other hand, some of the idiosyncratic northwest-southeast routes will go: it would no longer be possible to get a bus from right outside by house in Northland to a couple of blocks away from my friends' house in Berhampore.

Nevertheless, I think the trade offs are probably worth it. Frequency and extended hours are a major selling point of a public transport system, making a difference between it being a convenient, consumer-centred service and something you're relegated to when you don't have a car. One of the things that I like about the metro systems in large international cities is that you can just show up at the station and be confident that the next train will be along soon. It's a different experience from having to organize your day around being at bus stops at very specific times or facing an interminable wait in the wind and rain.

So, I'll provide a qualified endorsement of the WRC's proposal, with the following conditions:

-- the frequencies and extended hours are as promised
-- the connections are as seamless as they promise
-- cash-paying passengers get the same transfer rights, i.e. it isn't some mysterious process available only to those with a Snapper card
-- the Cable Car should also be a free transfer