Smart phones, solidarity-based consumerism, and theories of value

Posted: 14 September 2015 in Uncategorized
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EMS-brand

Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller recently made the case for solidarity-based consumerism in response to Apple’s business model:

Faced with a global political economy that condones such a business model, proponents of solidarity between electronics workers and digital consumers(link is external) have big ambitions. They aim to eliminate the estrangement between worker and consumer, awaken consciousness of the political and economic ties that bind them, and install resolute ethical commitments to building a new kind of bond based in mutuality, justice, and equality that stretches across the global supply chain of electronic goods.

As consumers, we should support a solidarity-based consumerism. The alternative is the status quo where profits are beat out of the lives of electronics workers while consumers pay a premium to keep the mark-ups feeding those profits. To the egoistic consumer, we say it’s time to stop blaming higher wages for higher prices. Instead, ask Apple, the most valuable company in the world, to lower its prices and pay good wages directly to factory workers who make their i-Things. Trust us, they won’t go broke.

They base their argument on an analysis of the financial relationships between Electronic Manufacturing Services (providers such as Flextronics, Foxconn, and Jabil) and the Brand Names (like Apple) of consumer electronics by industry veteran Anthony Harris (pdf).

Harris’s example clearly shows how the wages of workers who actually produce smart phones and other electronic gadgets are a small (he estimates them to be 2 percent) of the final price of those commodities.

All along the product supply chain – from the component supplier to the assembly factory to the retail outlet – prices are factored up by percentage of goods value. The factory price is marked-up on basis of invoice value without differentiating between cost of labour, manufacturing complexity, materials, IP, or other value. The EMS selling price gets a margin added every time it is moving down the chain. For example, a smartphone with a factory price of 100 Euro of which 2 Euro = labour costs. Next in line exports to USA/Europe and adds 30% (logistics, management, margin) = 130 Euro. Distributor in USA adds another 30% for logistics, risk and labour = 169 Euro. The store adds its percentage and then there is the internet provider contract and Vat, all pushing upwards to 500 Euro. With this standard business model mark-up on the EMS selling price the actual labour cost becomes almost insignificant as an element of the retail store price.

He also explains the high cost to workers of “flexibility” at the bottom of the chain:

To illustrate what happens: When Apple launched the initial manufacturing of the iPhone, a screen change was suddenly required. 8,000 workers were woken from their dormitories in the middle of the night in China. Within 30 minutes, after being given tea and biscuits, they began an unscheduled 12-hour shift to kick-start the change for the new screens. Foxconn relentlessly ramped up production to 10,000 pieces (a day) after only four days. One Apple executive, as quoted in The New York Times, said “That speed and flexibility is breath taking. There’s no American plant that can match that.”

Breath taking speed and flexibility, however, come at a human price, which clearly American workers at that time were not prepared to endure. Yet with a cup of tea and a biscuit, impoverished Chinese workers were all too ready to earn some extra money to help cover basic costs and feed their families.

I am interested in Harris’s analysis because, in class the other day, the students wanted to know if the iPhone represented an example of a utility theory of value or a labor theory of value. (We were discussing the different assumptions and consequences of those two theories of value.) And, when I answered that both theories could be used to make sense of the price of an iPhone but the two theories were incompatible, they wanted to know if it was possible to combine them (rather than choose between them).

Let me pose a bit of a different question: which of the two theories is more compatible with the kind of solidarity-based consumerism Maxwell and Miller are advocating?

According to the utility (or neoclassical) theory of value, the final price of an iPhone represents a balance between supply and demand and, as such, reflects the preferences, technology, and resource endowments of the societies at each stage of the supply chain. In particular, the workers in the Electronic Manufacturing Services, who receive low wages and agree to flexible rules, are being paid according to their productivity and desire to work. No more, no less. Therefore, consumers can remain content to purchase their iPhones at the going price and, if by chance they become aware of what’s going at the bottom, let “the market” work things out. No need to worry.

According to a labor theory of value (in particular, a Marxian labor theory of value), the final price of an iPhone represents something else: it’s a combination of the materials and equipment purchased to produce and transport iPhones, the wages paid to workers at various stages of the supply chain, and a surplus created by those workers. That surplus is in turn used for various purposes: taxes to governments, salaries of executives, dividends to shareholders, and, perhaps most important, an extensive advertising campaign to make sure millions of people continue to want to purchase more iPhones. And the less workers are paid on the bottom and at each stage of the supply chain, and the more “flexible” are their work rules, the more surplus Apple is able to appropriate and the higher price at which they can sell their smart phones.

Clearly, a labor theory of value is more compatible with Maxwell and Miller’s solidarity-based consumerism. It makes people aware of the work and value-creation that are taking place at each stage of the supply chain—from the initial research and development through the production of the phones to their transportation to wherever they are sold—and the amount of surplus Apple is able to capture for its own purposes.

In the end, those are the high costs that serve as the basis of the high price of our iPhones.

Comments
  1. Bruce says:

    David, you write: “According to a labor theory of value (in particular, a Marxian labor theory of value), the final price of an iPhone represents something else: it’s a combination of the materials and equipment purchased to produce and transport iPhones, the wages paid to workers at various stages of the supply chain, and a surplus created by those workers.” But what you seem to describe is the *value* of the iPhone (with its components c+v+s), not the *price*. From the figure at the top, wages roughly “v”) seem to be quite small. But the profit seems quite large. That (to me) looks not so much like “a surplus [value] created by those workers,” but instead a smallish surplus produced internally by Apple workers and a large additional profit reaped as a transfer of surplus labor performed elsewhere but captured by Apple due to the pricing power they enjoy (due mostly to the brand name they have created by their past success). I don’t think you want to identify Apple’s profit with the surplus *its* employees produce — looks like a large redistribution component to me.

  2. David F. Ruccio says:

    It’s true, Bruce, for the purposes of this post, I was explaining things in a volume 1 world, i.e, a world in which (production) value equals exchange-value equals price. In order to make things more concrete, we certainly have to consider flows of surplus other than the initial appropriation from workers. One possibility is, as you suggest, a distribution based on a Apple’s pricing power (call it a temporary monopoly based on brand name). That would make Apple’s profits higher than the surplus it appropriates from its workers. Another possibility is that Apple is able to capture, via its monopsony power, some (a lot?) of the surplus created by the workers who actually produce the phones. The boards of directors of the EMS’s that sell the phones to Apple appropriate the surplus from their workers but then are forced to distribute some of it to Apple (which is able to force down the prices it pays for the phones). I suspect that, in that post-volume 1 world, both forms of distribution of the surplus are taking place—in addition to the surplus Apple is able to appropriate from its own workers.

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