|« The Eve of Independence||One Last Bite from the Apple »|
For weeks now, I?ve been metaphorically lugging Steve Jobs around with me. I bought Walter Isaacson?s biography shortly after Jobs died, but I got side-tracked by the controversy over hazardous working conditions at the plants in China where Apple products are manufactured.
Once I started reading, I was again wowed by Jobs? early vision for personal computers and how his interest in both Zen Buddhism and calligraphy, not to mention the influence of LSD, shaped his sensibilities. They seemed to explain the elegance and grace that Apple products have always communicated.
But then I would come across a passage in which Jobs treated a friend, relative or worker with such unspeakable cruelty that I?d have to put the book down before finishing a chapter. The more familiar Jobs was with the object of his abuse, the meaner he permitted himself to act.
He saw things (and people) in black and white. Objects were excellent or ?shit.? Food was delicious or inedible. People were A Team or idiots. People around Jobs referred to his ?reality distortion field.? No matter how difficult the engineering or design demand he placed on them, he refused to believe it was impossible. Time, materials, logistics, even human ability, were all fungible. He had a vision, and he refused to surrender it.
I found Isaacson?s biography remarkably even-handed. But this is not a book review. My point here is political.
While Jobs struggled against the cancer that would kill him, his wife, Laurene Powell, learned that President Obama was coming to California, and she wanted him to meet her remarkable husband. A meeting was arranged in late 2010 at a hotel near the San Francisco airport, and Apple?s CEO pulled no punches with the nation?s chief executive.
The first thing Jobs told Obama was that he was headed for just one term unless he changed his ways. At the top of Jobs? agenda was that the President needed to be more business-friendly. Jobs reminded him how easy it is to set up a factory in China versus doing the same thing in the United States, how the regulations and costs weighed business down.
Then Jobs attacked the American education as ?hopelessly antiquated and crippled by union work rules.? Teachers needed to be treated as professionals, and principals need to be able to hire and fire them at will. After bending Obama?s ear for forty-five minutes, Jobs offered to set up a meeting with other Silicon Valley industry leaders.
More about that later. First, let?s unpack Jobs? initial advice. Those regulations that Jobs railed against include safety and environmental laws that protect workers, residents and the surrounding countryside. They include taxes that pay for roads and public services to a factory and that fund public schools for the workers? children. (Elizabeth Warren says it better, but you get the point.)
In China, young workers migrate from the countryside and move into dorms. Since they do not bring their families, no one worries about new schools. And since they arrive by public transportation, no facilities must be arranged for their vehicles (and, of course, it?s easier to control their comings and goings.) Although working conditions have improved some due to international public pressure, business negotiates with the central government, not the locals or unions. For workers, that means no health or disability insurance. No workmen?s compensation. Environmental requirements are negligible. Do we really want this Paradise here? Isn?t it possible for corporations to operate profitably in a more equitable environment?
And, as for teachers, Jobs made a mistake shared by so many in the business and financial community. ?Professionalizing? teachers should not put them at risk of being fired summarily. Time and time again, Isaacson reports that Jobs dismissed engineers because their solutions were pedestrian or they were part of a team that lost a competition within the company. And then there were his legendary tirades against workers and colleagues at their most vulnerable points.
At Apple, Jobs created an atmosphere where people lived by his rules and his whims in order to be a part of a ground-breaking enterprise. Eventually, Apple hired people to soften the consequences of his arbitrariness, and because of the phenomenal growth of the Silicon Valley tech industry, we can probably assume that most workers Jobs discarded were able to find employment elsewhere. Let?s not forget that Jobs himself was kicked out because he alienated so many people. His return restored Apple?s visionary mission, but I don?t think it?s a good model for education or for governing.
Elsewhere in the book, Jobs and his archrival, Bill Gates, discuss the disappointing lack of impact of electronic technology on education. Like them, I?d hoped that electronics would lighten the heavy load of textbooks that students carry, and I?m sorry there haven?t been more breakthroughs in electronic instruction. But certainly that is not the fault of teachers or of the National Education Association or of the American Federation of Teachers.
Public education is a social as well as an intellectual enterprise. Ideally, it takes place in a supportive, humane community. The best teachers struggle to reach every student, but often they must compensate for factors beyond their control like poverty, family dysfunction, and poor facilities. If teachers were truly treated as professionals, they would not have to look over their shoulders for punitive administrators.
Because of Jobs? deteriorating health, he didn?t see President Obama again until February 2011 when the venture capitalist John Doerr scheduled a dinner in Palo Alto that included Jobs and executives from Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Cisco, Oracle, Genetech and Netflix among others. And, Isaacson reports, the conversation became a litany about what the President might do for them rather than what they might do for their country.
One mentioned a tax holiday for overseas profits in return for investing domestically, but Jobs pressed the education issue again. In China where Apple employed 700,000 workers, it hired 30,000 engineers to oversee them. In the United States, he would be hard-pressed to find 30,000 engineers, he said, and he was not looking for people who were geniuses or PhD?s, but simply knew enough about basic manufacturing to run the factories. Those aren?t available in America, he insisted.
This rightly captured the President?s imagination, although he does not seem to have created a program to address it. He?s had a hard time even convincing Congress to keep down interest rates on student loans, and I wonder if he really believes there will be jobs for those engineers if we educate them.
Nevertheless, the conversation between Jobs and the President offers valuable insight about the dilemma in which we find ourselves as a nation. Republicans have sold the idea that any regulation or restraint or enforced taxation on the business and financial sectors is anti-American. Both Democrats and Republicans have even encouraged industry to send its jobs abroad and found no way to tax profits parked overseas. With pressure to keep down public expenditures, the President has diminished avenues to create jobs.
Many people have hailed Steve Jobs as the Benjamin Franklin of our day; he may have seen himself that way. My view is that he was more like Thomas Jefferson, a person with high ideals and a refined sense of design and innovation who remained deliberately ignorant of the inhumane conditions necessary to sustain his vision. Whichever comparison you favor, keep in mind that Franklin and Jefferson lived before the industrial revolution and the evolution of a consumer society. These exponentially magnified Jobs? accomplishments and the consequences of his actions.
Of course, Jobs was not alone in profiting from China?s labor and oppressive leadership. Most of his competitors use the same factories, and Apple has used its leverage to improve working conditions. But the mentality in Silicon Valley seems unchanged. As Facebook goes public, it has been revealed that one of its founders, Eduardo Saverin, took up citizenship in Singapore in order to avoid paying U.S. income tax on his payout. He?s one of 1800 U.S. citizens who bailed out of this country last year.
Being a genius in one realm does not qualify one as a genius in another. Jobs was too individualistic and self-obsessed to design or rescue a democratic society. China?s totalitarian politics seem not to have bothered him much, nor will Singapore?s bother Saverin. But we must resist the urge to let business innovators dictate domestic policy, and I don?t believe that forcing them to contribute their fair share of taxes will kill innovation.
I doubt Obama ever dreamed of creating a new machine. But his 2008 campaign did convince me that he knew how to restore our society. I thought he understood the damage being done to our nation by out-of-control financial and government institutions and the undermining of the middle class. I thought he understood that the life of our planet hangs in the fragile balance. And I thought he could inspire us to achieve through democratic means. But, unlike Jobs, the President sees things in infinite shades of gray, and it often makes him unable to act decisively.
Like a lot of Democrats, I hope he?ll step out of the reality distortion field created by the mega-rich and amplified by Fox News and remind us how democracy allows genius to thrive but it demands something in return. I?d like to see a plan for educating 30,000 engineers that doesn?t demonize teachers and their unions. We might begin by offering them interest-free student loans for higher education and a job when they graduate. And, of course, they should have access to union membership.