In his State of the Union address, President Obama talked a lot about bringing back American jobs as well as American ingenuity as represented by Steve Jobs. But talking about them together somehow seems oxymoronic. "You see, an economy built to last is one where we encourage the talent and ingenuity of every person in this country," Obama said, bowing to Laurene Powell Jobs, who sat with Michelle Obama as an honored guest. "That means women should earn equal pay for equal work. It means we should support everyone who's willing to work; and every risk-taker and entrepreneur who aspires to become the next Steve Jobs."
There are several contradictions in this short passage worth pointing out. First of all, as America's most valuable company and an industrial powerhouse, Apple could very easily create a lot of jobs. Obama's speech happened to hit just a few minutes after Apple released it's fourth quarter earnings report, a bombshell of a document that showed not only that Apple's profits exceeded Google's entire revenue but also that the company remains flush with cash. They have almost a hundred billion dollars on hand and Apple executives says they're "actively discussing uses of our cash balance." Why not build some factories, as Obama's populist speech suggests is the way forward for America? Well, based on new information about Apple's manufacturing practices published in Sunday's New York Times, Obama tried that when Jobs was still alive:
Not long ago, Apple boasted that its products were made in America. Today, few are. Almost all of the 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other products Apple sold last year were manufactured overseas.
Why can't that work come home? Mr. Obama asked.
Mr. Jobs's reply was unambiguous. "Those jobs aren't coming back," he said, according to another dinner guest.
As The Times's Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher go on to explain, Apple doesn't want to manufacture its products in America because it would be more expensive -- God knows they can afford it -- but rather because factories abroad are more efficient.
This brings us to the second contradiction: Apple allows its manufacturers to treat its workers terribly. We've covered the many mind-boggling scandals at Foxconn, where iPhones are built. Most recently, there were reports of mass suicide threats, in which Foxconn workers would have rather killed themselves than continue working with the pay and under the extreme conditions at the company. While one could also make a point about Apple's lack of female leadership -- only one of Apple's eight board members is a woman -- it's becoming increasingly clear that Apple is making incomprehensible amounts of money by taking advantage of the loose labor laws in China. Of course, they're not the only company doing this, but as the recent earnings report made very clear, they're the richest. Apple is not sorry about this. "We shouldn't be criticized for using Chinese workers," a current Apple executive told The Times. "The U.S. has stopped producing people with the skills we need." The U.S. also enforces labor laws.
It's difficult to criticize Obama for tipping his hat to Steve Jobs during the State of the Union. In the Republican response, Mitch Daniels did with a pretty horrible joke: "The late Steve Jobs -- what a fitting name he had -- created more of them than all those stimulus dollars the President borrowed and blew." Not the best joke, especially since It's been made before. But by invoking Jobs -- who no one doubts was an exceptional American -- Obama seemed to point out the elephant in the room (pun intended) that technology manufacturing jobs are not likely to return to America. Perhaps Obama is working with Apple to build green energy research labs with the company's boatload of cash. (We totally made that up, but it sounds like a good idea!) And surely we could use more visionaries like Jobs to create new companies. We could also use a president who doesn't take no for an answer.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.