Remembering the Hidden Costs of Our Affluence

Though we are in tough economic times we Americans live very well. Even the poorest among us live like royalty compared to the poor in many other parts of the world. And we do well, especially in Lent, to recall that our standard of living is partially possible because others work for pennies to produce our many consumer products.

A Worm in the Apple? In today’s Washington Post there was an article that draws me to consider anew my need to remember the poor. The article gives a look behind the scenes of how our relatively inexpensive electronic products are made. The article is entitled “Mike Daisey Discovers the Worm in Apple.” Daisey is a storyteller and has a show at a local theater entitled “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” In it, he recalls a trip he made last year to China where, he was given tours of the factories where Apple Hardware is assembled. Here let me quote some excerpts from the article written by Jane Horwitz:

Daisey traveled last spring to Shenzhen, China, where Apple’s and other companies’ hardware is made by subcontractors such as Foxconn. He posed as a businessman to gain access to many factories and used an interpreter to talk with workers.

Daisey was appalled by the working conditions — factory floors packed with 25,000 and more workers, some children, doing 12- and 18-hour shifts or longer, living in cramped quarters and shadowed by factory security people.

“I expected it to be bad. I expected it to be harsh. I was not actually prepared for how dehumanizing it was. I wasn’t actually prepared for the scale of it. .That was what shocked me,” Daisey says

Learning how his beloved iPhone, iPad and other gadgets were made broke his heart, he says. “I miss the pleasure of browsing technology in a world where the consequences didn’t cost people’s lives. I miss a sort of unfettered world where the big questions were what [a device’s] specifications were ….. a sort of techno-libertarian landscape that I didn’t even fully know that I inhabited…..”

Daisey portrays Apple co-founder Jobs not as a villain, but as a tough visionary who has yet to be enlightened about the China issue.

The full article is here: Worm in the Apple

A few thoughts on this

  1. Our modern economy is almost a miracle: Relatively inexpensive goods, plentiful variety, year round produce, quick delivery, and few shortages. I said it is almost a miracle. For the truth is our abundant and relatively inexpensive products are often made possible for us because many in the world work for pennies to produce them. As Daisey notes they often have terrible working conditions and long hours as well. It seems almost impossible to me that I can buy a decent shirt for under $20, especially when I consider the cost of the materials, shipping and overhead. It has to be the cheap labor that makes it possible. The same is true for our marvelous electronics. They are often astonishingly inexpensive considering what we get. Here too, considering all the parts, research and development costs, shipping, overhead and all. Again, it has to be the labor costs that are low. Daisey’s portrait here confirms that.
  2. I realize that economies are complicated things. I am not an economist and cannot easily envision a different way. It is possible that in trying to fix this problem of inequity, we may make things worse for the poor. It often seems the most dangerous thing the poor can hear is: Hi, we’re from the government and we’re here to help you.
  3. But noting that there IS a problem may be the first stage of justice. We human beings like to stay sleepy. We don’t like to ask too many questions like, “Where did this product come from and how can it possibly be so cheap?” Questions like these are uncomfortable, because deep down, most of us know the answer isn’t pretty. So we don’t ask, we don’t even wonder. But honestly we should ask, we should wonder, and we should face the truth, that a lot of our comfort and prosperity, a lot of our cheap products, are made possible because others, who supply us, live with far less and are paid little.
  4. The Pope on sleepiness – Regarding our sleepiness, our wish to remain drowsy and dreamily unaware of injustice, the Pope has a remarkable mediation in his new book, Jesus of Nazareth, Vol II. He is meditating here on the summons that Jesus gave the disciples in the Garden to “stay awake and watch, lest they give way to temptation” (Mk 14). The Pope writes: Across the centuries it is the drowsiness of the disciples that opens up possibilities for the power of the evil one. Such drowsiness deadens the soul, so that it remains undisturbed by the power of the evil one at work in the world, and by all the injustice and suffering ravaging the earth. In its state of numbness, the soul prefers not to see all this; it is easily persuaded that things cannot be so bad, so as to continue in the self-satisfaction of its own comfortable existence. Yet this deadening of souls, this lack of vigilance….is what gives the evil one power in the world. On beholding the drowsy disciples, so disinclined to rouse themselves, the Lord says, “My soul is very sorrowful , even to death.”
  5. It is easy to feel overwhelmed in the face of so complex an issue, an issue involving a world-wide economy with 100,000 moving parts, not mention many governments, some of them corrupt, and a complicated interplay between money, materials and manpower. What is the best solution? Is it a boycott? Is it protests? Daisey suggests in the article that maybe we ought to stop upgrading our stuff for a while to send a message. But would that really help the poor, or would it possibly cause them greater harm? Here a scripture comes to mind: The poor are caught in schemes that others have made (Ps 10:2).
  6. Personal Reform? This is not an economic blog, and not a political one. Hence I do not propose immediate solutions along those lines, if they even exist. What I do propose is a more personal reform. I propose that we ask questions of ourselves and others, that we ponder justice. That we develop a greater love and solidarity for the poor, many of whom are integral to our “miracle” economy (troubled though it currently is). Perhaps we can consider being personally more generous to the needy and the poor when we are given opportunities to do so. Gratitude to the God is essential for all we have, but part of this gratitude should also include deep prayer to God for the world’s poor, many of whom supply our economy by their blood, sweat and tears. And as our love of the poor deepens, our desire of justice for them also grows.
  7. Personal practice – The next time I pick up that tomato at the store, perhaps I can consider that some one far less affluent that I may have picked or processed it. The next time I gleefully open the box with the brand new computer, filled with excitement as on Christmas morning, I ought to remember the Chinese peasant who may have had a hand in assembling it and who could never dream of owning one that nice for himself.
  8. Ask God for a deeper love for the poor, the many unknown souls who are the hidden foundation and the hidden cost in our inexpensive products. Demanding draconian solutions may not be what is best, but love and gratitude for the poor will surely lay a foundation for greater justice and a desire to find creative solutions.
  9. One Day God came to Cain and asked, Where is your brother? As if also to say, How is your brother? Account for me as to his welfare. Cain shrugged, Am I my brother’s keeper? (cf Gen 4:9). Well you know the answer. We ARE the keeper, we ought to have care for the welfare of others. In Lent we ought to pray for a deepening care for the welfare of others.

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28 Replies to “Remembering the Hidden Costs of Our Affluence”

  1. I find it difficult to use new forms of media, knowing that my use of them will indirectly lead to child labor.

    How can I feel justified in buying any computer if I know what pain it brings?
    Even using forms of media will encourage the companies and their methods.

    I want to buy a farm and live on it. That really is something I desire, but I know that it’s not that simple. You can’t just retreat out of society. But how can we live if we’re hurting others by our affluence?

    It’s a paradox, and a particularly difficult one, as it comes to me soon after hearing our Pope call for us to reach out in the new media forms and evangelize.

  2. I always await your posts on this topic with a mixture of fear and (joyful) anticipation–fear because I look into myself and see darkness indeed, something in need of reforming that I am too weak and selfish and cowardly to address; something I do not really want to change when I get right down to it. Anticipation because each time I read something like this, I move closer to the person God created me to be, closer to generosity. I will not complete the journey in this life, but, as you say, at least I realize that I am meant to be on it. Thank you.

  3. How about using far less of these technology goods? Do you really need an Ipad? No. Do you really need an iPhone? No. You don’t even really need a computer.

    1. “You don’t even really need a computer.”

      Without a computer then I can’t read the Monsignor, watch EWTN on the internet (sorry, no cable for me!), listen to podcasts from various Catholic speakers, easily research my academic work and the faith, get quick directions to various locations, check the weather to see how to dress for long pro-life vigils, pay my bills without $.44 stamps, cheaply communicate with people spread all over the country, efficiently search for a new home given our needs, find quick cooking and gardening tips, and cheaply and efficiently buy/sell stocks. I guess I don’t need a computer…

      1. One other point. Without computers and the internet, it would have taken orthodox laity and priests longer to break the hegemony of lukewarm catholicism that reigned in the 70s and 80s…

          1. Greg…My employer would not be happy if I used my work computer or the Blackberry I have been given for
            personal use….it would be called stealing! Stealing the time he pays me to work for him…and using the
            technology he has a business investment in for my own personal use! Uh-uh! No can do! Computers are
            not bad…they can be used to do much good…personal computers are also useful. WHile I agree with all the Monseignor says here, throwing this technology out the window is not the answer. Better working conditions
            for the laborers is in order. Our country went through this in the early part of the last century. The unions
            made working conditions, along with better hours and wages, and improved our lives. We did not stop using the manufactured goods but rather made it possible for all workers to afford them. Monseignor is correct in
            stating this is a complicated issue and won’t be solved overnight. Also the fact that in China we have a totolitarian regime complicates the issues.

  4. What economic opportunities would exist for these children and their parents if they did not have these jobs? If educational opportunities or better employment exist, then surely these people would choose them. Despite the difficult working conditions and close supervision, these people do not appear to be enslaved.

    What would happen if we stopped buying these products because we feel guilty? Wouldn’t these workers soon be out of a job? Wouldn’t that make their lives worse?

    When I buy those products, I am sharing my relative affluence with these workers. I am supporting their livelihood, just as I am supporting the livelihood of my neighbors when I buy at my local store or eat at a local restaurant.

    Labor costs are lower in many other countries because the cost of living is lower in those countries. That’s why those manufacturing jobs are outsourced. Outsourcing can be a way of sharing wealth by inviting those with little to no opportunities into our own economy. From what I read, Asian economies are booming. People there have more freedom and purchasing power than in the past.

    I say that the best way to help those workers is to keep buying what they are making. Buy two iPhones and give one to your pastor or deacon. Buy three or four iPads and give them to elderly family members who are homebound or in assisted living, or give them to teachers at your parish school. Start a small business with your favorite technology gadgets and create some jobs for unemployed people here at home. Multiply the wealth. Let’s not bury our talents.

    Praise God for our creative energies! Rise, and let us be on our way!

  5. Monsignor, you wrote, “others work for pennies”, and quoted a Washington Post article about less than ideal-to-an-American working conditions of workers in China. I grant you this is true. I now ask you to consider that the Chinese workers “for pennies” are able to buy much more for them in China than if they could in the USA. Also, consider that if these jobs did not exist, instead of having a place to sleep, enough food to eat, and a little left over to save, the workers most likely would be out of work, close to starvation and living in a rural Communist Chinese commune. The world is not perfect and never will be until after the Last Day. Do what you can to improve things, but don’t play violins for workers who are better off today working in productive Western-oriented factories than their parents had a right to expect 20 years ago.

  6. Apple has done more to improve the lives of Chinese workers than any other Fortune 500 company in America. I understand that this in not the point of your article, and I do thoroughly enjoy your work, but Mike Daisey has been shown to be a terrible source. In charity, I think it would be appropriate to update your article to avoid the sin of slander.

    God bless you and all you do.

  7. We have all been sucked into the new technology and have forgotten the costs. I hated computers when they came out, and was afraid to use them. Now I am in front of one all day and even when I get home. I do not have a cell phone, nor a lap top, no ipad, no iphone–and I hope I never do. I think the users are enslaved by them as I see people driving or walking through the grocery store with a phone in their ear. I found that I was becoming an addict to my TV –constantly watching movies, so I have cut back on that distraction. How easily we fall into these traps and forget those who suffer for this “technology”–and that includes ourselves. We can’t pray or focus on God when we are so distracted. I sometimes thin the only one that profits from these constant distractions to humans–is the evil one, who works against God fo souls.

  8. Apple’s partnership with the Foxconn company has produced some ugly dilemmas…

    Now for some contrarian observations:
    Firstly, from the viewpoint of most americans, most of the labor of our ancestors would be described as de-humanizing and degrading. We are spoiled and fragile (we can’t even listen to sermons about hell, demons and original sin), and would be horrified at endlessly clearing and plowing fields (with our children working alongside us), slaughtering and cleaning our own meat, and hand-washing our own laundry. We can’t even contemplate having relations with someone who doesn’t shower everyday!

    Secondly, it is our OWN sin that ultimately makes life unbearable. When I was an eighteen year old three-time bankrobber in maximum security prison, life was bearable because I had hope, friends and a commitment to inner transformation. But when I was a thirty-three year old working on my PhD at a major research university, life was unbearable because I loathed myself for a decade of womanizing and selfishness. Yes, prison was a happier time than teaching, researching and skirt-chasing.

    Lastly, my wife has had stock in Apple since 1985, and given the success of that investment and others, I am able to devote my days to St. Vincent De Paul, 40 Days for Life, eucharistic adoration, and other forms of evangelization, prayer and penance. Without such leisure, I would be far less conformed to Christ, and hundreds of people would be without my (albeit shabby) Christian witness. The moral of the story: the world is always crooked, and it is up to us and God’s grace to find ways to write straight with crooked lines.

  9. Here’s a suggestion for writing straight with crooked lines. Boycott personal use of Apple Products where ever possible. Maybe not for long, but currently, there are good alternatives on the market to Apple products and software. I don’t know that other manufacturer’s agendas are much better, but there is no need to directly compromise oneself and others by purchasing Apple products and suppporting their clearly anti-Christian amoral platform and agenda’s.

    Microsoft and IBM are in partnership with Apple as well as AT&T and Verizon, these are only the most visible, I’m sure there’s much, much more. I stopped using Microsoft Internet Explorer and downloaded Mozilla Foxfire on my personal machine. I purposely don’t own any computing or personal device beginning with ‘I’, ‘APP’ or has a logo of an apple with a bite out of it. I avoid software I’m aware is associated with Apple if possible.

    I don’t know I’ve done any good and I know it’s not just Apple, but why compromise if you don’t have to?

    Here’s an interesting statement on Wikipedia regarding Apple:

    Today, Apple is the largest technology firm in the world, with annual revenue of over $60 billion.[1] In mid 2010, Apple overtook Microsoft to become the largest technology by market capitalisation.[2] While breaking the $300 billion market value in January 2011, Apple currently is the world’s second largest company behind Exxon Mobil.[3]

    1. All of the tech hardware companies use the same set of suppliers, and Apple often gets first call because it pre-purchases parts and pays in cash. So you will have to boycott Samsung, Nokia, Motorola, HP, Dell, Rimm, and on and on. Moreover, all of the major tech firms are run or were founded by “progressives” who are pro-gay, pro-choice etc. So you will have to boycott Google, Apple, Microsoft, and more.

      For my part, I’m always suspicious of too much attention to structural/systemic problems in politics and economics (unless we are dealing with radical, murderous totalitarian regimes) given the numerous openings that demons can exploit in our own damaged souls. Such problems have their claim on our attention (tomorrow I will spend the day at 40 Days for Life), but their constant attention typically lead souls slowly away from God. I first try to keep my eyes on God and my own dingy soul, and I know you do the same, Dismas.

  10. Affluence is a two-edged sword in the sense that both parties, spoiled consumer and pathetic producer, suffer, but in different ways. The affluent in a spiritual sense suffer sometimes more than the poor, in shall we say, more potentially eternal ways.

    As became clear to me during my adult RCIA period, being affluent is not necessarily a blessing from God but is usually a hindrance to our spiritual development, from satan, tolerated by God, until such time as the Holy Trinity decides to come to the affluent man and rescue him from his blinders and bonds.

    Poverty often causes corporeal suffering, but when the person dies, I hopefully suspect much of his suffering is over. For the rich man, what is the quote, with his sleek and healthy body?, when he dies his suffering may well be just beginning. O to ponder Lazarus of the rich man’s doorstep! Who would we rather be?

    The decadent portions of this world are the place of the most spiritual carnage, which is the type most to be feared since it lasts longest if not forever.

  11. Jon White’s comments about “playing violins” for production workers is both less than charitable and not particularly relevant. Certainly, one can argue that workers in an Apple factory are comparatively better off than their parents who toiled in the fields. They have some sort of a steady income. They are some health and safety protection. Perhaps unlike workers in less publicised manufacturing plants, they have some protection by working indirectly for Apple. Their status relative to their parents, or rural workers, should not be the standard against which working conditions are judged. If that were the case, then everything is relative to something else, which makes progress difficult if not impossible. Also bear in mind that Apple and similar companies make tremendous profits off the toil of everyday workers. They could afford to pay more, of course, but then stockholders – people like me – would not get as good a deal.

    Our Pope, and I suspect previous ones too, have written encyclicals and other documents on the disordered nature of our global economy and proposed solutions that put the Catholic Church well to the “left” of any political party. I think that most Catholics do not know this. Our wealth and our goods are not possessions, but our gifts to be used for the greater good. This is too counter-cultural for today’s world. The least we can do, however, is be charitable toward distant workers, be cognisant of our own good fortune, and pray for God’s help to solve the economic disparities that, sooner or later, will lead to greater global conflict.

  12. Interesting reading and a good call to be responsible. I’ve lived in some of the countries where they make consumer goods and technology for foreign market consumption, but not China. Until very recently life for the vast majority of mankind was short, brutal and mean. Children worked on farms, in fields and at home with minimal education and continued in gruelling physical labor for their entire lives, that is, if they made it out of infancy and childhood. Any random event, a late freeze, flood, storm or drought would mean starvation for whole families, villages and, with pestilences, even continents. Some people still live that way. The number of subsistence farmers in the world has dropped at the same time as famine throughout the world has dropped due to advanced technologies, transportation and communication. In the world now, the most common cause of hunger is political, usually by the country of residence, not because of external factors.
    The only regret I have regarding Apple’s and other tech factories, is that they are in China, not in a neighboring country where the higher income from factory work makes it possible for children to go to school until they are 12 or 13. These are not negative changes and they have fueled improvements in living standards where the factories exist. My grandfather, son of a sodbuster, left school at 14 to serve in communications in the Army and made a life and profession out of that. Give the people in these countries a chance to do the same. Then, they will have to learn to deal with the sins of affluence, rather than those of poverty. We are called to be responsible with what we have, not to harbor some romantic idea of poverty.
    I know people personally whose toilet is open to the hillside and who gets water from the village well and washes clothing at that well. I have a hard time listening to pontificating about thousands of people employed in a factory where they make a wage they can use to buy what they need. There is more than one point of view here. Mine is on the side of the people trying to survive. Then, I will try my best to introduce them to Jesus, whom we follow.

  13. Does buying second hand, or holding onto our stuff longer, or not buying unless there is a real need, or trying to buy goods that are made in USA help? There are lots of similar situations-chocolate, coffee, etc. These are not easy. Dorothy Day had lots to say about it. Once in college (close to forty years ago) we acted out the story of the poor man and Lazarus. It gives me the shivers everytime I hear it at Mass or read it. I have a strong suspicion I am on the wrong side and need to do more to fix the situation. God have mercy on us all!

  14. I believe the deeper truth of what you’re saying has to do with the unrealistic labor rates that unionism/collective bargaining have brought about in America, not the impoverished workers in other nations who give the “lucky Americans” their goods and services atd such a bargain rate. That’s the Obama mentality….guilt about being so fortunate, rather than facing up to the root causes, rather than the symptoms. We have literally priced ourselves out of the world market, generally speaking. Guess this should make us all feel even guiltier, when we purchase from Sam’s Club and Wal Mart and other “discount” retailers. Let’s face it: if we were to do the right thing, we’d be purchasing from the poorest vendors and manufacturers on earth who sell the lowest volumes, and sell for the highest prices.

    Would it be fair to imagine that when the Church has something to buy, it goes to the person who really, really needs the business the worst, because their business is on the edge of collapse, or does it go to the venue of the best price, the biggest bargain, the most bang for Her buck?

    Have patience, Msgr. Pope,, for people learn, over time, and their inclination to greed is unconquerable. They will, in the “Third World Nations” learn, sooner or later, that if they would all stick together, and charge uniformly high prices, we’d have to buy from them, anyhow, because there would be no other choice. Would more appropriately be known as Collective Fleecing than Collective Bargaining.

    People say we need to become PRODUCERS of PRODUCTS, once again, rather than only CONSUMERS of them. Who in the world could ever afford to buy from US? Because people have no consciences, no discipline, no restraint, the world will stay as it is, or go to the only other halfway decent alternative of Socialism.

  15. As the creator of the monologue in question, I do hope that some of you will come and see the work–the issues you are discussing here are directly wrestled with, and I’d love to see some of you at the show.

    Tickets are available at and I can be reached at my website, I would be happy to get tickets for the first four people who write me from this thread–my email is at my site, and I’d be happy to contribute to getting engaged folks into the house.

    Monsignor, if you’d like a ticket, I’d be happy to set one up for you as well–just let me know.

    All the best,


  16. Father, I love your blog! I just wanted to recommend “End the Fed” by Ron Paul, the book is on Amazon and inexpensive. Dr. Paul makes an excellent case that the Federal Reserve system of our nation is hurting the poorest of the poor of our society through inflation. The book is easy to read and he makes moral as well as Constitutional arguments. Thanks again!

  17. This is something that all of us as Christians should certainly think about. Also, I have heard that political prisoners are used as free labor to make these products. But really, we live as kings compared to some in the rest of the world has nothing to do with computers. I sit and type on my computer, but that is not prosperity. If I eat steak, live in a 25,000 sq. foot house on a 100 acre piece of land, maybe I don’t even own a computer. And if I live in a one room apt. and am 3 mos. late on the rent and am about to be homeless, my computer is still here. They are working for a certain level of pay. My husband is an electrician and works on these huge houses putting in electrical lines for all sorts of gadgets that we will never have. We will never have a house like that. And that is okay. I hope no one feels guilty and decides not to build a big new house. Then my husband may be out of work and we won’t have anything. So the fact that we have cheap computers is not what makes us prosperous. And making us less prosperous will not make them more prosperous. We need to pray for them and for their corrupt government that imprisons Christians and other people who don’t agree with the Communist regime. And we need to help them all we can by sending aid and Bibles etc. But we can do more of this if we are not poverty stricken ourselves.

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