Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Problem is Us

Apple is weathering a hailstorm of bad publicity after reports of worker abuse and sub-standard conditions in manufacturing plants in China making its popular iPhone and iPad devices. There have been a couple of high profile suicides, and a number of safety accidents which have led many to question whether Apple has prioritized profits over the well being of people. Predictably, this has led to call for a penalties, government intervention and consumer boycotts to pressure the company to make changes around its labor practices.

In the same spirit as the boycott, the question is being raised about consumers' own personal responsibility in these abuses. Or as a recent column on stated: "Should you feel guilty about buying your iPhone?"

I tend to agree with the article's premise that a boycott would be futile, because history shows that consumer demand and compulsion tends to overwhelm personal indignation and conviction. Or put another way, the vast majority of people are not going to deprive themselves of a highly desirable superior product given the weight of their dismay about these accusations.

I've heard stories many years ago of a generation of Korean adults refusing to buy Japanese cars because of abuses during World War II and Jewish adults refusing to buy German cars for the same reason. The sad reality is that most people aren't going to stop buying iPhones because some guy in Chengdu was worked to death. There's simply too much distance from the abuse and the point of decision for the sale for most people's outrage to change their purchasing habits. That probably says a great deal about the allure of Apple products as well as the self-centeredness of the consumer in the Western world.

The article astutely points out that at the end of the day, the concern for money outweighs the concerns for the workers:

In a poll from the Times that ran with its Foxconn story last week, most consumers thought companies such as Apple should make products in the U.S. but still absorb the added manufacturing costs.

In other words, consumers don't want to pay more for iPhones and iPads than they already do just to ensure factory workers get better working conditions. It's all about money.

So even if Apple moved production to the U.S. or managed to heavily invest in China and improve working conditions there, it would likely result in higher prices for consumers. For a profit-driven company such as Apple, there's almost no chance it would want to absorb those costs itself.

That's telling. Consumers essentially want their cake and eat it, too. Consumers want more American jobs and best-in-class worker conditions, but we want the best things at the cheapest prices. We're not willing to spend $50 more per iPhone to enable broad societal benefits to happen. Instead, customers believe that Apple should just eat those costs and screw their employees and shareholders, and there's no chance that's going to happen.

But that's the nature of our hypocrisy, isn't it? It's easy to rail against outsourcing and worker conditions and the evils of giant corporations, but at the end of the day, the collective individuals which form the customer base of these companies which enable their actions. People who want government to step in are essentially conceding that individuals are incapable of doing the right thing, and thus a large heavy hand must step in, which, in part, is seen in the heavy taxation and regulation of things such as cigarettes.

  • People lament the societal impact of drugs, but are against taking serious action in reducing the demand of drugs (and for those of you who think that legalization is the answer, read one of my earlier posts.)
  • People lament the loss of manufacturing jobs, but can't get enough of cheaper goods that are made outside the United States.
  • People lament the loss of the "mom and pop" store and the overrun of "big box" retail chains like Target, Best Buy and Barnes & Nobles, but people still come in droves, delighting in their prices, wide selection and convenience.

To be clear, I'm not an trade isolationist and I have no problem with buying items from Target and Wal-Mart. I just think that rhetoric and purchasing actions need to be consistent. I may not necessarily agree with everyone who call for boycotts against companies that offshore or have questionable labor practices, but I'll respect more the person who uses their Canadian-made Blackberry as opposed to their Chinese-made iPhone to organize that rally.

Companies are at best amoral (not immoral) entities which will maximize profits based on customer behavior, adjusting for costs, a good price point and lost sales for people who won't buy the product on principle. If the optimal profitable scenario is for them to utilize some degree of "barely legal" labor recognizing that any lost sales won't outpace the savings of that cheap and sketchy labor, that says a great deal about us. And it's not good.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Living in Community With All Its Imperfections

I recently read a sad article about a recluse in Wayne, New Jersey was found dead in his home. The rub is that the gentleman, 80-year old Donald Domsky, was apparently dead for over a year, and nobody seemed to notice. Neighbors entertained a past curious thought about how a man who kept to himself was now never seen as opposed to rarely seen, and service and utility providers - ranging from mailmen to the water company - simply treated Mr. Domsky as a negligent account.

This isn't to peg all the blame upon those who didn't realize that Mr. Domsky was dead until a year after the fact. By all accounts, Mr. Domsky made absolutely no effort to integrate into society, outside from an occasional visit to a local restaurant. He was not connected with any social circles through a shared affinity to a hobby or sport, wasn't part of any sort of faith congregation and it seems that his relationship with his sister was distant, even though she lived relatively close. But it's sad that this man, who lived alone by choice, ended up dying alone.

Over the course of my life, I've encountered people who I might describe as 'difficult' and maybe a few that I would tag as 'insufferable'. But even the worst of these people deserve come kinship and friendship. There are few worse states than to be alone. Sickness and death are terrible, and people could argue that the sickness and death of loved ones are even worse. I'm not going to debate that. But there's a special place of agony for those who must endure suffering along and separated from the warmth of care and kinship. I waxed about how horrible loneliness was in a previous post, and I still feel this way. I'm the guy who gets sad when I think about the new kid at school who sits by themselves at lunch in the cafeteria. (This never happened to me, by the way, but I witnessed it and regretfully did nothing about it.) This is why in Amy Grant's song "Grown-Up Christmas List", she wishes that "everyone would have a friend" right up there with seemingly more cosmically important things like "right would always win", "love would never end", "no more lives torn apart" and that "wars would never start."

If friendship is so appealing, why does anyone make the conscious choice - as it seemed Mr. Domsky did - to opt of of it? I get that humanity is very imperfect, and the wounds and scars from people who love us and hurt us are plentiful. But it's tragic that anyone would opt for the emptiness of isolation instead of the joys of fellowship, even with all of the hurts and pains that come along with it.

To a Christian, your immerse yourself in community in part because God's commands us to do so (numerous references to engaging in the fellowship of believers and meeting together) and there's the hope that all of these relationships, while sometimes painful, are ultimately redemptive and part of God's broader plan. I can rest peacefully knowing that even the most painful relational rift is somehow going to be redeemed in God's perfect plan to make the me the man that God wants me to be and to ultimately shape the other person. This is why Christians can be (even though in practice it's still hard) "put themselves out there" and trust that God will work in friendships and relationships. It's only when fear overtakes that faith that we choose not to.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Why I'm Both Thrilled and Nervous for Jeremy Lin

If you're a sports fan, you're well aware that there was quite a buzz when a formerly little known basketball player named Jeremy Lin started to find success as a member of the New York Knicks. Jeremy, who had previously starred at Harvard, had a brief stint on the Golden State Warriors where he was largely relegated to waving a towel at the end of the bench. He also spend time in the developmental "D-League", seemed destined to be a nice story of an exceptional Harvard-educated Asian-American athlete who happened to be a good guy (see my earlier posts here and here a few years ago when Jeremy was lighting it up in college), but would never make it in the NBA. He'd eventually become a pastor, Athletes in Action staff worker or basketball coach and that would be that.

Except something extraordinary happened due to a confluence of factors. The Knicks, who have had problems finding a reliable point guard, picked up him up after an even shorter stint with the Houston Rockets. After trying unsuccessfully to have Iman Shumpert (more of a shooting guard), Mike Bibby (should have retired years ago) and Baron Davis (making former Yankee Carl Pavano seem durable in comparison) run the point, the Knicks were forced to give their point guard at the end of the bench some serious playing time.

And amazingly, Jeremy Lin started to play some solid basketball and increasingly won the trust of head coach Mike D'Antoni. And then he shocked everyone by leading the Knicks to back to back wins, scoring 25 and 28 points. The amount of adulation he received was over the top, with jubilant fans at Madison Square Garden chanting "MVP! MVP" during his post-game interview. As I quipped on Facebook, Jeremy Lin pretty much lived out the fantasy of every Asian kid who lived or grew up in the New York area. He's been able to sustain a solid level of play ever since, following those performances with an even better showing against the Lakers (on national television) and a solid effort against the Timberwolves. The Knicks haven't lost since.

I'm thrilled with his success and the fact that he's getting some well deserved publicity. I think it's terrific that this will make a small dent in the perception that Asian-American athletes are mostly relegated to things such as golf, tennis, figure or speed skating (hockey player Richard Park was actually born in South Korea, and I'm not counting mixed-race Asians like Hines Ward and Patrick Chung). Asian-Americans even have it worse than "native Asians", who have also made headway in baseball (Hideki Matsui, Ichiro, Dice-K and Yu Darvish) and basketball (unusually tall folks like Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian). But Asian Americans? It's like the fit-for-light-reading "Famous Jewish Sports Legends" leaflet from the movie "Airplane!"

Given the agility, athleticism and height which tend to help in basketball, Asian-Americans have pretty much been an afterthought in the sport. The great thing about Jeremy is that his height, while tall by Asian standards, isn't a freak of nature in the same way the 7-foot-6 Yao Ming is. He's a guy who is similarly built to his non-Asian competitors, but he's largely doing it based on hard work and skill. That's almost unprecedented. That he's doing it for my hometown team makes his success all the sweeter.

That being said, there's a lot about Jeremy Lin's ascension that makes me nervous.

First, there's the basketball side of it. There's a couple of standard moves that Jeremy seems to frequently employ - notably the hesitation dribble and the fake-left-go-right move - which are going to eventually fade in success once teams get a book on him. It's possible that he's not revealing his repertoire of moves until he absolutely needs to, but another Knicks fan and I noticed that he rarely goes to his left as he makes his penetration move. As he plays more and scouts notice holes in his game, opponents will start providing help towards his right side and force him into a direction where's he's left adept at making plays.

Also, the guy has on a couple of occasions looked utterly gassed by the fourth quarter. While Jeremy isn't a rookie, this isn't a player who has experienced a traditional first season in the NBA since he mostly rode the bench. In his first start against the Utah Jazz, the fatigue clearly affected his play as he became increasingly prone to turning the ball over. A a player who hasn't been a full time player since he was playing a 30 game Ivy League basketball regular season at Harvard where you play Friday and Saturday with the rest of the days off, it's clearly a big intensity jump to a shortened NBA season with many more games and back-to-backs. If Coach D'Antoni continues to play him 35 to 37 minutes a game, Jeremy Lin is going to lose his effectiveness fast.

But even more than the basketball aspect of Jeremy Lin, I'm nervous about how this phenomena can backfire quickly both in terms of the perception of Asian-Americans, as well as how he'll personally conduct himself in the midst of his ascension and likely ride back to earth.

Like every Asian-American, I'm proud that Jeremy Lin is getting recognition for his good play, but there's something that doesn't sit well when a couple of 18 point / 8 assist performances starts getting chants of "MVP! MVP!" from the capacity crowd. 18 and 8 is nice line, but does anyone seriously consider Jeremy Lin an MVP candidate? This isn't last year when Amar'e Stoudemire was putting up 30+ points every night and leading the Knicks back to relevance. Let's face it - most fans are pleasantly surprised that an Asian-American (and to a lesser degree, Harvard grad) can play basketball as well as Lin has, and the result is an overcompensation of the platitudes. Let's face it, in some ways it's condescending.

It's condescending in the same way if an African-American presented the keynote address at the International Society of Microbiologists conference and the crowd gave a standing ovation, because deep down inside they didn't think black people could be such brilliant researchers (sort of the "you're a credit to your race" syndrome). It's a revelation of hidden negative biases and prejudices which people hold which somehow get glossed over because, heck, they're cheering!

And what will happen if and when Jeremy Lin starts to wear down? What happens when teams get a book on how to stop him and he starts getting relegated to bench again? And what happens when there's the inevitably backlash of the publicity from both fans and players. Like Tim Tebow (more on this later), I'm certain that the publicity will incite jealousy on both his teammates and competitors, who will try twice as hard to embarrass him to steal the spotlight. I wrote about the "player jealousy" factor in a previous post about Tebow, and Jeremy Lin's going to bear the brunt of it as well.

When Lin's star begins to fade, this season of "the coming out of the Asian-American athlete" will suddenly (unfairly) evolve into "the exposure of the phony, over-hyped gimmick". Jeremy Lin will be lampooned as the guy who took the league by storm, but was eventually exposed as the overmatched Asian-American athlete the haters say he is. Let's keep these expectations reasonable, people. If he becomes a serviceable rotation player, he'll still be a pioneer for Asian-Americans in basketball and should hold his head up high.

There's also the Christianity factor and the inevitable comparisons to Tim Tebow, which Les Carpenter touches on in his excellent article. Like Tebow, Jeremy Lin was a player who endured some degree of ridicule and skepticism around their ability to play in the pros (granted, Tebow was a former Heisman Trophy winner and a 1st round draft pick). Both are also devout Christians, but it's already obvious that they carry their faith in a very different way.

Tebow has been extremely outspoken and visible about his faith, and that's something which is very commendable. Lin's devotion is more nuanced - in the context of a conversation about religion, he'll be very specific about his Christian faith, and he'll share openly that if he wasn't a basketball player, he'd probably be a pastor. When interviewed post-game, Lin doesn't open his interviews with "First of all, I'd like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," as Tebow does.

This is neither a compliment or condemnation, but rather an observation of a difference in how they carry their faith, quite possibly related to Tebow growing up in a Caucasian missionary family in north Florida and Lin growing up in a Asian-American Christian family in Northern California. You take a devout white Christian from Jacksonville and an Asian Christian from San Francisco, and the outward expressions of that faith will differ based on cultural and regional norms and such. There's nothing wrong with that. It's very much of the spirit of what the apostle Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 9:20 when he says, "To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law." I hope Jeremy feels that freedom and recognizes that's part of his call as a Christian.

The concern for me here is that Lin will get well-intentioned pressure to carry his faith as Tim Tebow does, or Kurt Warner once did. For better or for worse, Tim Tebow is now forever associated with Focus on the Family and his pro-life views, and I'm proud that he's been bold about those convictions, which I happen to share. I care deeply that Jeremy is a bold witness and that he brings glory to Jesus Christ in everything that he does, but there are different ways to do this - Tim Tebow's way is but one of those ways.

My former pastor's daughter is an actress who has achieved some level of success. In her first major film role, she co-starred with Ed Harris and Debra Winger and word quickly leaked that not only was her father a pastor, but she was a faithful Christian in her own right. Soon, Christian media outlets got wind of this and tried to run with this. The actress, while noting the good intentions of Christian media, confided to her dad that too often they were looking for oversimplified sound bites about "how she prays for Debra Winger" and what not. The sports world might very well be similar to Hollywood in that respect, and Tim's way may not be the same as Jeremy's.

While he has this platform, many movements and groups will try to ride the wave, and most with totally good intentions. As much as some of us would like to believe that we know the guy since we share similar backgrounds, we really don't. I've seen "open letters" written to him and well-meaning advice given to him by bloggers and Asian pundits. But the fact that I bunch of things in common with him doesn't give me any special right to entry into his life. I don't "know what he's going through" any more than the next guy simply because I'm an Asian Christian guy who went to an Ivy League school.

Because of who Jeremy is, Christian ministries will try to make Jeremy the face of the scrappy and upstanding Christian athlete. Asian-American groups will try to make Jeremy the face of the underestimated Asian-American athlete. Jeremy is his own man, and I hope and pray that he never feels that this special time has been hijacked by something different than he ever wanted it to be.

Leave him be - and let him play with joy.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Big Blue Supremacy

For the second time in four years, I got to enjoy the New York football Giants win another improbable Super Bowl at the expense of the New England Patriots. There are a bunch of scattered thoughts after this win, so I'll just throw them out there in no particular order:
  • As a father with young children, the tradition around the game has changed a little. No longer is the Super Bowl about hosting or heading to a buddy's house with a bunch of guys with eyes glued to the television from 4pm to midnight, punctuating the time with cheering, groaning with an occasional break to go to the bathroom or get a refill of food and drink. The tradition is now family get-togethers where one eye is on the game and another is making sure my kid isn't defacing my friend's wall with crayon.
  • Generally, I think Super Bowl parties - especially family parties - are completely incompatible with a Super Bowl in which you have a strong rooting interest. These parties are often more about socially getting together and catching each other up about work and family. The last thing that a die-hard fan wants to talk about as his team lines up for a game-winning field goal is whether he plans on signing his kid up for Cub Scouts next year.
  • As I did four years ago, we left a party with the kids to bring them home so they could go to bed at a reasonable hour. This basically enabled me to only watch smatterings of the first half, which the Giants largely dominated but somehow reached halftime trailing by one.
  • The fact that the Giants dominated the first half were actually losing was of great concern to me, as this was a scenario that Boston superfan Bill Simmons actually wrote about in a pre-game article in his prediction for a Patriots win, except that in Simmons' scenario, the Giants were only winning by 10, with the Patriots coming back in the 2nd half to win.
  • After the Patriots scored to open the 2nd half to open up a 17-9 lead, Bill Belichick's decision to kickoff in the first half to enable the the "double score" (this is when a team tries to close off the first half with a score and receive the kickoff and score to open the second half) seemed brilliant. At that point, Brady seemed to be in a zone, and every Giants fan worried if missed opportunities an a Kevin Boothe holding penalty were going to be the turning points of the game.
  • The Giants hung in there and kept driving the ball, but couldn't punch the ball in for touchdowns. With 5 minutes left in the game, the Giants having only one remaining timeout and the Patriots driving up by 2, everyone knew that the Patriots could put the nail in the coffin with a touchdown or at rtleast make it really difficult for a Giants comeback with a sustained drive and a field goal. This was pretty much the point at which I started having blood pressure issues. Every play mattered.
  • After the Giants held, thanks to a missed hookup between Tom Brady and Wes Welker which would have taken the Patriots deep into New York territory, the Giants took over deep in their own territory.
  • After the ridiculous Mario Manningham catch, which will forever draw comparisons with the David Tyree "helmet catch" in the Super Bowl win four years earlier, the Giants drove into the Patriots red zone and into a strategic decision that will continue to be debated:
  • Here it is, the Giants are down by 2 and a field goal will put them up by 1 and a touchdown and extra point will put them up by five. The other factor here is how much time they allow the Patriots and Tom Brady to drive down the field to possibly win the game. The merits of either argument has been a hot topic, and Bill Barnwell of Grantland provides the stathead rationale:
Win Probability charts aren't perfect because they don't adjust for the teams involved, but they're the best tool for answering a question like this. Here, the Giants-Patriots WP chart on notes that the Giants had an 89 percent chance of winning the game when Hakeem Nicks picked up a first down on the New England 7-yard line with 1:09 left. From there, the Giants could have chosen to kneel three times, force the Patriots to use their final timeout, and then attempt a game-winning field goal with seconds on the clock without ever giving the ball back to the Patriots. The model might even be underestimating their chances; history suggests that an average field goal kicker will convert a 24-yard field goal about 96 percent of the time, and the Giants were playing on turf with the options to both move the ball onto Lawrence Tynes' desired hash mark while falling on the ball and trying again in the case of a bad snap. And if you think Tynes is a terrible kicker, note that he's 56-of-57 on kicks from 20 to 29 yards during his career.

Instead, when Bradshaw scored the most mournful game-winning Super Bowl touchdown in history, the Win Probability analysis suggests that the Giants' odds of winning decreased to 85 percent. That's right: Bill Belichick was likely correct to allow the Giants to score, and the Giants should have taken a knee and decided to kick the chip shot field goal instead.3 If you use the 96 percent win expectancy that we're suggesting instead of the model's 89 percent, it's patently obvious that the Giants should have kneeled and kicked.
  • Fair point, but I completely disagree. What's are two things: #1 is the inherent pressure in having to make an offensive play to win as opposed to make a defensive stand. #2 is that even with the field goal scenario, the Giants would still need to kickoff with sometime life on the clock. To expound on point #1, we've already recently seen a supposedly "gimme" field goal missed in the heat of playoff pressure. Can you imagine the pressure on the long-snapper, holder and kicker? As sports host Michael Kay quipped, "Take the nervousness of all Giants fans during the last four minutes of the game and centralize it into a single person." As far as #2, even with minimal time how hard do think it would get to the 45-yard line for a winning field goal Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski? In a dome with perfect conditions? You need to put the most points on the board and let your team play defense.
  • The whole Boston vs. New York rivalry just tallied another check mark in Gotham's favor. And the thing that stinks for Boston fans is playing under the looming reality that even a win by the Patriots wouldn't have made up for Super Bowl XLI, when the Giants wrecked the Patriots perfect season. Even Bill Simmons conceded this, when he printed the following fan e-mail:
Q: I'm sorry, but you can't really believe that a 2012 Patriots Super Bowl win will atone for 2008. As a sports fan, you know that not all championships are equal. The 2008 Super Bowl was the equivalent of someone punching you in the face, stealing your wife and posting an Internet video of them having sex (which your friends occasionally played just to mess with you). You now meet this man in 2012 and are trying to get revenge by keying his new car. Good Luck!
— Jesse, Ann Arbor
  • Unfortunately for Boston fans, the man who previously did all those things to you just keyed your new car. But you'll always have the 2004 ALCS and World Championship.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Stronger Hand in Job Supply and Demand

The ironic thing in our nation's unemployment crisis is not that there aren't enough jobs, but that there's a terrible mismatch between the people who are unemployed and the current needs in the United States job market. As a recent article stated, all those industries that thrived on the cheap credit of the Bush boom - namely real estate, finance, manufacturing, and state and local government - are still bleak, with little growth seen on the horizon. And the area which is arguably most emblematic of the pain on "Main Street" - manufacturing, is projected to get even worse.

But there are definitely areas of white collar pain, as well. Finance has been hit hard, and so has law. Law has been hit enough to the point that there have been at least two revolutionary ideas that have been put forward:

First, there's the study being led by the Massachusetts Bar Association which is exploring whether “the ongoing relevance of law schools and the cost of law school, (and whether) we should rethink the three-year model." Or put another way, are law schools putting students in harms way by saddling them with $150,000 in debt without reasonable hope to repay these loans given increasingly bleak job prospects.

The second is even more drastic, which is to have law schools rebate law students' first year of tuition if the student decides to quit before the end of the year. This would enable an unprecedented period of "buyer's remorse" in which the law student can decide after the fact that law school is or isn't for them. Gone would be the "sunk cost" problem which faces law students currently, in which they decide a career in law isn't for them, but are compelled to press on because they've already dumped $50,000 of non-refundable tuition into the effort of finding out.

This actually speaks to a broader question around education and how job demand and supply are being managed. I touched on this in an earlier post on whether colleges were effectively tailoring curriculum to have our students compete in a global workforce. Even people without a libertarian bone in their body would shudder to think of an educational system which at let say, age 18, told you, "Given your test scores and education profile and our projections of the job market, we're going to give you a choice of five jobs in which you can make a living and not be saddled with debt for the rest of your life." That's frightening. But is the other extreme of recklessly allowing people to pursue degrees without a feasible job market much better?

Perhaps this solves itself with our own inability to predict economic trends. Clearly each university longs to boast about it's ability to prepare people to become productive members of society. Heck, one of BusinessWeek's Top B-School lists' metrics is the average starting salary of its graduates. If it was so easy to handicap the next big growth job market, we probably wouldn't have as large problems as we do now. But I do wonder if the political will to have governments take a more deliberate and active stance in calibrating the education system to the near-term job market even exists.