The Mysterious Ethics of Corporate Patriotism

Apple has a new section out on their “About” page emphasizing the company’s role in directly and indirectly creating jobs in America. Like most jobs-talk, it’s a little bit confusing. Lots of people work as app developers, yes. But building better smartphones is part of a long-term trend toward offices employing fewer secretaries. Firm-level decision making invariably has an ambiguous impact on economy-wide employment levels. It’s the job of the people on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, in the United States Congress, and in the White House and Treasury to keep the United States at full employment. CEOs of large firms deserve credit and blame for many things, but not for this.

Meanwhile, as an example of Apple’s positive impact they give us “US Based Customer Support”:

While many companies locate their technical support call centers overseas to save money, we’ve decided to keep our call centers in the U.S. The vast majority of our customer support calls are handled by U.S. employees. Relocating our call centers overseas to places like India would reduce our costs by 50 percent or more. But we keep these jobs in the U.S. because it helps us deliver a better customer experience. It’s also an important reason why Apple’s technical support has led the industry for more than a decade.
Now Apple emphasizes that this is just a routine business decision. It makes sense for them to locate most of their production facilities in Asia where people are willing to take more arduous jobs for less money and are perfectly capable of delivering a good product. By the same token, it does not make sense for them to locate most of their customer support facilities in Asia. It’s possible to get a cheaper call center worker in Asia, but this is a case where Apple feels they’d be buying an inferior product. It’s important to Apple’s brand image and customer satisfaction goals to adopt a more expensive approach to support calls so they do. This is not an act of charity. And yet it seems they sort of want us to regard it as one even though they’ve explicitly disavowed charitable motivation. “Look at us, we’re not like one of those companies shipping jobs off to Asia!” But suppose it was a charity. If you were going to do something charitable, isn’t there a strong case to be made that India needs charity more than the United States? Why would being US-biased rather than India-biased in your employment decisions be the praiseworthy choice? Why is Apple robbing residents of desperately poor India who’ve worked hard to master English of the fruits of their efforts in order to ship jobs to relatively coddled working class Americans? Well for the same reason they have all these factories in the Pearl River Delta. It’s not a charity and it’s not supposed to be a charity. That’s a line of defense that any red blooded publicly traded business is going to want to have at its disposal. So why wade into the business of pretending otherwise?