Manufacture This

The blog of the Alliance for American Manufacturing

The satire goes after everyone, but particularly Silicon Valley’s labor practices.

If you’ve seen an episode of Silicon Valley, you know the show has a take-no-prisoners approach to its satire. The series skewers every aspect of tech culture, and this season, it has zeroed in on the valley’s long history of using overseas sweatshop labor to manufacture its trendy high-tech gadgets.

And in this week’s episode, it even went after the current state of American manufacturing.

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILERS TO FOLLOW!

There’s a lot of backstory here, but the plot essentially involves Gavin Belson, the CEO of the Google-esque company Hooli, looking to find a location to make his newest product, the NSFW Gavin Belson Box III, Signature Edition. When he heads to China to get the process started, Gavin finds that higher labor standards in “New China” mean he can’t depend on his former manufacturer for reliable sweatshop labor (he later gets banned there, but that’s another story).

Gavin doesn’t have much luck in other countries, either. Bangladesh is newly unionized, and he can’t go to Laos because of a rather unfortunate Hooli factory accident.

So, Gavin’s team suggests that he instead make the box in the United States — specifically in the small, struggling North Carolina town of Goldbriar, which just saw a DVR factory close and needs to attract new business to stay afloat.

Sensing the town’s desperation, Gavin jets off to Goldbriar, where he channels his inner Donald Trump in a speech about why he’s decided to make it in America:

Sound familiar?

“Good people of Goldbriar, for too long, foreign interests have used unfair trade and labor practices to plunder American wealth and steal American jobs,” Gavin says. “But I don’t blame them for that. No, I blame weak, spineless, American politicians. But if your mayor does his job, your jobs will come back…. But if for some reason, he can’t make my very reasonable proposal work, you know who to blame.”

You can see where this is going. In a private conversation in Gavin’s Escalade, the mayor explains that the Hooli head’s list of demands will crush the small town. Instead, he offers to rename the city's high school, trying to appeal to Gavin’s Trump-esque ego.

“I could have the local high school renamed after you. Rosa Parks has never even been to Goldbriar,” the mayor says.

“I don’t want a f—ing high school. I want to manufacture boxes at an 80 percent profit margin,” Gavin replies as he exits the SUV, walking on a red carpet toward his private jet, grabbing a glass of champagne as he takes off.

It’s a brilliant moment, as the writers zero-in on the long legacy of the uber wealthy exploiting the means of production to achieve the highest possible profit margins.

The real Gavin Belsons of the real Silicon Valley long have taken advantage of cheap labor costs, lax working conditions, and minimal environmental standards overseas to make their products. When called out on it, they often blame American politicians for not creating the right conditions for their business practices.

And in real life, not much has changed in overseas sweatshops. At the Foxconn factory in China where about half the world’s iPhones are made, workers live in dorms right outside the gates, in part so they can be summoned to work overtime hours in the middle of the night. A rash of suicides in 2010 and 2011 drew some attention to the issue, but unlike the show, things there remain mostly unchanged. It’s the same in Bangladesh.

Silicon Valley’s brutal take on Gavin’s demands in North Carolina is also spot-on. Some companies expect a lot of incentives to build (or even maintain) a factory on American soil. They’re more than happy to take advantage of the added P.R. boost that Made In America can provide — something Gavin also does later in the episode — but aren’t willing to make the investments needed to get things going.

The plotline reminded me of what happened at the Carrier plant in Indianapolis in 2016 and 2017. Although the company was making money, it decided to close the facility and move production to Mexico, where labor is much cheaper, in order to maximize profit margins. Only after President-elect Donald Trump rather dramatically intervened did Carrier change its tune — and only after it received $7 million in state tax breaks to stay in Indiana. Although the factory stayed open (for now), hundreds of people still were laid-off.

Then there’s Foxconn. The company is set to build a new factory in Wisconsin, where it will potentially employ tens of thousands of workers. In return, Foxconn is receiving a $3 billion incentive package and will be allowed to “skip state environmental rules and oversight it would otherwise have had to follow.”

Now, don’t get me wrong — there’s a lot that policymakers can do to encourage American manufacturing besides throwing money at companies. And there are many companies out there, big and small, who are manufacturing in the United States — and turning a profit — without demanding big incentives.

But as the episode highlights, sometimes things really do come down to corporate greed.

Goldbriar’s mayor, like the mayors of many small industrial towns across America, is forced to choose between maintaining funding for essential city services like the police and fire departments, or making major sacrifices to attract a major corporation to build a facility that will create jobs — and hopefully, in the end, bring in new revenue.

In typical Silicon Valley form, things don’t end well for Goldbriar. But hey, at least Gavin gets his comeuppance.