Manufacturing, and the loss of such jobs in the U.S., has rarely been more top of mind than it is today. BloombergBusinessWeek examines one of America’s seeming recent successes—and uncovers a very dark side. The article is entitled “Inside Alabama’s Auto Jobs Boom: Cheap Wages, Little Training, Crushed Limbs: The South’s manufacturing renaissance comes with a heavy price.” Focused on auto-parts manufacturers, the article is classic muckraking in the best sense of that phrase. It’s filled with meticulous reporting and searing images of horrific industrial accidents, mangled bodies, and even deaths. But it also has a deeper point, and it’s a reminder that what’s needed isn’t just manufacturing jobs, but good manufacturing jobs:
Alabama has been trying on the nickname “New Detroit.” Its burgeoning auto parts industry employs 26,000 workers, who last year earned $1.3 billion in wages. Georgia and Mississippi have similar, though smaller, auto parts sectors. This factory growth, after the long, painful demise of the region’s textile industry, would seem to be just the kind of manufacturing renaissance President Donald Trump and his supporters are looking for.
Except that it also epitomizes the global economy’s race to the bottom. Parts suppliers in the American South compete for low-margin orders against suppliers in Mexico and Asia. They promise delivery schedules they can’t possibly meet and face ruinous penalties if they fall short. Employees work ungodly hours, six or seven days a week, for months on end. Pay is low, turnover is high, training is scant, and safety is an afterthought, usually after someone is badly hurt. Many of the same woes that typify work conditions at contract manufacturers across Asia now bedevil parts plants in the South.
“The supply chain isn’t going just to Bangladesh. It’s going to Alabama and Georgia,” says David Michaels, who ran OSHA for the last seven years of the Obama administration. Safety at the Southern car factories themselves is generally good, he says. The situation is much worse at parts suppliers, where workers earn about 70¢ for every dollar earned by auto parts workers in Michigan, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Many plants in the North are unionized; only a few are in the South.)
The Art Of The Con, part I
This week brings two rich tales of deception. “The Strange Spectacular Con Of Bobby Charles Thompson,” in Washingtonian, begins as a narrative of an oddly coiffed man who defrauded donors of at least $100 million running a phony nonprofit he called the United States Navy Veterans Association. Bobby Charles Thompson seemed to use most of his ill-gotten gains to donate to politicians, insinuating himself into the company of—and many grip-and-grin photographs with—the likes of George W. Bush, Karl Rove, and many others. That would be a worthy yarn on its own, but it’s just the beginning of a multi-decade epic that uncovers multiple identities, and a one-of-a-kind narrative. This paragraph gives you a hint of what tipped investigators, after they arrested “Thompson,” that his story was going to have many layers to it:
In a storage unit he rented, investigators found a suitcase full of other people’s documents: driver’s licenses, birth certificates, credit reports. Another contained newspaper-wrapped bricks of cash totaling more than $981,000. Also among his possessions were eight pairs of nonprescription glasses, more than 200 passport photos showing him disguised by various haircuts and facial hair, and a DVD of Catch Me If You Can, in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays the serial con man Frank Abagnale.
The man they ultimately discover is probably more interesting than Abagnale—in this case, a person who attended Harvard Law School and then built up a highly unusual resume:
…he worked in Angola in 1969 on behalf of the March of Dimes, supported Pete McCloskey’s anti–Vietnam War bid for the 1972 Republican presidential nomination, and was a “white mercenary” in the Congo. From 1972 to 1979, according to a statement of personal history he wrote, he worked at law firms in Honolulu, Manhattan, and New Orleans; joined Weyerhaeuser, a timber company, in Washington state; and studied for an MBA in the Philippines. (Other documents in the file are consistent with this account.) Simultaneously, his file shows, he was an Army Reserve intelligence officer. He was trained to do much more than gather information: He studied “civil disturbance,” “nuclear weapons employment,” and counterinsurgency techniques used covertly in foreign states.
It’s a mystery, alright, but this article makes the process of unraveling it (as much as is possible, anyway) a pleasure.
The Art Of The Con, II
“Bro, I’m Going Rogue: The Wall Street Informant Who Double-Crossed The FBI,” in BloombergBusinessWeek, is filled with delicious details. It’s the story of Guy Gentile, a former syrup-quality inspector in a Coca-Cola plant turned accused pump-and-dump stock scammer. Busted by the Feds, he goes undercover, helps snare others, then rebels when it looks like the FBI still expects him to serve prison time despite his assistance. There are many reasons to read this story, and one is the vivid writing. Observe how the writer is able to sketch a portrait of the protagonist in just a few sentences (and note how, as in the previous article, miscreants seem obsessed by movie outlaws):
His office was a shrine to rags-to-rich-douchebag movies. On one wall was a poster of Al Pacino as Scarface and another of Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. DVDs of the latter and American Hustle were stacked on a side table. “The whole experience was very surreal. I felt like an actor in a movie,” Gentile said of his work with the FBI.
We decided to find someplace less broiling to talk. In his red SUV, he put on a techno version of the James Bond theme and puffed mint-infused smoke from a vape pen. A Make America Great Again hat lay on the dashboard. As we drove, he launched into his story.
A TV Producer’s Miracle Comeback
For a story about the positive side of the human spirit, “The Hollywood Exec and the Hand Transplant That Changed His Life” by the superb Amy Wallace in Los Angeles, is a must-read. “Positive side of the human spirit” might suggest a treacly, movie-of-the-week treatment. This story is anything but that. In the hands of this top-notch reporter, the story of the sudden near death of a fitness-obsessed, hard-charging reality-TV producer named Jonathan Koch is clear-eyed and filled with so many jaw-dropping second-by-second details that I ultimately threw up my hands when I tried to find a particularly powerful passage. The whole article is powerful and the medical breakthrough—the hand transplant—turns out to be almost minor in this fascinating, deeply human tour de force.
Bonus: Should We Blame Intuit For Tax-Filing Misery?
Tax season is upon us and the NPR podcast Planet Money has a charming—and enraging—account of an attempt, several years ago in California, to reform the system of filing our returns. It’s entitled “Tax Hero” and it’s about Joseph Bankman, a Stanford professor who specializes in tax law, who embarked on a quest to simplify the process. Apparently, in much of the world, governments fill out returns for citizens (after all, the vast majority of people have simple financial lives), send them to the taxpayer, the taxpayer corrects any mistakes, signs it, and that’s it. That’s obviously not how it happens in the U.S. As Bankman says of the American process, “imagine if the credit card companies acted like the IRS. Each month you’d get a VISA bill and it would be a blank paper.” You’d then be filling in information and sending it back to the company, with penalties if you lied or made a mistake. Instead, Bankman thought that “the IRS could act like VISA.” And so he began a simple approach along those lines that he called “ready return.” A pilot program to file California state taxes using the ready return yielded an amazing 99% approval rating from the taxpayers who tried it. But then Intuit, which sells TurboTax software, started lobbying against Bankman’s plan. Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, who is very influential among lawmakers who have pledged not to raise taxes, also fought against it. (His argument: Making taxes easy would only encourage the IRS to slip more taxes onto your bill.) The result, well, isn’t a happy ending—but it’s a great story.