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Obama, and the iPad

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Please forgive a brief personal anecdote. This will not be a habit in this space:

A couple of years ago, between jobs, I accepted a friend's offer to hook me up with a gig covering the abstruse world of electronic component supply chains. I did this part time for a year or so.

Like most jobs with so-called "trade" magazines -- obscure publications dedicated to opaque industries -- the work turned out to be fabulously informative about the actual workings of the world. Among the more interesting stories we covered was the now widely-known tale of Apple computer's successful effort to corner the market for touch screens. The idea was, with smartphone sales booming and tablets a new technology, Apple, which made the industry-leading models, could drive hard bargains with suppliers of the high-tech glass. Most of the supply is Asian, principally Chinese companies.

By controlling the market for screens, Apple could starve competitors of the materials they needed to create products competing with the iPad and iPhone.

That worked. At the time, Apple drove such a hard bargain with subcontractors, gobbling up so much glass for so little money, that even manufacturers of non-retail items worried about their ability to fill orders. Makers of medical devices, like ultrasound machines, were a common example. Automated teller machines was another.

This was three years ago. It's now a common story in tech reporting, and part of the late Steve Jobs' legacy: that Apple's success rested not only on Jobs' ability to make appealing products, but also his skill at preventing competitors from making their own devices efficiently. Even if the iPad wasn't a seductive product for you, the competing ones from Korea's Samsung or Japan's Sony were later in getting to market.


What does this have to do with the social sciences?

Last week, a tech-tracking website called The Next Web noted that a lot of what Apple's doing fits narratives that were touched upon in last night's presidential debate. China. Jobs. Trade. The balance between partnership and competition with other big countries. With last night's debate and today's Apple product rollout less than a day apart -- the two biggest stories of a 24 hour period -- it's easy to notice common themes.

But. Constructing the narrative that shows that relation is less intuitive. The economics, the politics, the international trade treaties, get talked about by little tribes on Twitter or in university department break rooms this morning. Not so much in general conversation. Last night, hearing Romney's threat to impose penalties on China as a "currency manipulator," vs. Obama's characterization of Beijing as a species of frenemy, the story got more obvious. Then more, when the mantra that "government doesn't create jobs" bumped up against accusation that outsourcing is bad, even if it makes American companies capable of producing products that people want and can afford. If you happen to click from a recap of the debate to a prognostication about the iPad iMini, it's pretty easy to think that the Apple device isn't a bad political prop.

More: accusations of child labor and sweatshop conditions at some of Apple's Chinese factories, which, if true, could make it illegal to import and sell the products being announced today, make the story a morality tale. You can't imagine either candidate condoning those conditions as the best face of American partnership. But nor can you see either candidate saying American technology and Chinese manufacturing aren't an inevitable reality. There's a right and wrong, and a right and left in the debate, but they're not so clear to draw.

Campaigns have little to gain from subtlety, and probably less from talking about potential dark sides to stuff everyone likes. One can't imagine a presidential campaign, on the day of a big American company's rollout of Asian-built products, wanting to draw those lines. That doesn't mean they won't get drawn anyway.