Kafka's Foxconn Plant
October 19, 2020 9:47 AM   Subscribe

The 8th Wonder of the World* (*wonder not guaranteed) A long piece by Josh Dizeza at theverge.com covering the creation, confusion, and (as of current date) collapse of the massive ($4 billion) Foxconn manufacturing facility touted by Trump and then-Gov Scott Walker as the first step in building a "Silicon Valley of the Midwest", one that would revitalize manufacturing in and the economy of southern Wisconsin.
Soon, the office began to fill with people who had nothing to do. Many just sat in their cubicles watching Netflix and playing games on their phones. The reality of their situation became impossible to ignore. Multiple employees recall seeing people cry in the office. “The best is when you’re in the elevator with somebody and then they just scream out of nowhere,” said an employee who experienced this several times. “They’ve had enough, because things don’t make sense here.”

“Imagine being in a job where you don’t really know if it’s real or not. Or you know it’s not real, but you don’t know it’s not real. It’s a constant thing you’re doing in your head day after day,” said one employee, who returned to the rented building Trump had spoken at, where workers had been assembling TVs, only to find the line shut down and the lights dimmed a couple of weeks after the photo op was over. “I think all of us were on the verge of a major breakdown.”
posted by soundguy99 (51 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
MetaFilter: wonder not guaranteed
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:54 AM on October 19 [4 favorites]


Sruthi Pinnamaneni had an excellent Reply All podcast about this scam back in 2018. Looking forward to reading now what new we've learned two years later, other than the way it's dismally unfolded just as predicted.
posted by Nelson at 9:54 AM on October 19 [25 favorites]


started reading, but check out the excellent ReplyAll episode too.
posted by grimley at 9:55 AM on October 19 [1 favorite]


jinx
posted by grimley at 9:55 AM on October 19 [1 favorite]


Potemkin industry?
posted by wildblueyonder at 10:00 AM on October 19 [8 favorites]


The sphere has no clear purpose.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 10:00 AM on October 19 [4 favorites]


“Imagine being in a job where you don’t really know if it’s real or not. Or you know it’s not real, but you don’t know it’s not real. It’s a constant thing you’re doing in your head day after day,”

Any who wants to know what the first tech bubble was like, this is it. Although, weather is bit better in California, so we had that going for us.
posted by sideshow at 10:04 AM on October 19 [15 favorites]


Having now read the article... apparently what happened in the last two years is that Foxconn failed to even execute the scam correctly. All they had to do was show they employed 520 people on Dec 31 2019. They couldn't even do that; they only had 281. So Wisconsin may be spared paying the $$BB.

The story from 2018 was the manufacturing plant was going to be a fake, a FoxConn scam to qualify for the subsidies the Republicans governing Wisconsin and Trump had foolishly promised them. But it's quite a surprise that in the intervening two years FoxConn couldn't even figure out how to set up a minimal fake manufacturing plant. Shoulda handed the job to some mobsters.

Who knew when Trump said he was going to "Beat China" in trade what he really meant was "get ripped off by brazenly fraudulent Chinese companies?"
posted by Nelson at 10:08 AM on October 19 [16 favorites]


A couple questions the article does not answer:

1) Trump got bullshit PR from Foxconn. What did Gao get from Trump in exchange that was worth wasting all this money? Foxconn knew LCDs were a waste of time from day 1.
2) The Foxconn deal was seen to be Paul Ryan's retirement gift to his district. Did he personally benefit from the deal?
3) Did Scott Walker personally benefit from the deal?

I ask this since Always Be Grifting is the motto of this administration. In a normal R admin I might expect it to be just PR but in this group I would expect suitcases of cash to be flying around.
posted by benzenedream at 10:11 AM on October 19 [22 favorites]


Woo said these researchers would be developing Foxconn’s “AI 8K+5G ecosystem,”


AHAHAHAHA holy shit
posted by selfnoise at 10:25 AM on October 19 [18 favorites]


The clothes have no emperor.
posted by Kettle at 10:26 AM on October 19 [14 favorites]


No one, according to the source, examined whether what Foxconn was proposing was commercially viable. “There was this assumption that they’re one of the biggest companies out there,” the source said. “Surely they know what they’re doing.”

Yeah, they got three billion dollars and only had to spend 10% of it on hiring a few workers and moving some dirt around, no shit they know what they're doing.
posted by Superilla at 10:26 AM on October 19 [19 favorites]


Who knew when Trump said he was going to "Beat China" in trade what he really meant was "get ripped off by brazenly fraudulent Chinese companies?"

Foxconn is Taiwanese, even though most of their workers are in China
posted by Dr. Twist at 10:32 AM on October 19 [9 favorites]


I have an unfinished set of stories that are a future history of the single organism to ultimately survive our biosphere, which goes on to do bigger and better things someplace else. The first one follows someone hired by a company secretly being managed by AI ("real" AI, so machine learning algorithms, not sad/angry robots destined for glorious revolt etc.) for the purpose of expanding its data-sets. Beyond a handful of hirelings, there are no humans, only endless funds at the disposal of an object. This facility - which I remember hearing about years ago and then immediately forgetting altogether, which also feels of a piece - has precisely the atmosphere I wanted to capture in that story. A place that pays you, supports your life, but you are never sure for what, why and to what ends. Is it even real? Have you become trapped in a nightmare?

This is exactly the capitalism-as-overt-death-cult vibe I sought to use in my hamfisted not-allegorical-but-I-won't-stop-you sci-fi/horror fiction, in all its full-spectrum radiant splendour here in 4D meat reality. Being alive at all right now feels this way. Is it even real? Have I become trapped in a nightmare? But something continues to crush us under its treads and will blindly roll on over a cliff after we are done.

This is weird and reads like a Ligottian parody, is my point. The new employees gobsmacked about having to bring their own office supplies to their new mega-office. The cries of those lost to the carnivorous elevator shafts. The strange stains of dark water that sometimes formed on the ceilings. Weeping and gnashing of teeth from adjacent cubicles - not over toil, but the uncertainty creeping over toil's absence. The whole thing being a scam that wasn't even successful at its lowest-baseline goal, but kept going on anyway into increasingly absurd transformations. It is very unsettling and funny and altogether way too on the nose.

It is a very good horror story about something actually happening. It is such a perfect encapsulation of what it looks like when profit-motive entirely overtakes whatever purpose something originally served so that it is hollowed out and becomes a nest not for living things but for demons - malevolent whispering abstractions that promise, promise, promise but only take, take, take. Somewhere in that building is a reflective wall that once showed a beatific utopia only slightly out of reach, now gone dim and distant, the venom of the vision having long set in. There must be. In a sub-basement littered with filthy reports to no one on the company's need to continually invent new false faces in order to meet some paltry quota that it couldn't even reach.
posted by Lonnrot at 10:34 AM on October 19 [22 favorites]


Why does the disco ball remind me of the Sunsphere? Someone should check to see if it's full of wigs.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:40 AM on October 19 [1 favorite]


The thing that irrationally bothers me about AI 8K+5G ecosystem is that it should be AI+8K+5G ecosystem. String your buzzwords together better, please.

It's frustrating to see this kind of bizarre corruption where no one is likely to face consequences.
posted by allegedly at 10:45 AM on October 19 [2 favorites]


3) Did Scott Walker personally benefit from the deal?

I ask this since Always Be Grifting is the motto of this administration. In a normal R admin I might expect it to be just PR but in this group I would expect suitcases of cash to be flying around.


Scott Walker, like Paul LePage, Bobby Jindal, and Sam Brownback, was Trump before Trump. The cancer is growing.
posted by Melismata at 10:52 AM on October 19 [4 favorites]


I particularly enjoy how the Republicans are still trying to convince themselves that anything will actually happen, because they're so deep into delusion they're physically unable to face reality.
posted by aramaic at 10:54 AM on October 19 [7 favorites]


One of the infuriating aspects of this is that the village of Mount Pleasant bought at least 132 properties via eminent domain to make way for roads and Foxconn buildings. People were forced to leave their homes for this bullshit.
posted by bassooner at 10:56 AM on October 19 [42 favorites]


Mount Pleasant, WI paid over $152 million for 132 properties, plus an additional $7.9 million in relocation costs just for the land for the planned giant Foxconn plant. The city issued a $83 million bond to finance the extension of sewer services to the Foxconn site, which should have been it's own huge issue as the plant was going to use significant amounts of water. The city and Racine County also created a tax-increment district of $911 million.

Mount Pleasant has already seen it's bond rating degraded by Moodys as city's debt related to the Foxconn project has totaled over 355 million. It's not clear how much of these monies have allready been spent, but it's well over half. Considering there is only about 11 thousand households and city's total annual budget is just over 19 million, this foxconn con is a major budget crisis for the community.

As for Foxconn's pledge to give 100 million USD to the university? Try less than a million so far.
posted by zenon at 11:00 AM on October 19 [23 favorites]


I wasn't aware that + is an associative operation in tech space
posted by polymodus at 11:12 AM on October 19 [1 favorite]


a major budget crisis for the community.

...and of course, of course, their response has been to express disappointment with the state, because Big Daddy Foxconn is still trying very hard, so very hard, to build a crappy Gen6 plant that will also never materialize, but god forbid you make Big Daddy angry. They're moving so much dirt around! Big Daddy will be nice to me one day if I just try to be good little boy!
posted by aramaic at 11:13 AM on October 19 [2 favorites]


Scott Walker, like Paul LePage, Bobby Jindal, and Sam Brownback, was Trump before Trump.

I haven't been able to bring myself to read it, but others may be interested in Dan Kaufman's The Fall of Wisconsin.

"Forward"
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 11:13 AM on October 19 [6 favorites]


their response has been to express disappointment with the state

Right, I think that's part of what Walker, Ryan, et al. get out of this - a big press release that they (will have) brought thousands of jobs. Now there's a Democratic governor and those jobs aren't here? Do the math and vote R next time around so that the jobs come back.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 11:15 AM on October 19 [9 favorites]


AI+8K+5G ecosystem. String your buzzwords together better, please.

Blockchain them together, surely?
posted by Cardinal Fang at 11:27 AM on October 19 [10 favorites]


"Silicon Valley of the Midwest"

I'm pretty sure Silicon Valley didn't become wealthy or is currently wealthy through factory work. If those kids that collect things on their resume like Pokemon (Ivy League, fancy degree!, FAANG companY!) start wanting to work at Foxconn I'll change my mind.

Woo said these researchers would be developing Foxconn’s “AI 8K+5G ecosystem,”

I've used that exact phrase because it works when selling things 😔

To be fair I hated it, and it did use AI (CNN), hidefinition video (8K) and didn't use the vendor's wireless network (LTE/5G) to detect objects in 3D space. So yeah that's actually not that stupid of a phrase. "We use convolutional neural networks that analyze data from large frame RGB cameras in a self-contained unit that utilizes UWB communication" doesn't have the same ring.
posted by geoff. at 11:55 AM on October 19 [5 favorites]


Foxconn is Taiwanese, even though most of their workers are in China

Nuance isn't exactly in Trump's wheelhouse.
posted by Mitheral at 12:04 PM on October 19 [3 favorites]


I'm glad you're all having a good chuckle at the dumb dummies but this whole thing was devastating for those of us who put all our money in suicide-prevention-net futures
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 12:27 PM on October 19 [2 favorites]


AHAHAHAHA holy shit

I think if you check the specifications that is called A+4HA H.shit.
posted by srboisvert at 12:50 PM on October 19 [5 favorites]


So you're saying a major project initiated to funnel subsidies and prop up a party leader's standing was so badly mismanaged by a series of corporate bureaucrats that they couldn't even meet the arbitrarily set quotas for their nonsense activity?

Coming from a party that claims to love the free market, this whole thing is astonishingly Soviet.
posted by Ndwright at 12:54 PM on October 19 [30 favorites]


The details are just so bizarre, how is there not a TV comedy series about this yet? We could have sent in a bunch of actors (I mean it seems like the employees were really just acting their parts anyway) who could have made a pretty decent mock-u-mentary on it, got paid (minus the cost of their own pencils), and just told everyone else they were making a behind the scenes movie for Trump’s next visit.

Episode 1 - The Sphere. Trouble brews for project manager Sarah when the panels for the sphere arrive and are discovered to be straight rectangles to allow for cheaper flat pack shipping. Enlisting her trusty gang of engineers they discover they can bend them into curves by using the elevator as a crude hydraulic press.

Join us next week for Episode 2 - Where Accounts Payable clerk Sam is trapped all weekend in an elevator broken through apparent use as an illegal hydraulic press.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 1:18 PM on October 19 [29 favorites]


Shades of the grift that went on around Scotland's Silicon Glen that went on from the 1980s to 1990s. So much money, so few results. The ultimate symbol was the Hyundai factory: built in 1999 for £2.4bn, then never used.

ISTR there was a CRT factory built in central Scotland in the late 1980s that's still empty too.

(more photos from when it was demolished: Hyundai Freescale Part II)
posted by scruss at 1:25 PM on October 19 [7 favorites]


I'm still reading, so there may be a crazier sentence to come, but this one's got to be up there:
Gou stepped down from Foxconn after claiming a sea goddess had appeared to him in a dream and told him to run for president of Taiwan.
posted by box at 1:46 PM on October 19 [14 favorites]


Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
posted by Kettle at 1:51 PM on October 19 [34 favorites]


ISTR there was a CRT factory built in central Scotland in the late 1980s that's still empty too.

If it's still standing and contains facilities useful for manufacturing CRTs, maybe someone can buy it for a pittance and press it into service, as chances are, artisanal CRTs are going to follow Edison lightbulbs and nixie tubes into high-margin fetish-object status.

(For one, they're running out of them when refurbishing vintage arcade machines, and flat-panel LCDs don't produce the same nostalgia rush, and possibly low latency; secondly, if someone made a vector CRT unit with crisp phosphor that took buffers of line-drawing commands over a bus from, say, a Raspberry Pi/Arduino and rendered them, I'd be tempted to buy one just for the artefact value.)
posted by acb at 1:54 PM on October 19 [4 favorites]


Even the handful of jobs the company claims to have created are less than real: many of them held by people with nothing to do, hired so the company could reach the number required for it to get tax subsidy payments from Wisconsin. Foxconn failed at that objective, too: last week, Wisconsin rejected the company’s subsidy application and found it had employed only 281 people eligible under the contract at the end of 2019. Many have since been laid off.

Now, I'm no Saudi prince, nor was I ever an advisor to the late Muammar Gadhafi, but my layperson's understanding is that the key to using rentier state tactics to prop up your regime is to make sure that the people at the bottom are being taken care of financially, at least to the extent that they shrug at the ridiculousness or pointlessness of their jobs because the paycheques keep clearing.

That's the point -- people may have pointless, vexing jobs, but they know that they're still going to keep getting paid because it's in the interest of the people at the top to do so in order to avoid pesky demands for reform or unfortunate uprisings and such.

It appears they missed this step intentionally because it would marginally impact their takings from the scam. Incompetence at the rentier thing may also be a contributing factor, along with an inability to understand that enlightened self interest can pay dividends for greed and grift because you can keep kicking the can down the road for just a little bit longer.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:58 PM on October 19 [5 favorites]


Kinda reminds me too of the 1970s-era joke about a bunch of dictators having a retreat together. They're all boasting about their graft around development schemes when the host pipes up: "Gentlemen, come out on the balcony and see the highway I wake up every day and thank the UN Development fund for!". So the despots all troop out to the balcony, but there's nothing but fields. "What highway? I don't see a highway!", says one. The host chuckles softly, and replies, "Exactly my point …"
posted by scruss at 2:19 PM on October 19 [5 favorites]


This bit from the beginning did the best job of explaining to me why Foxconn started this in the first place:

“In China, where Foxconn employs the vast majority of its million workers, these sorts of announcements are called “state visit projects,” according to Willy Shih, a Harvard business school professor and former display industry consultant. Officials get a ribbon-cutting photo op, the company gets political goodwill, and everyone understands that the details of the contract are just an opening bid by a company that will ultimately do whatever makes economic sense. And in 2017, Gou, like many manufacturing companies with a dependency on China, had an obvious need for goodwill from Trump, who was threatening a trade war that Gou later told shareholders was Foxconn’s “biggest challenge.””

They certainly got that, and it seems like either it truly was such a terrible place to try and start doing anything useful for Foxconn, or they just really didn't give a shit, so that it's spiraled into bigger and bigger nothings.
posted by macrael at 2:58 PM on October 19 [5 favorites]


it truly was such a terrible place to try and start doing anything useful for Foxconn, or they just really didn't give a shit,

It seems like it was actually worse than them not giving a shit, in that half of the company didn't give a shit and didn't bother to tell the other half, who kept trying to make it work. A unified front in not giving a shit would be annoying but not fatal: a deal gets made, nothing ever happens, Trump and/or Walker look good in the near term and bad if anyone ever asks them what became of that deal. Instead the True Believers kept on trying to make stuff happen against the force of withering indifference from the higher-ups, and they did an enormous amount of harm to a lot of people and institutions in Wisconsin trying to make it happen.
posted by jackbishop at 4:20 PM on October 19 [7 favorites]


Gou stepped down from Foxconn after claiming a sea goddess had appeared to him in a dream and told him to run for president of Taiwan.

Not exactly rare. How many American politicians ran for office because the Judaeo-Christian god told them to (talked to them directly mind); or pursued a policy after "praying for guidance"; or even worse offered "Thoughts and Prayers" after some massacre instead of actual actions or funding.
posted by Mitheral at 4:29 PM on October 19 [14 favorites]


At the end of The Verge article:
But in actual reality, the project has succeeded in manufacturing mostly this: an endless supply of wonderful things for the President to promise his supporters. This past weekend, in an interview with a local Wisconsin TV station, Trump [starting at 9:08] insisted Foxconn had built “one of the most incredible plants I’ve ever seen” in Mount Pleasant and would keep its promises and more if he was reelected. “They will do what I tell them to do,” he said. “If we win the election, Foxconn is going to come into our country with money like no other company has come into our country.”
A direct link to the interview’s source carries the headline Trump says Wisconsin Foxconn plant's progress slowed by COVID-19 pandemic, WTMJ4 Milwaukee, Julia Marshall, Oct 19, 2020:
In an interview with TMJ4's Charles Benson, President Donald Trump said Foxconn's plant progress has been slowed by the pandemic, but he will deliver on his administration's promises if he's re-elected. President Trump said the pandemic is to blame for Foxconn not meeting the job numbers and profit they had anticipated to this point. "They have been slowed down, worldwide, by the pandemic," said President Trump.

While they haven't met expectations yet, President Trump said they will get it done. "They will do what I tell them to do. They will do, what's supposed to be done," said the president. "They did make promises. It's a massive company... they will do what has to be done, I guarantee that."
Always take credit — real, imagined, or premature — for someone else’s work, and if doesn’t succeed, blame someone (or something) else endlessly. Never take any responsibility for loss or draw.
posted by cenoxo at 5:41 PM on October 19 [6 favorites]


"One recruiting program targeted foreign recent graduates on student visas. Employees say these workers were targeted because they would work longer hours for lower pay, and their immigration status was used as leverage."

Hey maybe someday we should reform the student and work visa process so it doesn't leave employees vulnerable to this sort of exploitation.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:09 PM on October 19 [8 favorites]


So the two staunch pro-union, pro working people power couple Walker & Trump pushed this, and it didn't bring jobs or money? And there are people surprised by this? \Would any of these people be interested in land in the beautiful state of Florida fully vested, by Gov Scott, and Pres. Trump?
posted by evilDoug at 7:34 PM on October 19


How have you all not completely lost hope at this point? Because I'm really on the edge.

I feel like nothing matters anymore. There's no point to anything because you can just DoS the normal political system with so much corrupt bullshit at once that the system is just overwhelmed. It's all being openly looted in real time and it's just going to happen.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 8:11 PM on October 19 [3 favorites]


Always take credit — real, imagined, or premature — for someone else’s work, and if doesn’t succeed, blame someone (or something) else endlessly. Never take any responsibility for loss or draw.

Pass the Bucky.
posted by carmicha at 10:54 PM on October 19 [2 favorites]



I feel like nothing matters anymore. There's no point to anything because you can just DoS the normal political system with so much corrupt bullshit at once that the system is just overwhelmed. It's all being openly looted in real time and it's just going to happen.


That's exactly what watching Walker dismantle Wisconsin felt like. Breaking the teacher's union. Siphoning $250 million out of the university system. University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee doesn't even have telephones for staff any more. You want to make photocopies? Comes out of your own pocket. Between that and our voter suppression antics during the most recent midterm election, I feel like we're a trial run for what the rest of the nation is going to get.
posted by transitional procedures at 11:23 PM on October 19 [10 favorites]


I'm pretty sure Silicon Valley didn't become wealthy or is currently wealthy through factory work. If those kids that collect things on their resume like Pokemon (Ivy League, fancy degree!, FAANG companY!) start wanting to work at Foxconn I'll change my mind.

Silicon Valley did start with semiconductor fabrication but it has been a long time since there was much physically made there.
posted by atrazine at 4:17 AM on October 20 [1 favorite]


Foxconn

(...hm... Wisconsin...)
posted by xmattxfx at 6:16 AM on October 20 [1 favorite]


Grew up in Racine so I've been following this a little bit; IIRC people were skeptical very early on when there were fewer American job postings than necessary, & the ones that did exist were targeted not at Wisconsin residents, but people in Illinois.

Year or two later I saw a hauntingly dystopian news video about the only family who had refused to sell their house & the rest of the subdivision had been bulldozed around them, so now they lived on a single disconnected plot of suburbia in the middle of a huge dirt field.

Yeung asked them to draw up a plan for building an aquaponic fish farm in Mount Pleasant, having been inspired by a company in northern Wisconsin and reasoning that Foxconn had access to cheap water the state provided for LCD manufacturing.

This part gave me flashbacks to my dad's half-assed business plans. One time he was going to raise catfish in a kiddie pool in his Mount Pleasant basement, then ultimately didn't. He also never got around to raising worms (in his Mount Pleasant basement), which he felt was an attractive proposition because you get some worms & the worms make more worms & bam, you got worms for days.

So if Foxconn manages to self-publish & sell several copies of a novel about a weed-smoking country western star with cancer who gets double-booked on Austin City Limits with the Pope, they'll be doing as well as my dad.

Fuck Scott Walker.
posted by taquito sunrise at 9:57 AM on October 20 [7 favorites]


Update from the Verge - which argues that the existing facility is better suited for demonstration purposes than for manufacturing.
posted by zenon at 2:23 PM on October 22 [2 favorites]


At the end of The Verge update Exclusive: Wisconsin report confirms Foxconn’s so-called LCD factory isn’t real — The building ‘may be better suited for demonstration purposes rather than as a viable commercial glass fabrication facility’, 10/21/2020:
...Foxconn said it remains committed to Wisconsin but that WEDC’s denial of subsidies “threatens the good faith negotiations” over a new contract.

A statement the same day from Foxconn founder Terry Gou, however, struck a more ominous tone, linking the future of the project to continued state support and, implicitly, to President Donald Trump’s reelection. “Foxconn will work as a partner with those who treat the company as a partner,” Gou wrote. “Foxconn will remain committed to the completion and continued expansion of our project and investment in Wisconsin as long as policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels remain committed to Foxconn and the very important technology development goals driving the company’s investments, as President Trump has done.”

Foxconn did not respond to a request for comment.

[A pdf copy of the Wisconsin State “Foxconn memo with expert analysis 10.7.2020” is quoted at the bottom of the article.]
A demonstration of a Trumpian quid pro quo deal indeed: it may look impressive on the outside, but when you walk through the doors, it’s just an empty shell.
posted by cenoxo at 3:45 AM on October 28


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