Sunday, December 22, 2013

Year End Reflections, Part 2: Consumerism, Wealth, and Being

Part of my journey in the unfun land of unemployment has been to sell off some possessions I thought I needed but really didn't. In fact, 2013 has marked an incredible declutterization (call me, Oxford Dictionary) of my life. With so little funds to operate with, I've had to evaluate what I spend my money on, and when. It turns out, I really need precious few things. While there are many objects in the world I enjoy, there's simply no point in owning them; I have no where to put them, and what value are they to me in a box somewhere out of sight? In addition, I've started to give serious consideration to the way corporations treat their employees. While I have long had a personal avoidance of such horrible places as McDonald's and Wal-Mart, if I am being honest, there are very few places that are good to their employees, particularly major businesses. News began to surface about how online retailers are some of the cruelest, including the number one online retailer, Amazon. Negative stories about Amazon's poor work conditions have been around for a couple of years, at least, but have recently gained wide attention thanks to a BBC expose:
Prof Marmot, one of Britain's leading experts on stress at work, said the working conditions at the warehouse are "all the bad stuff at once". He said: "The characteristics of this type of job, the evidence shows increased risk of mental illness and physical illness." "There are always going to be menial jobs, but we can make them better or worse. And it seems to me the demands of efficiency at the cost of individual's health and wellbeing - it's got to be balanced."
While there is good news on the horizon for Amazon employees, such as attempts at unionization actually getting to the point of a vote, and protests mounting in opposition to working conditions, I am not overly optimistic. Things may get better, but they won't be good. My money is paying for possessions I don't really need a the expense of the health and safety of my fellow human beings, all to make a select few people even richer. We know CEOs and their lot make far more than employees, sometimes 1,000 times greater, other times a mere 350 times greater. We also know most of the wealthy despise us lower life forms. A Business Insider article posits that "a rash of incidents [demonstrate] tech execs appear to have interpreted their personal economic success as proof of their permanent superior status to the rest of us." Whether in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street or anywhere in between, rich people do not appreciate us, they only want our money. This is the time of year when we are often told to reflect on the meaning of the season. According to the CIA World Factbook, 78.5% of Americans are some form of Jesus believer. I drowned in the bible as a youth, and I don't think a celebration of Jesus' mission or theology involves such blatant and crass consumerism as we practice this time of year, from Black Friday through the after Christmas sales (and all year long, really). We pour our hard earned money into the waiting pockets of our corporate overlords, and for what? Electronics made by teenagers in China? Clothing made by women in sweatshops? Jewelry from blood diamond mines? I'm not arguing that we should all give up and move to Walden Pond, but I am saying we should take the time to think about why we're pumping our dollars into Amazon and other large businesses when those same businesses do not care about the people we love. That Business Insider article lists examples of the wealthy complaining that they have to rub elbows with the poor and homeless, and describe how they create clubs to maintain exclusive socialization circles. A few of them even want to leave the country for a libertarian island paradise, which is nothing new; Paypal CEO Peter Thiel wants an island "for implementing policies that libertarians, stymied by indifference at the voting booths, have been unable to advance: No welfare, looser building codes, no minimum wage, and few restrictions on weapons." American Conservatives have been threatening to "Go Galt" for years, but ultimately have remained in the U.S., possibly because they have a sweetheart deal in this country. Maybe if they leave, the average American will have more influence over their elected representatives. As it stands now, as David Simon pointed out, "capital has effectively purchased the government, and you witnessed it again with the healthcare debacle in terms of the $450m that was heaved into Congress, the most broken part of my government, in order that the popular will never actually emerged in any of that legislative process." Wishful thinking of safe and happy Amazon employees and truly representative government aside, I can only act as one individual. I don't want to fill my life with meaningless trinkets, making the 1% wealthier while the bottom 47% suffer. I am also realistic, and thus realize I will be required to give money to large corporations. So long as I wear clothing, use Internet, turn on electricity, watch movies, etc., I am contributing to wealth disparity. However, I can minimize how much I spend and give careful consideration to what I spend it on. We live in a world where everything comes with a price, from the water running through our tap to life saving medicine (a company may have found a successful treatment for brain cancer, and upon the announcement, "shares soared as much as 32 percent in early trading"). Pope Francis said some nice words about how Jesus would not approve of our current money over people society, arguing that capitalism in its current state is un-Christian. Conservatives and capitalists were quick to try and smooth over the Pope's ripple-creating words. Of course, the Catholic Church itself is one of the oldest and wealthiest corporations, so it's not too hard to dismiss the Pontiff's words. Nevertheless, all of us should contemplate the society we have inherited, and we should wonder whether it is a place we want to continue to live in. I cannot transform the entire world through my actions, but I can affect my private world, and if more people do the same, maybe we can shape the world in a positive way.