Friday, February 11, 2011

An Embarrassment of Riches

I occasionally wonder what the Bangladeshi or Pakistani or Taiwanese people working in factories to make our crap think about it. Just think of all the ridiculous little plastic tchotchkes you've ever encountered in your life (especially stupid free stuff branded with a company name or the sort of novelty gifts that made solely to get a laugh out of them when they open it and are never touched again) or the super-cheap ridiculously-trendy articles of clothing. It's someone's job to make that. Every day.

Taking the whole income differential out, I'm pretty sure anyone who spent their entire life devoted to making useless junk would feel pretty unfulfilled (hell, even if I spent my whole life making toothbrushes I would feel pretty unfulfilled, and those are actually important), but assuming that factory workers in these countries have a standard of living a fraction of that in the United States, what must they think? Do they sit there on the production line trying to envision what kind of person buys these things, what they do with them, why they want them? Do they try to picture what kind of life includes such things? Do they even know what all of them are? Are they just thankful to get a paycheck, or do they resent fulfilling what is clearly a rather useless role in the grand scheme of things? Do they dream about a life that includes these things? Or do they feel like they're pulling one over on stupid Americans who are too dumb to realize they're giving these people money for nothing? Do they think about it at all?

The other day I ran across this article about how World Vision collects T-shirts and hats and whatever from retailers who made up a batch of "Hooray, we won" Super Bowl paraphernalia for either contingency. Everyone's patting themselves on the back for finding a good solution to unite U.S. waste with charitable giving, but I just found the whole thing disturbing. To an extent, they're right: of course it's better for a bunch of poor kids in Zambia to have clothes than not to. But what such a program says about American attitudes in general isn't terribly flattering. We care so much about improving their lives by giving them their very own pieces of brand-new clothing, but not enough to actually give them brand-new clothing unless it's worthless to Americans.

I find it appalling that companies do the double-production thing at all. Americans really have such a need for instant gratification that they can't wait for these things to be produced after the Super Bowl so only one set, an accurate one, has to be manufactured? (Well of courseif they waited, they'd realize there's really no reason to buy such a thing.) And we're willing to produce twice as much as we "need," knowing that half of it will be entirely useless? We're willing to spend $2 million making stuff solely to hedge our bets? And consumers are willing to pay a much higher price than would normally be charged for such things in order to comp that? What is wrong with us?! (And to go back to the beginning, isn't it embarrassing to have impoverished factory workers producing our ephemeral (at best, if it's the half that's accurate) commemorative gear? The most trivial pieces of our lives are responsible for their livelihoods.)

Too, the attitude that comes across in this article just really bothers me. I mean, I doubt many of the people accepting these donations do care what their T-shirts say. Presumably they don't read English anyway. But it still seems rather disrespectful of human dignity to unload your unwanted possessionsyour trash, reallyon others just because they don't know better or you think they're not in a position to be choosy. It's like the rich flicking scraps of food from their table for the poor to eat and calling it charity. It's not. From a utilitarian standpoint it does help them, but it's not charity. It doesn't come from an attitude of wanting to help. It doesn't make you a nice person. It doesn't mean you get to go feel all warm and fuzzy because you spent a week of your life traveling to third-world countries handing out "inaccurate" sports gear to kids who smile at you. If you pay some poor villager somewhere $10 to let you beat them up, that would in a sense be worse than if you just beat him up without paying him, right? It's taking advantage of poverty.

I find it really offensive that we as a country have apparently decided we can make and do whatever we want and waste as much as we want because, whatever, there are always people worse off who will use whatever we don't want; things that are less-than-worthless castoffs to us are life-changing extravagances for them. If true, isn't this a problem? Doesn't this bother anyone? Isn't it extraordinarily immoral to live that way? It's almost like such profligacy makes these people feel better about themselves because they're doing good by being wasteful. No! Prodigality is not a virtue, even if it indirectly does improve others' lives.

I guess I'm not actually arguing that it's so immoral to do such things that all other things (i.e., not donating normal clothing) being equal, we shouldn't do them, but it would definitely be much better all around if people actually deliberately did things to help people rather than assuming trickle-down effects will take care of everything and they don't actually have an obligation to think about their actions at all.

1 comment:

  1. I lived in Panama for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I found that all those impoverished people I was sent their to work with, were poor by American standards, yes, but they were content to live the way they lived. Sure they would have like to have a car, but the amount of work it would take to obtain one wasn't worth it to them. It was refreshing to live in a culture that wasn't steeped in consumerism.