Leaning back in comfy mechanical beds. Channel-surfing. Gorging on an unlimited supply of free food. Joking around until 4 or 5 in the morning with my friend John in our shared room at a medical research facility, recovering from a mild case of government-induced malaria. This is a highly unlikely scenario any way you slice it, but it’s downright surreal to think that it was under these circumstances that John and I had an epiphany about the harsh realities of globalization, free-market economics and the irreconcilable, inescapable rabbit hole of conflicted interests that it has wrought on the entire human race.
In a moment of financial panic, I signed up for a paid medical study at the National Institutes of Health which offered thousands of dollars to let them test an experimental malaria vaccine on me. My buddy John, up to his neck in student loans, eagerly followed my example when I told him about my favorite source of income, and we were fortunate enough to be roommates during the in-patient portion of the study. Our 10 days of captivity were like a protracted slumber party, as we continuously stayed up all night watching cartoons, eating our stockpile of food and bullshitting on a variety of topics.
Late one night, things took a sobering turn when we took a break from our Spongebob Squarepants marathon and channel-surfed in the direction of MSNBC or CNBC or one of those news channels. We watched a program about the global phenomenon of human trafficking, and it didn’t take long for us to grow irate. But not for the reasons you might think.
Of course we are outraged by forced prostitution, slave labor and other exploitative practices that keep the world’s underground (and, though we’re loathe to admit it, above-ground) economy rolling. But I was surprised by what pissed John off the most.
Normally a preternaturally easy-going guy, John went off on a long diatribe of frustration at the short-sightedness of that night’s programming. He found it insulting to humanity’s collective intelligence that this hour-long stretch of broadcasting would expound on such tragedies as immigrants forced into indentured servitude and inhumane living conditions right under our American noses, African children being sold to cocoa plant merchants while the manufacturers of our favorite candy bars reap the rewards, etc, without even beginning to address the real reason for any of it.
That reason? It’s so deceptively obvious that most of us wouldn’t even stop to think about it. Most of us wouldn’t recognize it if it slapped us upside the head. It’s a given in this world. It’s called economic disparity. Even some of the poorest of America’s poor can’t hold a candle to the desperation that provokes millions of people from places like Latin America, Africa and south Asia to endure unspeakable cruelty in the hopes that it might pay off some day.
And there’s good reason why we privileged Westerners don’t want to look into that: we’re profiting from their suffering. Everything from Snickers bars and instant coffee to iPhones and iPads are laced with the blood, sweat and tears of the exploited. It binds the bricks of our buildings and paves our highways.
Of course, we could help. We could mandate fair trade across the board. We could send aid to these impoverished countries to level the playing field. We could do a lot of things, but we have good reason not to; if we didn’t cut corners with slavery subsidies, the increase in our out-of-pocket expenses would likely reduce us to a 3rd-world country ripe for exploitation by some other greedy super-power.
Ask yourself: do you really care about those poor people forced into slavery? I mean, do you really care?