Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Slavery today

In 1865 Slavery was officially abolished in the United States, with the ratification of the thirteenth amendment of the constitution. Plans to eliminate slavery went back to the original declaration of independence, but weren't acted upon at that time, as some states depended upon slavery, and it was decided unification of the states was more important at the time. There was of course talk of the need to work out a plan to ultimately phase out slavery.

In the Early 1800's, growth of the labor-intensive cotton industry spurred an increase in slavery in the southern states. Originally slaves were a fairly equal mix of Europeans and Africans (Yes, there have always been white slaves in America. No thanks to the race wars, that is all but forgotten).

Then a war was fought, a constitution was amended and the US abolished slavery. Hooray for us. But, is slavery really gone from America?

I'm not talking about the (tens of? hundreds of?) thousands of individuals in the US who are here under duress, primarily by abduction, and often forcibly employed in various aspects of the sex-for-money industry  (not that this isn't a subject worthy of attention).

First, what is slavery? Lack of pay? Early American slaves received pay, in the form of room, clothing, food, and in some cases allowance. Practically everyone who works does so, in order to receive money, which they trade for food, clothing, shelter...

Is it freedom? How free is an individual living hand-to-mouth, working extended hours in a factory?
Is it the ability to walk away if they choose? To change their circumstances? Many of the early American slaves were only slaves for as long as was needed to repay the debt they incurred to pay the fare for their journey to America. They chose slavery for a time, in an effort to obtain a better life in  the future (kinda’ like how we use credit cards, only their debt usually had an end).

What if (extending the conversation outside the U.S., to China, India,…) individuals are lining up to take jobs at those factories? What if you can produce many interviews from those individuals talking about how their lives are better now? It isn't slavery if their lives are better off, right? Well, some American slaves had better lives while in slavery than they had before or after their time as slaves. Sure there were horrible masters who treated their property poorly. There were also a few decent masters who treated their slaves like family.

I have children. They perform chores around the house, which is not how they want to spend their time.  They are also required to attend school, take piano lessons etc..., frequently against their will. They don't get a salary. Yes, we feed them clothe them, provide them rooms, a little spending money (and love of course). Many early slaves have experienced the same.

I'm not trying to downplay the state of American slaves historically, nor am I trying to build a case that the Chinese factory worker is precisely comparable. I am sincere when I ask, what defines slavery?

Quite frankly the definition seems rather blurry; more a buzzword that gets pulled out when some group or other wants to whip a crowd into a frenzy, often over something that frankly has no connection whatsoever to slavery, past or present.

Okay, set that aside for a moment. Assuming we manage to establish a clear definition of slavery. Do we all agree it is bad? Do we all want it eliminated?

Does that seem like a stupid question?

Ever seen the Egyptian pyramids? The Great Wall of China? They are the products of slavery. See, it all goes back to that Law of Conservation thingy. It takes lots of calories to build amazing things like pyramids and massive walls. Those calories are not invested in making food, clothes, shelter.... things people actually need. That means while someone is busy stacking rocks in a pointy shape, someone else has to collect food etc... for themselves and for the rock stacker. What do you do if you don't have enough people willing to do double duty on food collection? Well, somehow, you need to come up with people willing to do the work for less food, shelter, etc...

So, you can go conquer someone, and put them to work for you, you can have lots of children, and let them do the grunt work, or you can find some “economically inferior” country, and magnanimously improve their lives by letting them do your grunt work in exchange for peanuts.

“What about technology?” you may say. Advancing technology does give us better tools which can make the job easier and faster, with fewer people. But, for technology to advance you need people investing their time in advancing education, science, and in designing and engineering said new technology. You are back to needing people making extra food for extra mouths.

Now it is possible, for responsible people to work hard, work together, and accomplish amazing things without resorting to slavery. It is just a matter of hard work, cooperation, a few sacrifices...

In the western world, average hours worked is declining. Many European countries average less than 38 hours per week.  People are working longer (retiring later), but they are also living longer. People are having fewer kids, and fewer of those kids are actually performing the “grunt” jobs, that were a rite-of-passage for prior generations of teens.

Houses are bigger, cars are bigger. Appetites are bigger. What with TVs, game consoles, CD's, DVD's, Movies, Portable gaming devices, Tablets, etc...  The average US household spends about $2500 every year on entertainment

Nine year-old's are packing cell phones. Nine year-old's are in the red on the conservation balance sheet before the cell phone becomes an essential part of their accouterments.

And of course we consume hoards of “free stuff”. Somebody has to pay for “free”.

Our amazing healthcare system is keeping us alive longer; it is also keeping criminals alive longer, criminals who grow their wealth through theft, extortion, and other resource draining activities.

Some of our present welfare laws encourage people to do less. If you make too much money you don't qualify for school grants, you could lose access to essential healthcare assistance.

The future of space exploration is iffy at this point, which means we are no longer actively pursuing options for resources or expansion beyond our 5.972x1024 Kg rock.

In short, the "civilized" world is becoming increasingly dependent on “slavery”, in one form or another, to help balance out the consumption/creation equation.

Just some thoughts to ponder while you're sitting at Starbucks, sipping your caramel macchiato, using the “free” Wi-Fi to consume “free” content with your Apple(or Android or...) gadget, and complaining about immigration, the treatment of Chinese workers...

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