Watch your life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw ...

Watch your life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw …

On the same day as it publishes a review of a “deeply silly and ruinously pricey” steak-and-lobster restaurant, that serves beef at $100/kg (minimum order 600g; “At that price they should lead the damn animal into the restaurant and install it under the table so it can pleasure me while I eat”), the Guardian also publishes a stinging critique of the UK government’s policy on poverty and equality, by the UK government’s own “Social Mobility Commissioner.” At the same time, the Washington Post publishes a simple graph that shows how college-educated poor kids do no better than rich high-school dropouts economically. None of these articles, of course, bother to question what this social mobility is, and what a long-term commitment to the concept of social mobility – rather than equality – does to the structure of our societies. The hint is in some of the statistics, published by the UK’s social mobility tsar (do they get the irony of this title?), which show how in the modern economy even people in their 30s are being “priced out of the UK.” How is it that in an ever-wealthier society, with increasing technological advancements and growing wealth, we can have got to the point where a generation of 30-somethings is unable to afford the basics that their parents took for granted? The answer is simple: when you set up social mobility as your vehicle for insuring equality, you don’t actually create a society of equal wealth, but of equality in failure, and because nobody likes to fail the people who already have all the advantages use them to ensure that their own kids don’t lose the social mobility race. By focusing on ensuring everyone equal access to the biggest slice of the pie, you slowly reduce the size of the smallest slice. This is a vicious circle: as life at the bottom gets harder, the people who already own the majority of resources and have the biggest share of advantages work even harder to ensure their own kids don’t fall. Which is why after 20 years of talking about “social mobility” the US is stuck with a situation where 16% of college-educated kids from the poorest 20% of society stay there, while only 16% of high school dropouts from the top 20% end up there. Sure, there is social mobility in this system, but there is also grinding poverty in an age of excess.

But what’s more important than the way the rich mobilize to protect their status for their children, is the immorality of what happens to those who end up at the bottom. Let’s look at that, and ask ourselves about the ethics of a system that guarantees some people have to fail.

What being at the bottom means

In amongst the debate about this issue, there is discussion of increasing the minimum wage in the UK to 8 pounds. Let’s think about what that means. Suppose you are 20 and earning the minimum wage. If you work 40 hours a week, you’ll get 320 pounds, or 1280 pounds a month. Supposing that you don’t pay any tax (which will not be the case, but let’s see what happens there anyway), how will your expenses pan out? Living in a room in a share house in any UK city will cost 500-600 pounds a month, so even if you can somehow live on just 10 pounds a day (unlikely; utilities and travel will probably consume most of this), that leaves you realistically with 300 pounds of savings a month. That is, 3600 pounds a year. After five years you will have the money for a deposit on a 150,000 pound flat. Which does not exist within 20 miles of your workplace. So if you live in a share house until you are 25, don’t go on a single overseas holiday, don’t have any other expenses (such as, for example, a computer or a car or even a new tv) and live on 10 pounds a day for 5 years, you can afford the smallest, shittiest place on the British real estate market, though it will be too far from your work to buy it. More realistically, you’ll have to save for 10 years under those conditions.

This may seem like carping – oh poor diddums had to give some things up just to get onto the property market – but it means something. Our parents’ generation took it for granted that if you saved at a reasonable rate you could expect to marry, buy a small place, and start a family by the age of 25 or 28. This kid in our example can only get to such a state by eschewing all forms of ordinary life, and not paying taxes. The more realistic situation is that this kid will be forced to work 6 day weeks for 10 years, living on next to nothing, avoiding almost any frivolity, in order to have enough money for a deposit – only, probably, to be turned down for a mortgage by every bank.

If a kid like this wants to “get ahead” in the modern world, their only hope is a second job and a NINJA loan. Is it any wonder that the housing market was prone to fraud and speculation, when standard financial options are not available to a growing class of people looking at their life sliding out of view … and being told at the same time that it’s all their own fault.

Making sure they stay there…

Of course, the rich are uniquely empowered to protect their children from sliding into this class, and that is exactly what we see in the statistics. For example, the newspaper reports that

Only 7 per cent of all young people attend private schools, and less than 5 per cent attend grammar schools, but combined, they accounted for 44 per cent of last year’s UK-schooled fast stream applicants in the civil service, and 46 per cent of those who succeeded

and the Washington Post article notes that rich people have unique privileges to prevent their children falling through what it calls the glass floor, and identifies the phenomenon of “opportunity hoarding,” which the New York Times summarizes succinctly as a simple problem the architects of the “equal opportunity society” don’t want to talk about openly:

It is a stubborn mathematical fact that the top fifth of the income distribution can accommodate only 20 percent of the population. If we want more poor kids climbing the ladder of relative mobility, we need more rich kids sliding down the chutes.

But of course the rich have much more control of both the ladders and the chutes. The game is loaded, and the more dangerous life at the bottom gets, the more viciously the rich will need to fight it. Improving the quality of education for the poorest will simply mean the wealthy will invest more in their childrens’ education, or come up with mechanisms to protect their children from poor competitors – utilizing existing networks of friends and fellows, and developing new barriers such as unpaid internships or higher qualification requirements, or simply pricing the top schools away from a larger share of the middle class. There is no way this can be prevented in a liberal market society, and the more we push this idea of social mobility as the key solution to inequality – the more we try to push people up into the top 20% and encourage the weak and stupid in that tier to fall down to the bottom – the more we will encourage the people at the top to protect their status and resources, the harder life at the bottom will get, and the more vicious the competition will become. Is this how we want our late capitalist society to greet its new graduates?

The morality of the fall

Is it really fair to anyone to have this situation at the bottom, though? Does it really matter whether the people who are stifling in the bottom 20% with no life choices and no future are really just the idiots and lazy bastards from every stratum of society? If our system of social mobility worked as the social mobility “tsar” wants it to, and the people at the bottom were simply those who couldn’t be bothered studying or trying to better themselves, or the dumbest and least talented of every class, is that really how things should be? It may satisfy the schadenfreude of a small number of class warriors, but is it really fair that just because Little Johnny Trustfund was dumb and lazy at school, he should be forced to spend the rest of his life locked out of financial security, home ownership and even the chance to raise a family with dignity and security? Is that a fair price to extract from him for being a bit dumb and lazy when he was 16?

It is tempting here to ask rhetorical questions that postulate some worthiness to poor fallen Johnny Trustfund. Perhaps he wanted to play football, so he didn’t concentrate on his grades but then failed to make the sporting cut. Perhaps he was in a car crash that wasn’t his own fault – it mustn’t be anything we could ascribe to a higher moral tale! – and had to drop out of school. Perhaps he was sexually abused, we all know the effect that has on school achievement. Surely such a person doesn’t deserve to spend his life in poverty just because of problems beyond his control? To this temptation I respond with a resounding “fuck it!” Why should the fruits of society only be available for nice people who never did anything wrong? I don’t want to live in a society where the punishment for being a dumb, lazy arsehole is a lifetime in penury. If that’s what “social mobility” means – that some smart, honourable poor kid gets to live a life of models and blow at the expense of some dumb, lazy rich arsehole being forced to live a life of unstable accommodation, poor healthcare and insecurity and worries – then I say our society has been designed by arseholes, and is broken. Just because Johnny Trustfund was a dickhead who squandered his daddy’s money and the opportunities he was given doesn’t mean he should be thrown on some kind of zero-hours-contract scrapheap for the rest of his life, or even 10 years of it. We can do better than that.

Wrapped up in the middle of our “social mobility” society is a moral tale that is offensive and cruel. We can build a better society than one in which, even though someone is always going to have to do the shit jobs, the people who are forced to do those shit jobs are also forced to live insecure, unstable and unfair lives. Why not look for something better?

The changing nature of a basic living

One unfortunate consequence of the changing nature of modern life is that our expectations of a basic living change with it. While 100 years ago the idea of a basic living might have been “shelter and food,” now it is different. In the modern world we expect that a basic living means not just shelter and food, but the ability to access to certain communications devices, to read and write and do maths (at an increasingly sophisticated level), to be able to deploy these skills for leisure (i.e. able to afford books at some basic level), the right to at least basic healthcare, and the rights to a sexual existence and ultimately a stable family that loves you. For women it includes the right to work and have a family without killing yourself. It is not possible to sustain these rights in the UK on a basic wage, or really at any part of the bottom 20% of the income distribution, but the fact that this is impossible in this income bracket doesn’t mean it should be impossible. With our current level of wealth we could easily redesign our social economy so that people in the bottom 20% of the income bracket could afford to live differently, and the fact that they can’t is a political choice not an economic fact. The “social mobility economy” is a political choice intended not just to ensure that the people in the bottom 20% of the income distribution earn much, much less than the top 20%; it is also designed to punish them for being there. The moral reasons for this punishment may vary depending on who you ask, but the presence of morality in the structure of our society is inescapable. And the consequences of this morality play in the modern world are real, and growing.

Unemployment as a generational strike

The Guardian reports that the “Saturday job” has become a thing of the past for young people, with the proportion of people who are studying and working dropping by half over the past 20 years. The unemployment rate in the UK is near 6%, and yet somehow all these young people are not able to do a Saturday job. Given the growth of cafe culture and large retail and services businesses that depend on casual labour, it seems unlikely to me that young British are dropping out of casual labour because the jobs aren’t there. Those jobs are going to Europeans, especially Eastern Europeans, and they’re going there for two reasons: because eastern Europeans will work for less, in cash; and because UK citizens won’t work for the poor wages they’re being offered – or at all. This is often portrayed in the right wing press as a sign of the unworthiness of the poor, but another way to see it is as a generational strike. A whole generation of young, poor people have watched as their working conditions and salary become increasingly difficult and disconnected from the lives and rights of the rich, and they have decided not to bother. They can also see that while to a poor Briton 8 pounds is 8 pounds, to a poor eastern European it is worth much more, because in their home countries the price of living is not so high. Basically, the minimum wage in the UK is designed to pay for the cost of living of an eastern European country with a much lower cost of living, but for some reason the UK’s leaders think that the British poor should be thankful for the chance to work for a wage that will only cover their needs if they move 1000km east. Not only is this an insult – an implicit version of Freud’s statements about some people not being worth 2 pounds an hour – but it’s also blindingly obvious to anyone who cares that working hard in this economic environment is a chump’s game. You won’t get ahead, or even get even – you’ll be working ever harder hours just to keep your head above water, and every time the government ratchets up the opportunity economy your lifestyle will be ratcheted down. Why bother? You’ll be worse off on welfare, but at least you won’t be spending 40 hours of your week making someone else richer.

The solution to this problem for the ruling class is simple: bring in more European cheap labour, and pay it less. The government doesn’t bother cracking down on paying illegal immigrants from outside Europe, and is barely able to catch people paying cash salaries, so why worry about those laggards? This vicious cycle only has one ending – given how easy it is to convince British people that their problems are based on race, not class – and that ending is UKIP. The short term consequence of this generational strike is the rise of UKIP, and maybe the disconnection of the UK from Europe, but in the long term this won’t solve anything because UKIP is as wedded to the concept of social mobility as anyone else in British politics, so the problem will simply be temporarily averted by a reduction in foreign competition amongst the poorest jobs. Once the working poor realize that UKIP were happy to kick out the foreign workers but not to address the poverty that opened up the job opportunities for those people in the first place, they will turn on UKIP. Where will that end?

A better way: ending welfarism and social mobility

When I was young and first at university 20 years ago, “equal opportunity” did not mean that everyone in every stratum of society had the same opportunities to screw up and fall into grinding poverty. Rather it meant that certain institutions and opportunities in society should be opened up to those from whom these institutions had been traditionally protected. This meant ending boys’ clubs, giving access to universities and the public service (and hospitals and schools!) to black people, Aborigines, and women. It did not mean that taking advantage of this access should become the pre-requisite for a fulfilling life. Somehow this idea sprang up in the interim, perhaps as a post-reaganite reaction to the growing equality of gays, women and Aborigines. I don’t know how this happened, but the modern notion of social mobility as a “cure” for inequality seems to have a lot more to do with Victorian morals about the deserving and undeserving poor than it does with any genuine political measures to cure inequality. It doesn’t solve any of those problems, only serves to widen the pool of people who can suffer at the bottom. The proper cure for inequality is to make life better for those at the bottom.

We don’t do this through increasing the education of the poorest, or through expanding the range of welfare protections for those people, though both of these things may be good in their own right. We do this by making work rewarding, stable and empowering for people in this position. This means ensuring that someone who is working on minimum wage can afford to live their whole life on that wage. The government cannot make this happen by itself, because the wage is paid by businesses. Something needs to be done to either lower the cost of living for poor people, or to increase their wages, and the latter depends on businesses recognizing their social responsibility to their poorest staff. Sure, housing costs and health costs can be partially controlled through government planning, but ultimately we need people at the bottom of the income scale to be able to afford to save a bit of money, to pay for their wedding and to raise kids and ideally buy some kind of house on their minimum wage. They need to have a path to secure long-term employment, and confidence that they can be sick or go through trauma of some other kind without their lives falling apart. This used to be possible through a range of corporate welfarism: cradle-to-grave jobs, employee holiday camps, union-run holiday homes, cheap home loans supported by the company, and so on. As a result of these rights, it was once possible for a working class family in industrial America to have a holiday cabin and visit there once a year, and to be able to save for a kid to go to college. Now they have the chance to leave their mortgage underwater and flee to the exurbs, where they will work a hyper-insecure job just to keep their car running. In the 40 years between those extremes, our societies have become immeasurably richer, so how is it that a modern US family can no longer afford to own their own home, and a modern single British youth cannot even afford to live alone, let alone buy a place of any kind?

The answer of course is that they were robbed. The people at the bottom of the income pile – whether generationally there or forced down there to make way for someone ambitious – have been robbed by the richest corporations. Wealth has accrued in the hands of a smaller and smaller number of people, and somewhere in the middle of all of that we lost track of the need to put limits on how much rentiers can gouge from renters. Capital has gotten out of control, but our past shows it doesn’t have to be that way. Political choices were made to steal from the poor and give to those who didn’t need it. These political choices are cloaked in the moral language of those who deserve and those who don’t, “strivers” and “leaners,” the 47% and the people who think they made that. The language of “social mobility” and modern neo-liberal concepts of “equal opportunity” are built on this language of the deserving and the undeserving. We need to recognize that this morality is 100 years out of place, and start working to regain that social order in which working was rewarding regardless of how noble the job might have been.

This will mean forcing corporations to pay their workers properly, flattening income scales and redistributing wealth not through welfare but through corporate pay structures. It will mean reining in the powers and privileges of the corporate elite and forcing them to reconnect with their employees. In some countries and some places, it will mean changing a wide range of social organization so that the price of living goes down for the poorest. In Japan it is still possible for someone on minimum wage to live alone in the heart of any city, though it may not be easy. This should be possible in any country with a modern capitalist economy, but sadly it is not. These problems in the price of living need to change.

Our moral yardstick should not be that some bright, smarmy kid from the poorest family can, through incredibly hard work and good luck, escape from a life sentence of grinding poverty, social insecurity, and limited lifestyle choices. It should be to eliminate that grinding poverty and social insecurity, and ensure the basic lifestyles of the poorest in our society. This means that regardless of your particular political perspective, if you truly value the rights of all people you should reject the language of “social mobility” and instead accept the importance and continuing relevance of that old and tired ideal, equality.

We should have seen this coming...

We should have seen this coming…

Today I stumbled on a discussion of a cute little modeling paper, that opened my eyes to a whole world of modeling I didn’t know was happening. The discussion was at the blog Resource Crisis, and it concerned a paper which uses a relatively simple predator-prey model (a Lotka-Volterra model, in other words) to model civilization collapse. The paper can be read here. Apparently it caused a bit of a stir, attracting a write-up in the Guardian and subsequent controversy for having been called a NASA-funded study. The model in the paper has been derided by some as just another piece of Malthusian silliness, but the really interesting aspects of the model arise from the model processes where it does not predict Malthusian outcomes: instead, under some conditions, this model predicts civilization collapse without exhaustion of natural resources, i.e. the social structures in this model bring about collapse without necessarily exhausting resources. This arises from social inequality in the model, in which a small class of elites live parasitically off  of a large population of labourers. Some commentators have related the model to global warming (see e.g. the picture in the Guardian article) but I don’t think the model is intended to talk about this. It appears from discussion within and outside the paper that the main interest is in modelling civilization collapses of the past which came about despite abundant wealth and resources: especially, Rome and the Mayan empire.

The model is a fairly simple one and the paper relatively easy to read, along with a very large number of references to similar work in the field. The basic idea is to set out two resource stocks, one natural and the other accrued as time passes. Nature regenerates at a fixed rate, and the human population is assumed to have a carrying capacity above which it is no longer sustainable, but unlike in classic predator prey models with a carrying capacity, humans can live off their accrued wealth when they pass the carrying capacity. Wealth is built by one class of humans (called “commoners” in the model paper) but the wealth is controlled by another, smaller class, called “elites.” These elites give the commoners a subsistence level of wealth, and retain the remainder. Mortality among humans is set by a base rate that modifies according to whether the population is above the carrying capacity threshold, and by access to wealth. Mortality reaches its maximum once wealth is exhausted, but the thresholds for mortality to begin increasing are different for commoners and elites, and they have different consumption rates. Basically the model assumes a fairly nasty imperial society, in which elites control wealth and ensure that once past the carrying capacity it is the poor who suffer first.

The authors then divide societies into three types: Egalitarian, in which there are no elites; Equitable, in which there are elites but equal consumption rates; and Inequitable, in which the elites have different consumption rates. The first two societies suffer collapse, but generally only through resource depletion. The interesting situation is what the authors call “Type-L collapse,” wherein the population of commoners dies out, wealth stops being produced, and then the elite population collapses, even though natural resources have not been depleted. This is visible in Figure 6a of the paper, and leads to an interesting scenario in which natural resources recover but neither population does. This, the authors argue, is a replication of the Mayan collapse. The authors also point out that this collapse happens when the society is at the peak of its wealth and power, and the elites are still growing in size. There is a period of plateauing total wealth, in which the amount of wealth created and consumed are equal. The charts in the paper show net wealth, but of course from the perspective of the people within the society wealth would appear to be growing, since an increasing population of elites consuming wealth at 100x the rate of the commoners must mean that gross wealth (before consumption effects) is growing rapidly. So from within society it looks like a period of unparalleled success and wealth, but it is actually the beginning of the end.

I was struck by the thought that this may already be happening in some countries not through death but through emigration. Thinking of the state of emigration from Nepal and Mexico, for example, it seems that these are countries with high inequality and large population outflows – perhaps they are on the cusp of such a disaster. The obvious example is North Korea, where the elites are sucking the common population dry without any regard for restoring natural resources. Of course in a connected world it is difficult for a single nation to collapse, since they can trade their way out of disaster (though perhaps, over time, this trade forces them into poverty and acts as a natural brake on further exploitation of the natural world). The bigger example is the earth as a whole, but I don’t think that this is a realistic model for the earth as a whole. The only global environmental problem so serious that it could lead to a major extinction event is, in my opinion, global warming, and this is not a resource depletion problem, nor is it necessarily related to inequality. It’s perfectly possible to wipe ourselves out through global warming without much affecting the overall stock of natural resources at all. In fact, the conditions given in the paper for achieving equilibrium are being partially achieved, with the likelihood of population stabilizing at around 9 billion. The second condition – of reducing inequality below some threshold level – may also be achieved once the low-income nations are lifted out of poverty, which Bill Gates seems to think will happen in a generation. So I think this model is more apt for societies of bygone eras, when people were less connected and more vulnerable to resource depletion, due to having access to a smaller range of resources, and less knowledge with which to change technologies as their component resources exhausted, and when in additional to relative inequality, the absolute poverty of the commoners was so great as to make them fatally vulnerable to any sudden reduction in wealth. Although these models are obviously analogous to what could happen to the whole of earth, I think it’s difficult to claim that they apply given the huge range of possibilities for resource consumption and adaptation on the planet as a whole. Still, as cautionary tales they’re interesting, and I think it’s safe to say that we’re at a point in our ecological history where careful custodianship of natural resources will always be a good idea.

As an interesting aside, one of the blog posts connected with this discussion led me to a blog post criticizing the story of Easter Island as portrayed in Jared Diamond’s Collapse. In Diamond’s version of the Easter Island story – which was apparently the mainstream scientific view until just about 10 years ago – the Islanders brought on their own destruction through poor ecological management, but it seems that the opposite is true: they were good custodians of their land, despite deforestation brought on by rats they accidentally brought with them, and their population collapse was actually the fault of western visitors bringing disease. The soil erosion the island is famous for was the fault of 100 years of sheep-farming by Chilean colonists who also brutalized the local population. Jared Diamond responds to the criticisms on the same blog, but his response is frankly a little mean-spirited and unreasonable. This response is in turn met with a blistering critique by his two most trenchant critics, and although I know nothing about archaeology and anthropology, I was certainly impressed by the thoroughness of their response. The truth of this story is heartening on many levels: it indicates that humans can live sustainably with much less knowledge than we currently possess, in very fragile environments, without major conflict. This debate also shows how pernicious and far-reaching the early racist colonial interpretations of history and anthropology could be, with sensationalist and incorrect fables about the Easter Islanders still being carried through academia 100 years later. Anyone who has read Jared Diamond’s books knows that this particular debate – about the relationship between ecology and human social collapse – is not merely academic, with some recent events such as the massacres in Rwanda being slated home to ecological problems, and the obvious bigger environmental issue of how to live together on this earth without destroying it. It’s sad to see someone of Diamond’s calibre and reputation being misled by racist and colonialist stories from 100 years ago, and drawing wrong conclusions about our environmental vulnerabilities as a result.

Anyway, I was fascinated to see simple predator-prey models being used to model civilization collapse, and collapse due to inequality rather than resource depletion, at that. It’s also interesting to note that a lot of the major collapses in history seem to have been driven by inequality rather than simple resource depletion. And interesting that these models should spark debate just at a time when an influential new book is putting forward the idea that modern capitalism is structurally designed to increase inequality (here I am referring to Piketty of course). It doesn’t bode well for the future, does it? These models are fundamentally too simple and limited to describe the risks facing the planet as a whole (which I do not believe are first and foremost resource depletion issues), but the finding that collapse can happen without resource depletion in the presence of inequality is fascinating, and food for thought for those people who think that inequality is only a social justice issue. It’s for the species, Rico!

Every time you criticize Mandela a fairy puppy dies

Every time you criticize Mandela a fairy puppy dies

Nelson Mandela’s passing was only a few days ago and already the left-wing press and counter-press have managed to come up with a wide range of criticisms of someone who should, ostensibly, be their hero. Slavoj Zizek, that staunch opponent of anything modern in the left, is recycling the old claim that Mandela simply changed the skin colour of the overlords; Counterpunch is leading the charge to claim that he was just a neo-liberal friend of the rich, and black people didn’t benefit from the ANC at all; the Guardian managed to give a thoroughly negative review of his funeral, with the cherry on the icing being their focus on Obama rather than, you know, the South Africans who Mandela led; and they even managed to give Simon Jenkins a go at criticizing the coverage of Mandela’s death. I can’t decide which part of Simon Jenkins’s article is worst – the fact that he paraphrases the title of a profoundly important book about the holocaust in order to criticize coverage of a hugely liberating figure; or the fact that he is writing it at all, given that he is a confirmed HIV denialist and was directly involved in promoting HIV denialist science, which cost South African blacks so many lost lives and chances.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no fan of hagiography and I’m happy to criticize my heroes, but I would have thought that in this case someone as profoundly important as Mandela could be given a week or two before the critical analysis of his legacy began. I mean, he only just died and the left – which historically was most broadly supportive of him – have been really quick to start pissing all over his legacy. I guess it’s largely the British left I’m quoting here, but over at Crooked Timber’s comment thread on Mandela a wide range of commenters seem to have joined in with this “he didn’t immediately undo all the economic wrongs of apartheid so he was bad” chorus, and a lot of the commenters there must be American. It makes me a bit uncomfortable, especially since those on the right who were famously opposed to Mandela at the time (people like Bush, the entire Israeli government, etc) have largely refrained from resurrecting their criticisms of the time. Surely if his opponents of the time don’t feel it’s right to say anything bad about him for a week or so, it might be worth one’s while to stow it for a bit?

One of the main threads of left-wing criticism of Mandela appears to be that he didn’t do much to reduce inequality, and we see various strengths of this argument ranging from “he blew a chance” through “he let down his communist allies” to the extreme “he just swapped racial oppression for economic oppression” or “swapped one set of overlords for another” type arguments. I think there are two huge flaws in these opinions (aside from their obviously terrible timing): the first is that the data from within South Africa is not so clearly supportive of the conclusion that Mandela (and more broadly the ANC) have failed to do anything about inequality; and the second is that progress on inequality and the related left-wing complaint of a failure to rein in neo-liberalism’s negative effects needs to be judged against the context of progress in the rest of the world over the same period, and against the backdrop of HIV in South Africa.

What does the data say on inequality in South Africa?

My first complaint with criticisms of these claims is that the data on inequality in South Africa is not being well assessed, and that the broader development issues South Africa faced are not being considered. Let’s consider that second complaint first. In the Counterpunch article I linked to above, for example, Patrick Bond writes critically:

the sustained overaccumulation problem in highly-monopolised sectors continued, as manufacturing capacity utilization continued to fall from levels around 85 percent in the early 1970s to 82 percent in 1994 to below 80 percent by the early 2000s

This seems hugely unfair to me. I don’t know a great deal about South Africa, but I’m guessing that “manufacturing capacity utilization” in the 1970s was highly dominated by the use of cheap, exploitable labour who had no rights and no capacity to control the extent to which they were “utilized.” Furthermore, the sanctions of the 1980s would have further restricted the ability of South African industry to modernize in a way that would improve capacity utilization, and by the time their investments were up and running in the early 2000s they faced … China. This capacity utilization also looks pretty favourable when compared to the USA, where in 2009 it was 64%. It doesn’t seem to me that this claim is fair.

We’ll come back to this problem of context and comparison with the USA later, but for now let’s look at the data. It’s true that South Africa has a terrible level of inequality, with a Gini index of between 0.6 and 0.7 depending on how you measure it. The world bank suggests that there has been an increase in inequality (measured using the Gini), with Gini values in 1995 of 57 and in 2010 of 63. That’s not a big change, though – this UNU working paper shows that World Bank estimates of the Gini coefficient in 1995 showed a wider range of values than the entire change recorded by the World Bank between 1995 and 2010. There is no clear method for calculating variance in Gini coefficients, and not enough data generally to establish what that variance might be, so whether or not the change from 1995 to 2010 is significant is hard to know.

The story becomes even more complicated than that when you consider the data challenges in nations like South Africa, and look at more nuanced research into inequality in South Africa. It’s difficult to believe that data on black South Africans collected before 1995 was really very good or complete, so the true depth of inequality in apartheid South Africa is hard to be confident about. Furthermore, assessment of wealth in low income countries is not so simple as simply calculating income – it is typically done through assessment of consumption expenditure. This is done because poor people in low income countries tend to underestimate or misreport their income, and much of their wealth can be tied up in informal markets and means of exchange (e.g. they have land and pigs but little money). Measures of Gini in South Africa based on consumption expenditure tend to be different to those based on income, and measures of wealth based on consumption are not readily available in earlier years. Furthermore, the Gini is a very poor measure of inequality – not only is uncertainty usually not calculated, but it doesn’t give any meaningful distinction between different types of inequality, and I seriously doubt it’s linear. For example, a change in Gini index from 0.35 to 0.40 may have a very different meaning to a change from 0.57 to 0.63. I don’t think any realistic work has been done on how useful the Gini index is for either within- or between-nation comparisons.

However, there is some recent research available on inequality in South Africa that paints a more nuanced picture. This research, from the University of Stellenbosch, suggests that poverty – measured in absolute and relative terms – has declined in South Africa, and that inequality within racial groups has increased while inequality between racial groups has decreased. In fact, according to this report:

  • The proportion of households with children reporting any form of hunger has declined by 15% in the past 6 years
  • The share of black people in the middle class has increased from 11% in 1994 to 22% in 2004
  • Poverty headcount rates have declined from a peak of 53% in 1996 to 44% now, a record low
  • Income growth over the period 1994-2010 has been approximately similar amongst whites and blacks
  • The proportion of total income earned by black people has grown from 33% to 39%, while amongst whites it has declined from 55% to 48%
  • Within-race inequality contributed only 39% to inequality in 1993 and now constitutes 60%

The report also points out that World Bank Gini coefficients don’t properly adjust for household size, and household-weighted Gini coefficients were 0.67 in 1993 and are 0.69 now. They write:

A decomposition of the Theil index shows that the decline in income inequality between race groups throughout the period offset the rising inequality within groups. This trend of falling inter-racial inequality coupled with rising intra-racial inequality is also a continuation of a phenomenon first observed in the 1970s (Whiteford & Van Seventer 2000). Note that these estimates of the population Gini are near the upper end of South African Gini estimates, although they remain smaller than those calculated by Ardington et al. (2005) using the 2001 census. The trends in inequality derived from the AMPS data are likely to be more reliable than the estimated levels, as the levels may be more affected by the nature of the data (household income estimates in income bands based on a single question).

The Gini coefficients shown here are higher than those often reported. The reason for that is that many Gini calculations use the weighting for the household, without multiplying that by the household size, as should be done: Larger households have more members, and this should be considered in calculating inequality. The Gini coefficients here are thus the correct ones, and much higher than those reported by among others the World Bank, which are based on inappropriate weights. The Gini coefficient of 0.685 reported for 2006 would have been only 0.638 if the more common, but incorrect, weights were used.
This report overall paints a picture of small but noticable reductions in inter-racial inequality, and reductions in the levels of absolute poverty seen before the end of Apartheid. It’s pretty modest, but overall it seems safe to say that South Africa may reduce inequality slightly and cannot be said to have significantly increased it. This claim may seem weak, but when we compare it to the rest of the world and consider it in its proper context, it’s important.
Considering South Africa’s economic changes in the global and regional context
In economics there is a simple method for assessing the effect of an intervention called the Difference-in-Difference model. In this model you compare the actual change in the group that received an intervention with the counter-factual that would be expected if they haven’t; you estimate the counter-factual from a control group measured before and after the intervention. In this case the intervention is the end of apartheid, and the control group is other countries. Consider, for example, how income inequality has changed in South Africa and the USA since the 1970s. According to the World Bank, the top decile of income earners in South Africa control 58% of all income in 2010. Research from Stanford University puts the equivalent number in the USA at 50%, but look at the curve: since the 1970s the share of income held by the top decile of US income earners has increased from about 35% to 50%. Income inequality has increased rapidly in many high income countries under the influence of various forms of neo-liberalism and/or trade liberalization. For example in the UK the Gini coefficient has increased from 0.35 to 0.41 since 1990, a much larger (proportionate) increase than observed in South Africa. Seen against the backdrop of international changes brought about by major international movements, it appears that Mandela and the ANC have managed to resist many of the worst changes that have swept through the industrialized west. It is this international context that is missing from the Counterpunch article linked above, where they provide critical statistics about South Africa’s industrial and economic performance without any comparison to overseas, where equal or far worse changes have occurred in the same time frame. The industrial economies of much of the rich west have been hollowed out by a mixture of ponzi economics and the rapid growth of Asia; South Africa seems to have escaped the worst of some of these changes, and though things clearly aren’t pretty in the economic statistics that South Africa presents, it is also clear that they have got vaguely better and certainly not much worse, against a backdrop of really challenging international and domestic changes.
The domestic changes also need to he emphasized when assessing Mandela’s legacy. He inherited a corrupt one party state with a political system built on state violence against a powerless minority, crippled by years of sanctions and sitting on the silent time bomb of HIV. While the ANC’s response to HIV was terrible, it’s worth noting that the first 10-20 years of growth of HIV happened under apartheid, and it’s really hard to believe that since HIV was identified in 1984 the white regime was doing much to prevent its spread. Against a backdrop of revolution, poverty, discrimination and chaos, what kinds of interventions did de Klerk have in place? And even after Mandela took the reins, most of Africa was still unaware of how to deal with HIV and just how terrible it was going to become; much of the context of the epidemic that unfolded subsequently had already been set and although the response could have been better handled since 1994, and certainly since 1997, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that even a really pro-active intervention would have failed under the circumstances. As a result of this epidemic, life expectancy in South Africa has collapsed, and South Africa is one of the countries facing serious economic challenges because of the epidemic. I have written before about how terrible this epidemic can be for societies suffering it, and challenged readers to consider alternative futures where it arose as a generalized epidemic in the USA or Europe. Does anyone think that the USA would have experienced the same economic growth and changes since 1994 if it had suffered the epidemic the way South Africa is? This needs to be considered when criticizing health spending and economic growth in South Africa.
Given this context, I can only summarize by saying that Mandela and the ANC did okay in handling inequality. Obviously not as well as anyone would have liked but also much better than, say, the US under (lefty) Clinton or the UK under (lefty) Blair. So I think leftists should perhaps be a little more circumspect in their criticisms of Mandela and the ANC’s legacy. Perhaps it would be good if they took a week to laud his obvious achievements, and to read the literature.
A final note about iconoclasm in coverage of Mandela’s death
In case you thought the mainstream left was alone in being a little too quick to criticize Mandela, spare a thought for the lunatic right. The National Review Online editors’ piece on Mandela was remarkable, managing to wrap a vicious and angry rant inside a thin shell of flattery; and its commenters still complained that the NRO has become too left wing in its coverage, and that Mandela committed genocide. But perhaps best is the efforts of the white power losers from the OSR blogosphere, who hate-bombed a thread about Mandela on Dragonsfoot with complaints about his terrorism and white genocide. Remember that next time an OSR blogger drifts over here to complain about my criticisms of Tolkien … still, the OSR being caught up in 1986 I guess they haven’t worked out that apartheid is over.
Anyway, I don’t feel like this has been a great week for the mainstream left media, such as it is, and I hope that some of Mandela’s critics on the left will find this piece and consider a slightly more nuanced understanding of what he did in power. I also hope that people will start using slightly better measures of inequality than Gini indices … but that’s a post for another day!

Is Renee trapped in a dead end job?

While I was travelling in Germany, being forced to eat huge piles of food at restaurants and cafes, I noticed that many of the staff shoveling the food into the trough[1] were middle-aged men, something I also noticed when I was in Paris a few years ago. In contrast, this phenomenon is rarer in Japan (depending on the restaurant) and extremely uncommon in the UK and Australia. In the UK, restaurant staff are usually foreigners (Eastern European or Australian), while in Japan and Australia they tend to be students doing part-time jobs. Obviously there are exceptions to this, especially in owner-operated restaurants and in certain chains in Japan, and also Japan has a large number of staff working at restaurants and bars who are employed as full-time kaishain (the pinnacle of Japanese industrial rights) but young; however, the preponderance of middle-aged men in western European cafes is interesting. It’s interesting because in general, middle-aged men from the dominant cultural group of a country aren’t found in any industry in large numbers unless that industry has good wages and conditions. Certainly, Germany isn’t in the kind of dire economic straits that would drive men previously employed in solid jobs to take up dubious part-time work, so it’s reasonable to surmise that working in a restaurant as a waiter in Germany or France is a job with decent conditions and wages.

This led me to thinking about differences in approach towards managing inequality between continental Europe, Japan and the anglosphere. I think the anglosphere has an idea that it can reduce inequality through social mobility, in which poor people and/or their children, through education and training or hard work, can “move up” the “social ladder” to improve their situation; while Western Europe and Japan work on the idea of structural equality, in which jobs at the “low” end of the “social ladder” are renumerated sufficiently well as to enable a middle-aged male to raise a family on a single income even though he is not working in a high-end job.

I think social mobility might be a ponzi scheme, that is unsustainable and regressive and ultimately leads to entrenched inequality, racial tension and economic collapse. Like a lot of my thoughts on economics, this is probably a brain-fart, it’s definitely speculative, and I’m aware that there are a lot of people on both the left and right of politics who care about inequality who have reasoned and strong opinions about the importance of social mobility as a factor in reducing inequality. In this post I will lay out my understanding of the differences between the approach, discuss some of the possible failings of the social mobility model in the West, and explain why I think it causes the problems of inequality, racial tension and economic collapse. It’s a long post, so I’ll set it out in sections so readers can skip to the end.

Social Mobility vs. Structural Equality

First to define terms, which I am using very loosely here. Social mobility is the process by which poor people can improve their lot. Go to university, get a qualification, move onto work in banking and become rich so that you can employ a poor foreigner as your cleaner. In this model of managing inequality, some jobs (such as being a cleaner, a waiter or day labourer) are viewed as having no long term future, i.e. they don’t pay enough or have good enough conditions to support a family or any personal aspirations. In order to ensure that people don’t get trapped in these jobs for generations, welfare and education policies ensure that the children of people trapped in these jobs are able to “move up” to better jobs, leaving their class behind. This doesn’t help their families but is supposed to ensure that the children of the poor don’t suffer because of their parents failure to get a better job or a good education. In this model, inter-generational inequality is a bad thing but some people must inevitably be trapped in these jobs. Ideally, everyone can move out of these jobs, and people who worked their way up from poverty to wealth are esteemed. For example in today’s Guardian, Ed Milliband (an intellectual lightweight in the labour movement if ever there was one) states that he doesn’t mind people being rich so long as they worked for it. Of course, having got to riches they may enact a series of corporate policies guaranteed to entrench poverty in their employees but that’s okay because they worked hard to elevate themselves from poverty. This model of social mobility is often connected to notions of a deserving and undeserving poor: if you are poor but ensure you work hard for your minimum-wage job, never claim welfare, and make your kids go to school, you deserve support to get your kids to uni and a “real” job, so that they can look down on you once they become professors of neo-liberal economics; but if you slack off at your job, or teach your kids that there is no future and it’s not worth trying, you don’t deserve help; and if you look on the whole thing as a farce and refuse to work for sub-poverty level wages, then you don’t deserve any help from the state and neither do your kids. I should note that I am a beneficiary of this social mobility model, having been raised in a single-income tradesman’s family, but now with a good education under my belt working as an academic in Japan.

The alternative model I am comparing this to is the concept of structural inequality, in which the wages of “low end” jobs like cleaning, waiting and labouring are set so as to ensure that a person in this job can live a full life despite their sub-standard education and lower status. By “full life” of course I don’t mean lear jets and Bollinger, but financial security, the ability to live in a safe and clean home, and a little bit of disposable income to support the ordinary dreams of ordinary people. One often hears older folk opining about how this used to be possible in America: the fabled one-income family who had a summer cabin in the Catskills, and raised two kids with the wife at home despite the dad being nothing more than a factory worker at GM (or whatever). The idea behind this model is that somehow – through private companies making responsible judgments or government transfers – society maintains itself in such a way as to ensure that everyone at all social strata can be happy. Of course these models aren’t always great: the fabled American equality of the 1950s was established in a society that excluded blacks and women from the workforce, and societies that have this kind of system can be expensive, as witnessed in e.g. France, which is a pretty expensive place to live. A lot of neo-liberal economists criticize this system in often quite macho and scornful ways – they talk about “cutting the fat” and take a kind of macho pleasure in watching companies like GM or Japan Airlines struggling to manage the financial challenges of accrued benefits. Criticism of this system often have an element of moral judgment consistent with children’s stories about the squirrel that didn’t save nuts: societies with these systems are “unsustainable” and need to face up to reality, or are described as soft or idealistic, and there’s always this hint of joy or satisfaction at their struggles to maintain their systems, or at declining birthrates, or sluggish growth. But the societies that maintain these systems seem to be very happy with them. So what’s the story?

How social mobility has failed in the anglosphere

The first thing to note is that the social mobility model hasn’t worked particularly well in the UK or the USA. Inequality in the UK is terrible, and median incomes in the US have declined over the last 10 years; worse still, median incomes amongst the least skilled sectors of the economy have been declining steadily for 40 years,  despite productivity growth over the same period, with the difference being pocketed by the very rich – even during the recovery from the GFC. The Occupy Wall Street protests and the discussion of the one percent makes the point that over the last 40 years – as those low-skilled employees have seen their wages decline – the richest sector of society have concentrated their hold over capital, and in a capitalist system it is this concentration of control of capital that determines who gets the best jobs, who gets the most benefit from economic growth, and (sadly) who gets the most say over politics. Inequality doesn’t just make poor people unhappy, it also ensures that rich people get a greater say over things like health insurance or industrial policy.

An additional consequence of inequality in the UK, and probably in the USA too, is that poor people increasingly lose access to the basic services that are necessary to maintain a reasonable standard of living. Nearly 40% of the UK population experience fuel poverty, and according to recent research in the Guardian one in five children are living in poverty; I think now 40% of the US population is receiving some form of food stamps, and the British government has had to announce a “beds in sheds” taskforce to deal with the growing problem of extremely poor temporary housing in gardens and sheds. Looking at these societies as a whole we see not an improvement in the lot of poor people, but an increasing number of desperately poor people living in very precarious circumstances. It might be possible to argue that this isn’t the fault of the economic model as a whole (Britons always blame immigration for their problems), but as the rich grab more and more of the world’s excess wealth, and the poor get forced to live in sheds and eat under-nourishing food from charities, I think it’s safe to say there is something wrong. The model has failed. Why?

Social mobility as a ponzi scheme

The first and most obvious problem is that we can’t all “move up” the social ladder. Someone has to empty the bins and wait on tables. Who is going to do that? In the absence of significant immigration from poorer nations, it’s fairly obvious that society has to find a way to fill those jobs, and so long as the people paying for them refuse to remunerate them properly, other social forces are going to conspire to ensure that someone gets stuck in them. The commonest mechanisms for achieving this are race- and class-based discrimination, which operate to ensure that some small portion of the population remains trapped in a social stratum that works for peanuts. Whether it’s economic (paying Aboriginal farmhands in sugar and tobacco), social (old boy networks to ensure only certain classes get certain jobs), subtle (using university admission interviews to screen out working class applicants) or open (Jim Crow laws) they all serve to ensure that some people are forced to restrict their job choices and their economic future.

A society which aims to maintain certain jobs at a poverty-level wage, and offers no solution to the problem of poverty except “get up and get out” is going to collapse unless it can find a way to force others to do those jobs. In societies with high population growth it may be possible to maintain this through part-time student labourers, though in general the only reason students will fulfill this part time labouring role is that there are insufficient welfare transfers to enable them to study without working (i.e. a system which discourages poor peoples’ access to social mobility). But in societies with low population growth, there are only two alternatives to entrenching class- or race-based inequality: construct an economic order in which as many people fall down the ladder as rise up it; or import new labourers from much poorer nations. Looking in from the outside, it appears that the USA has adopted the former trick. The middle-class is shrinking and losing much of its previous economic privileges, and this isn’t occurring because the top tiers of society are growing; rather, people are sliding down the social ladder, and the frantic struggle of the middle class to avoid the loss of these accepted economic rights is having huge effects on American society (see below).

The other option, preferred by the UK, is to import labour to fill jobs that British working class people consider beneath them. This, also, has ramifications at both a global and local level, and it doesn’t change the fundamental nature of the ponzi scheme – just delays its effects while creating social pressures at home.

Social mobility, immigration and social tension

Importing migrant workers to do shit jobs in countries with residual class tensions and a model of social mobility creates racial tension. The local working class, restricted in their upward social mobility, see migrant labourers as competition for jobs that they themselves are trying to escape but can’t; neo-liberal welfare policies, often implemented as part of this social order, lead to restrictions or conditions on access to welfare for the “undeserving” poor, which creates the perception of conflicts over limited shares of welfare money (even though in most neo-liberal economies, migrants get zero welfare support from the government). Furthermore, in societies such as the UK and Australia where racist views of migrants can be quite common, having large numbers of migrants fill shit jobs reinforces the impression that they are not a valid long-term employment prospect, both culturally and through pushing down the wages of these jobs. Of course it’s possible – as happens in countries like Australia and Canada – for these migrants to fill these jobs temporarily as they themselves move up the ladder, but this is only possible in these countries because they have a new population, space, growing economies, and a vibrant political culture with few class barriers. In societies like the UK, which are stagnating industrially and have a long tradition of racial and class discrimination, as well as limited space and poor infrastructure investment, high migrant intake means pressure on already poor infrastructure, resentment, and the growth of nasty movements like the English Defense League. In addition to these obvious pressures, neo-liberal economies with a focus on social mobility also tend to obsess about government spending on infrastructure, but large migrant intakes demand planned infrastructure investment which private companies won’t do, and this exacerbates conflicts over access to welfare, housing and other scarce resources.

Inter-generational conflict has also been created by this ponzi scheme, because as people heading towards retirement age are seeing their own economic rights withering they begin to look elsewhere in society for ways to save money and husband resources. Hence we see the unedifying sight of the Tea Party demanding cuts in all government spending except Medicare, because its members are mostly angry baby boomers; or Paul Ryan’s budget plan including a “grandfather clause” that will protect benefits for the current generation, but destroy them for its children. It’s a kind of economic cannibalism, in which older people destroy their children’s future to prevent themselves from sliding down the social scale. The Tea Party is a socially destructive movement, spawned entirely through conflicts over welfare and government spending and populated with insecure middle class baby boomers worried about their future. It’s a perfect symptom of the end game of the social mobility construct.

Increased inequality, the housing ladder and the global financial crisis

In addition to denigrating all forms of welfare spending to promote equality, attacking minimum wages and any protection of workers’ rights and conditions, neo-liberal economics sets its store by government fiscal “responsibility,” and the first and last word in neo-liberal economics is tax and spending cuts. But as governments cut spending on infrastructure, welfare and regulation, the middle class loses its previous economic protections and rights, and as we have seen in America, its real wages begin to decline as services previously provided by government are privatized and increase in cost. The most obvious example of this in the USA is healthcare, and in the UK transport. The neo-liberal solution to this is to encourage households to go into debt, and this is exactly what US and British households did in the lead up to the global financial crisis (GFC). To protect their living conditions they took the government’s advice and went into debt in order to wager on that most precarious of ponzi schemes, the housing market. The result was economic collapse, bankruptcy and further reductions in the living standards of the middle class. In response governments introduced further cost-cutting measures in order to bail out the banks, driving more of the middle class down the income ladder in what is, essentially, a huge correction on the previous 20 years of social mobility. In addition, the housing stock has decreased, and larger proportions of society in the post-GFC era are unable to afford to buy a house.

The result of 20 years of neo-liberal spending cuts and workplace “reform” has been a financial collapse, destruction of welfare, and loss of all the gains that the working and middle class supposedly made during that period, as well as a reduction in the availability of housing and capital for these sections of society. The only country to escape this has been Australia, which has done so through good luck (a mining boom) and careful avoidance of the worst excesses of neo-liberal policy. But even there the housing market is clearly unsustainable, and becoming increasingly unaffordable for a new generation, indicating that social mobility will soon stall or go backwards there too.

The lesson of the last 20-30 years of neo-liberal policy is that inequality will out. You can’t privatize the responsibility for social mobility while simultaneously reforming workplaces and cutting government spending. Something will give, and in the case of the anglosphere, it was the GFC.

A note on government vs. private support of structural equality

Policies of structural inequality obviously rely on making sure that people on the bottom of the income ladder can afford to live, long-term, on the wages from their job, especially since they’re unlikely to ever gain access to significant capital. Doing so doesn’t necessarily require government intervention though – it may be possible to achieve it through a social compact with business. I think this is what happened in Germany and Japan, where there is a complex social agreement between unions, companies, governments and civil society. In this agreement everyone agrees not to rock the boat, but companies give up some element of profit for the greater good, the upper class give up stratosphere wages, and the unions give up on certain elements of workplace rights and social activism. The result may not be to everyone’s taste, but it leads to a society where, for example, my old kickboxing teacher in Matsue could afford to buy an apartment in Hiroshima, raise two children, and live in a different city to his family, all on one wage – as a television salesperson in an electric store. Can you do that in modern Britain or America?

Systems of structural equality can be maintained through cultural and social agreement, not just through Western-styled government intervention. I think the problem is that the anglosphere, with its focus on excellence, individualism and achievement, sees the kinds of cultural and social agreements made in Asia or continental Europe as fundamentally repressive, limiting and – ultimately – soft. Hence the almost visceral glee with which neo-liberal commentators greet Europe’s economic problems, or Japan’s low growth, while ignoring Britain and the USA’s obvious huge social problems, the inherent inequality of its economic system, and the long-term downward trajectory of education, health and industry in those countries.


I think the notion of social mobility as a cure for social inequality is untenable. Obviously social mobility is a desirable goal in itself – people should be able to do what they want to do, if they are able and it doesn’t cost society too much to help them – but as a cure for inequality it doesn’t work. The best way to address inequality is to reorient the economy, the state and the cultural order to ensure that people who do shit jobs can afford to live full and happy lives while doing those jobs, and anyone can pursue any career – no matter how “low” the work they do might be – if that’s what they want or are able to do. Obviously society needs intellectuals and academics (though maybe not economists), engineers and doctors, and people should be encouraged to do those things, but that doesn’t mean that the person who cleans their toilet should be employed under such terrible conditions that if they don’t somehow find a way to be an engineer themselves (or marry one) they will never be able to afford to raise a family, live in a proper house, be warm in water, or eat healthy food. Current economic orthodoxy in the anglosphere doesn’t allow for this concept, and it’s one of many ways in which I think the English-speaking world stands to gain from paying more attention to Europe and Asia, instead of always assuming that their own economic and cultural ideas are the best.

fn1: If Germany is serious about reducing its CO2 emissions, here is a simple method: eat more reasonable amounts. Everyone in South Germany ate, by my estimation, 20-50% more than they needed to, and most people by the age of 30 appeared to be overweight or obese. This also has interesting ramifications for discussion about food inequality around the world. There’s a post in this, I think.