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Employing Hunter-Gatherer Psychology to Reduce Inequality

Yesterday we published a guest blog by Joe Brewer, A World without Poverty. It triggered quite an intense discussion, which is a good thing (this is what this Forum is about). However, and somewhat disappointingly to me, most critique focused on ‘poverty,’ instead of ‘a world without.’

To me, Joe’s blog is really about inequality, not poverty, and certainly not about absolute poverty. In many ways, today’s poor in industrialized countries are better off than the rich in historical agrarian societies, such as Ancient Rome – they live longer and have entertainment options unavailable to the wealthiest nobles living in pre-industrial societies.

Relatively speaking, however, in terms of wealth differentials, we made very little – if any – progress since the days of the Roman Empire. So absolute poverty has declined, but relative poverty – inequality – did not (and in the last several decades it actually increased).

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So why call it ‘poverty’ rather than ‘inequality’? Well, inequality is a more abstract notion, and it does not necessarily sound negative in American English. Poverty resonates. No American president has declared a War on Inequality (at least, so far). But we have been in a War on Poverty since 1964.

And losing it, at least, as long as we are talking about relative poverty. And relative is what’s important. It is well known that a great majority of people would prefer to earn $50,000 in a society in which incomes vary from $10,000 to $50,000, rather than earn $100,000 in a society where the range of incomes is between $100,000 and $500,000.

There is a good evolutionary reason for being attuned to relative differences. Evolutionary ‘fitness’ (which explains why some traits spread, and others go extinct) is a relative thing. In a kingdom of elk with 10 cm antlers, the male who grows 20 cm long antlers will be king (and will mate with most females). In a kingdom where other males have 30 cm long antlers, he is nobody. It doesn’t matter how long your horns are in absolute terms, all you need is for them to be longer than any of your rivals.

Inequality matters because we keenly feel relative differences. There is both empirical evidence and theoretical reasons why inequality is corrosive of cooperation. Without going into mathematical details, one of the central results in multilevel selection theory (the Price equation) says that it is very difficult for cooperation to evolve if within-group differences in fitness are large. And it is very easy to evolve away from cooperation if there is much within-group inequality.

As I said in the beginning of this post, I was somewhat disappointed that most comments focused on ‘poverty’ and what it means. But Joe makes another important point: how can we reduce poverty (inequality)? He appeals to our hunter-gatherer past.

Here’s how I would put it. Our behavior is determined by many layers of evolved psychology. It’s like an onion. The outward – most recent – skin is the modern society layer. Below it lays the agricultural society layer, then hunter-gatherer layer, the great ape layer, and the basic mammal layer. I believe the idea comes from Jon Haidt.

So things like food and sex are the basic mammal drive. Our striving for social hierarchies reflects the great ape evolutionary past. Our egalitarianism and ‘inequity aversion’ (preference for equitable outcomes) comes from the hunter-gatherer period. But we also respect authority, which evolved during the agrarian society period, with its highly despotic archaic states. Finally, things like democracy, tolerance, respect for diversity, etc. are the most recently evolved (and the most fragile) layer.

The point is that all these psychological layers coexist and it is up to us which we want to deploy in order to achieve positive social outcomes. For most of its evolutionary history our species lived in small-scale highly egalitarian societies and the preference for equitable outcomes is very deeply ingrained.

How could it work? Let’s take an example of corporate taxes. It is well known that some large American corporations not only pay zero taxes, they actually enjoy a “negative tax” – they get more from the state in handouts than they contribute to the state’s coffers. Taking a page from the hunter-gatherer manual on how to deal with such antisocial entities, we could deploy graduated sanctions to them. We should start by gossiping about such companies (to some extent it’s already going on, in the media). Then we can escalate by imposing fines and so on. This may not be easy, because wealthy corporations are very good at using their wealth to avoid such sanctions.

But there is another weapon in the hunter-gatherer tool kit for the control of upstarts: ridicule. I wonder whether employing ridicule strategically (directing it not only at the faceless corporations, but also at actual individuals – the CEOs and other top officers) may be the most effective thing we can do to start reducing inequality.

Although my cynical side suggests that what worked in a small-scale society may not deter the CEOs from laughing all the way to the bank…

33 Comments

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33 Comments

  1. Alan Honick says:

    Ridicule can certainly be a very effective means of shaming; isn’t that the method TV programs such as The Daily Show often employ? I think the greatest weakness of such venues, as is often the case in these days of fragmented media outlets, is that it’s largely preaching to the choir. However, I think all such voices contribute to overall public sentiment, and so are ultimately useful; the more the better to drive the message home.

  2. Seth Long says:

    I don’t know. There’s an issue of scale here. Within a small HG group, the upper bound and lower bound of possession would have been visible and easily “relativized.” I imagine there was no large stratification whereby you could chunk large groups into economic classes, the way we can chunk modern industrialized societies. The individuals or sub-groups who hoarded possessions could be easily singled out by the rest of the group.

    Today, the upper and lower bounds are so far apart that it’s impossible to get all groups to agree on who should be targeted for gossip, shaming, protest, violent attack, etc. Any attempt to do so (e.g., Occupy Wall Street) will be fleeting and ineffective.

    And that’s because people relativize from their own position. Judging by visible lifestyle and possessions, the difference between $20k and $100k a year can be as great as that between $100k and $500k, which can be as great as that between $500k and $10 million, and so on.

    As a full professor and author, Peter Turchin makes six figures, so, when he talks about targeting individuals or entities for shame or gossip in this post, he makes it clear that he’s talking about people who are much wealthier than him. However, I imagine there are adjunct faculty and janitors at UConn who look at Dr. Turchin the same way he looks at CEOs: there’s someone who has more than I do. Like I said, we relativize from our own positions.

    Dr. Turchin is right that relative inequality is what people judge, but relative inequality we see is more powerful than that which we do not see. Television of course makes it possible for the poorest to see how the richest stars live, but in the end, the relative inequality on TV or in newspapers remains mediated. It’s only experienced, unmediated relative inequality that spurs humans to any kind of mass action. Recall the scene in the last Batman movie: Bane told the poor people of Gotham, “Gotham is yours.” But they didn’t raid the homes of billionaire CEOs. They raided the homes of upper middle and lower upper class folks, the people who were daily visible to the poor, the people who were physically accessible to the poor. If the poor people of Connecticut decided on a target for shame, gossip, and attack, that target could very well be . . . . tenured professors.

    In short, I agree with Dr. Turchin that relative inequality stirs anger (although I prefer to call it by its traditional name, envy), even to the point where someone who lives quite comfortably in a heated, powered apartment can feel screwed over by society because he sees people who drive BMWs and eat out every night. However, I disagree that millions or even thousands of people can agree on the precise targets of “graduated sanctions” and “ridicule.” If they could agree, they would agree locally, and they would focus on local targets. Our HG past did not prepare us to deal with scales of relations so large that they are permanently out of sight.

    Personally, I believe that although relative inequality stirs people up, the comfort of living in a society sans absolute poverty ensures that few are willing to risk their security just because someone else can afford three yachts.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      I agree that most people can’t grasp the degree by which their wealth differs from the wealth of a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffet. The difference is literally astronomical. On the other hand, we all have TVs (and now Internet) right in our living rooms, so we can literally see how different the lifestyles of the rich are from ours. Remember Dennis Kozlowski and the parties he threw? These are the kind of excesses I was thinking of, that could be the target of ridicule (and they were).

      • Richard says:

        But what good would that do?

        Kozlowski and ilk can easily insulate themselves from such ridicule. Plus which, you have a substantial portion of the successful people in this country worshiping people like that.

    • Fernando Esteve Mora says:

      I agree enterily with you. In my opinion, it is necessary to differentiate in each society between local inequality, the inequality people feel and experience and may motivate its social and political behavior, and global inequality, the inequality you can only know through a medium of any type. Now, in western societies -I think- we are experiencing global inequality growth but people do not experience a similar growth in its local level of inequality. Perhaps, more than talking about and using inequality indexes it would be better to use a polarisation index as a more adequate concept to reflect these changes in the distribution of income and wealth and their political consequences.

  3. SirNemesis says:

    I tend to prefer harsher punishments of this sort:

    Murphy writes that in northwest Alaska, kunlangeta “might be applied to a man who, for example, repeatedly lies and cheats and steals things and does not go hunting, and, when the other men are out of the village, takes sexual advantage of many women.” The Inuits tacitly assume that kunlangeta is irremediable. And so, according to Murphy, the traditional Inuit approach to such a man was to insist that he go hunting, and then, in the absence of witnesses, push him off the edge of the ice.

  4. What works in a band of hunter-gatherers does not scale up to work even in a large school or business. It certainly doesn’t work in a nation of millions who don’t know each other, don’t know what everyone else is really doing, don’t actually care about others they way they care about their own family and friends, etc.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      I disagree. The new ways of electronic communications give us enormous capacity to link together millions of people. We should learn to use them for prosocial purposes.

      • Certainly “we” should learn to use new technologies, but look at how “we” learned to use previous technologies. Modern mass media technologies — newspapers, then radio, then television — did not bring high-level discussion to the masses but instead increased the power of propaganda, advertising, sound bites, etc.

        • Joe Brewer says:

          You are making a very important point here, Isegoria. True power resides in the ability to influence the collective perceptions (or mainstream views, if you will) of a society. This is more difficult than simply making facts available or shunning specific individuals.

          I think two pieces of writing I’ve done may support this part of the discussion. The first is about the dynamics of “Idea Battlefields (e.g. Culture Wars) as an emergent process that advances the evolution of cultural systems. To the extent we deeply understand how to get ideas and behaviors to spread across a society and become social norms, we can engage in the propaganda wars more successfully to promote pro-social outcomes at the societal scale.

          The second piece is The Power Politics of Ignorance which goes into the sophisticated practices of shaping what a society comes to know or believe (increasingly through manipulative marketing and public relations efforts among the financial elites). This is a vital piece of the discussion about implementing solutions as well.

          Onward,

          Joe

  5. Juan Alfonso says:

    Very interesting posts.

    Inequality and poverty, as defined in the previous post, are the consequence of what in economy is called “positional externalities”. Since life dependes on relative success it is understandable that our psychology is atuned for positional competition and therefore prone to create these externalities.

    Peter, by your post I can tell you are familiar with the work of Robert Frank (“The Darwin Economy”) on taxing not only negative externalities but also positional externalities (like the group problems that antlers caused to the now extinct giant elks). His most prominent proposition is a progressive tax on consumption instead of the current tax on income and on payroll. Frank says that taxing is an effective (and productive) way to discourage a given behavior. If a state taxes income that state is somehow discouraging having a greater income, But if a state taxes consumption then that state is encouraging greater levels of income, savings and investments and at the same time discouraging Veblen´s conspicuous consumption and therefore inequality.

    I think Joe Brewer is right about the importance of incentives. Our way of life and current institutions provide us with a framework for the things we find important to compete for. Early nomadic tribes had little incentive for conspicuous consumption; They had more incentive for showing off traits like courage in battle, hunting skills and sharing the kill (which coud be defined as conspicuous altruism). For them probably Prestige was more important that material status.

    With the agricultural revolution the incentives changed and suddenly conspicuous consumption became the most efficient way to advertise one´s status. Old fashioned prestige was not an efficient way to do that anymore. The positional arms races developed around conspicuous consumption, and now those are the incentives that govern modern western civilization.

    The point is: can we change the incentives for positional competition? Can we foster conspicuous altruism instead od conspisuous consumption? I think we can. Well placed institutions like a progressive tax on consumption could lead the way. The gossip-ridicule approach could also be implemented with the new technologies. I think I am starting to envision the ground for the kind of institutions that are required.

    It is not only a matter of equalty or egalitarism but a matter of sustainability and survival.

    Sorry about the length…

    • Richard says:

      A consumption tax still doesn’t solve the problem of intergenerational wealth accumulation (leading to power accumulation), however.

      • Peter Turchin says:

        So why not have an inheritance tax? It’s something that people on both ends of the left-right spectrum could agree on (as long as we don’t tar it as the “death tax”).

        • Juan Alfonso says:

          Of course! Do we want to discourage wealth accumulation and intergenerational wealth transmission? Then let´s tax it!… We could do it by implementing both a progressive inheritance tax and a progressive patrimony tax (I am not sure that the right wing people would agree on this…).

          By being progressive this taxes would not discourage utilitarian possessions but only conspicuous wealth

          But we should not have taxes on the value of things (lihe the I.V.A in Spain) because they tax consumption in a non-progressive way.

          We still should have non-progressive taxes on goods and services that produce negative externalities (like fuel or tobacco).

        • Richard says:

          “It’s something that people on both ends of the left-right spectrum could agree on (as long as we don’t tar it as the “death tax”).”

          What world do you live in where people on the right of the spectrum agree that an inheritance tax is good to have? Who do you think came up with the term “death tax” and why do you think they came up with that term?

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Juan, thanks for a thoughtful comment. As you surmised, I was heavily indebted to Robert Frank (and I should have acknowledged the debt). And I agree with you that it should be possible for us collectively to change the stakes of status competition. In my favorite example (see my book, War and Peace and War), in the Early Republic, Roman nobles competed in who could die for Patria in a most spectacular manner. In the Later Republic, they competed on who could amass the most silverware…

      • Juan Alfonso says:

        First let me tell you that I finally read “War and Peace and War” and I enjoyed it immensely. I have internalized your wonderful insights and I am already looking forward to reading “secular cycles”.

        Peter, that is precisely the point! The ways elite have for advertising their status have swung from “Prestige” to “material status” (via conspicuous consumption). Perhaps our society could be “rearranged” not only to conspicuously punish bad behaviors (for the group) but to conspicuously reward good behaviors. That could be one of the ingredients of your (and Ibn Khaldun´s) Asabiya.

        I think I am begining to grasp the ultimate causes for this special dynamics of competition and cooperation, but I still have a lot of reading and thinking to do…

  6. Alan Honick says:

    Isegoria makes some excellent points; however, doesn’t this simply highlight the challenge? How might we design sanctions that are the modern analogs of H/G social controls, but scaled and adapted to function effectively in a diverse society of millions? I suggested in an earlier comment that Jon Stewart is one channel for ridicule, utilizing satire; don’t all of the modern mass and social media offer many others?

    • Seth Long says:

      You look at this as a problem to be solved through large-scale controls rather than as a “given” of contemporary life to be navigated at a smaller scale. That makes you somewhat frightening.

      • Alan Honick says:

        There’s no need to take a pejorative tone; I would hope we’re just having a discussion. If you inferred from my phrase “How might we design sanctions” that I was suggesting some grand propaganda scheme á la 1984, you’re mistaken.

        However new social controls may emerge, I think they will be just that — emergent phenomena. Such phenomena could conceivably emerge at all scales, from interpersonal to international.

        We’ve just witnessed one example over the last several days in the public condemnation and swift downfall of Donald Sterling. I think this was a result of conventional mass media and social media like Twitter, Facebook, etc. all interacting, as well as many sports and political figures lending the weight of their opinions.

        Granted, this isn’t the same thing as several members of a small hunter-gatherer group banding together to take down a bully, but I do think some analogies can be drawn.

        I hope we can conduct a discussion in civil tones, even when we disagree. I seem to take a bit more idealistic and optimistic view of the problem than you, judging from your earlier and lengthier comment. I do think that it’s possible, through actions at all scales, to reform our social, economic, and political institutions in ways that will make them more fair, though I admit it is a very daunting task.

        • Peter Turchin says:

          Yes, let’s keep the discussion civil – and if not, I will switch to my role as the moralistic punisher :). On the substance, I agree with Alan. The modern media – and not just the TV, but also social media – provide us collectively with enormous power to sanction antisocial behavior. And without physical violence. So we should use it.

        • Seth Long says:

          You’re right, Alan, that our disagreement stems from our differing views on human progress. You’re optimistic about it, I’m pessimistic.(And I do apologize for the snide comment.)

          You and Peter see the Donald Sterling case as moral progress and good use of social media to mimic HG behavior. I see a dangerous precedent. What happened to Sterling stems from the same human drive that led to the Salem witch trials. Just because you personally agree with the morals involved shouldn’t blind you to the fact that the behavior is, to use my earlier word, frightening. What happens when the zeitgeist swings in another direction? Or what happens when these tools start getting used against not only powerful billionaires but anyone with views that don’t fit the reigning Internet ideology?

          It’s already happening.

          In Sweden, for example, a newspaper hacked the Disqus accounts of users who were making critical comments online about that country’s immigration policies. The newspaper then went to the homes of the “outed” users to confront them on national TV:

          link to itworld.com

          A few days later, one of the outed commenters had a bomb detonated at his home:

          link to thelocal.se

          And who can forget the case of Justine Sacco, who tweeted an off-color remark to her tiny number of followers, all friends, surely. Then the comment went viral, and before you know it, she’s getting death threats and being fired from her job because of all the negative attention:

          link to abcnews.go.com

          This wasn’t some powerful billionaire, it was just some poor worker who said something stupid. And yet thanks to the mechanisms in which you see value, this woman is now virtually unemployable.

          Should I bring up Brandon Eich? The inventor of JavaScript didn’t say a thing, he simply exercised his right as a citizen to participate in the political process. And yet as soon as the Twitter-verse got word that his participation wasn’t of the approved kind, he was kicked out of the very organization he helped found.

          There are hundreds of other examples, involving more than just political views, of outrage mobs banding together on the Internet to ruin the life of someone (very publicly, I might add) who just said something stupid or exercised minor bad judgment.

          So, for every Donald Sterling case, in which, yes, someone in power is held accountable, there will be hundreds of cases in which the exact same mechanisms and behaviors are used to destroy the lives of normal, working and middle class people.

          I still don’t think, given the issue of scale mentioned by me and Isegoria, that any of this has anything to do with HG-inherited behavior. However, even if I agree for argument’s sake that it is similar behavior, then I see it as very negative behavior, very animalistic behavior, that should give way to the better angels of our more evolved nature.

          • Alan Honick says:

            Apology accepted. I’m pretty thick-skinned; it’s just that I think understanding is better facilitated by respectful disagreement and airing of perspectives.

            While we do differ on our views of humanity’s prospects, I acknowledge that your points regarding the “double-edged sword” of populist social sanctioning are valid, and important. As you aptly point out, the Salem witch trials are a good example of such a process gone awry, as of course is the Nazi persecution of Jews, gays, and Gypsies.

            I wonder — and this is just a question that occurs — is there a qualitative difference between this sort of scapegoating, where an angry majority blames a convenient and defenseless minority for its ills, and popular outrage focused on an individual who has offended the public moral sense, such as the recent case of Donald Sterling, or as Peter mentioned, Dennis Kozlowski? Even if there is some difference, I acknowledge that the line is thin and fuzzy. Populist outrage can clearly be blind and undiscriminating; while I’m no scholar of the French Revolution, I’m sure that some of the heads lopped off by the guillotine were more deserving than others.

            And I greatly appreciate the information you provided on egregiously unfair Internet-based persecution. These are things I was unaware of, and are of great interest to me.

            I think one of our primary points of disagreement is how far back our inherited behavioral tendencies began to evolve. I believe that two key elements of what I consider the human sense of fairness — inequity aversion and the drive to punish defectors — can both be traced back well before humans.

    • The problem is that social opprobrium doesn’t scale well. Jon Stewart can only mock a handful of people, none of us in the audience know whether they really deserve it, and the incentives for mocking the “right” powerful people get… interesting.

  7. radek says:

    My own personal view is that both poverty and inequality are social “bads” that we should strive to eliminate but that a “War on Poverty” trumps the “War on Inequality”. This is both because basic deprivation – poverty – is really just so much more fundamentally destructive (those late night commercials with the starving children who have no access to clean water are unfortunately very accurate) than simple inequality and because I do think that eliminating poverty is actually technologically easier (as long as there is political will to do it) than eliminating inequality. I can think of a “decent world” where there is some optimal level of inequality, which reflects merit, effort, and creates incentive for overall growth (I also believe that this optimal level of inequality is much less than the amount of inequality we actually have) but I can’t think of a “decent world” where the existence of basic, absolute, poverty can be in any way justified. I would be willing to accept a world with greater inequality but less physical deprivation rather than one where everyone is equally starving.

    There’s actually some evidence that in that regard my view reflects a general perspective. In very poor countries, “absolute income” is much more strongly correlated with self reported well being than “relative income” than in middle income or rich countries. If you live a precarious existence where immediate survival of yourself and your family is paramount, you don’t really have much time to think about whether you’re better off than others. It’s only after you reach a certain threshold of comfort that you start thinking “how well am I doing compared to my neighbors?”.

    And then this relates to the scale effect that some commentators bring up above – the people we usually compare ourselves with can be a fluid and fairly small group of neighbors, co-workers and friends. On the other hand, psychologically, entities such as Warren Buffet or Bill Gates are really a curious abstraction. From the perspective of an average person, they’re sort of aliens that live on another planet. If Bill Gates purchases another yacht that doesn’t even register, but if my neighbor buys a small row boat then I might think “I should buy a small row boat too just to keep up with the Joneses!”. And this also makes sense from an evolutionary point of view given the small group size we evolved in.

    There might even be a perverse parallel here in terms of how we think of the two ends of the world income distribution that are so far removed from our own position. When we see the news about the “starving children” in poor countries, we feel worse knowing that this kind of poverty exists but the phenomenon is so far removed from our own immediate experience that fairly soon we forget about it and go back to thinking about that row boat or big screen TV that our neighbor just bought. And we end up more really bothered by that than really serious poverty far away. Likewise, when we hear about some fat cat who just bought another mansion or football team, we say to ourselves “some people just have too much money!” but then go back to thinking about Jones’ TV or row boat again.

    Another consideration here is that the idea of “fairness” is distinct from the ideas of inequality and poverty. If we believe that Warren Buffet earned his wealth in “fairly” than we perceive it differently than if we believe that he got it in some nefarious way.

    As an aside, Johnson’s War on Poverty was actually very successful along at least one dimension. It did a lot to eliminate elderly poverty. We actually don’t realize it, probably precisely because it was so successful, but before the War on Poverty, one in three old people in the United States lived below the poverty line (the US poverty line of course). Now it’s about one in ten. This also shows up in the data. Retired people in developed countries – including US – on average report a higher level of happiness than non-retired people but the opposite is true in poor and middle income countries. Which I think is another piece of evidence to think that eliminating poverty – in the sense of pushing up the left tail of the income/wealth distribution – is a very feasible goal.

    (If you throw in the 1965 Voting Rights Act – and that one also had a huge impact, on racial inequality – then Johnson might very well be the most under rated US president of the 20th century)

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Radek, lots of good points here. You should really join the SEF as a blogger!

      Just one comment, though. I agree with you that inequality will always be with us. The problem is that it has been getting worse over the last 3-4 decades. If we could go back to the level of economic inequality that we had during the 1950s and 1960s, I think that would be an excellent accomplishment. Note I am talking about economic inequality – I am not calling to rewind the clock on the advances we made in reducing race and gender-based inequalities.

  8. Peter Turchin says:

    Dear all, thank you for all the comments. In addition to the more specific responses I left above, I wanted to say that you made me think much harder about these issues. For some of the points you have raised, I don’t have a ready answer. At least right away – perhaps I will be able to return to these issues in a future blog.

    • Joe Brewer says:

      Thank you, Peter, for deepening the conversation started by my article. There is much here for me to think about as well.

      For anyone interested in taking a more active role to bring global inequality to an end, I provide research support to a campaign organization called /The Rules that is working to enact social policies that increase human security around the world. Ping me at joe@culture2inc.com if you’d like to learn more.

      Best,

      Joe

  9. Martin says:

    Excellent discussion. I have just one comment, best highlighted by the double edged sword question. There are two types of sanction we’re talking about here – the kind inherent to a large grouping, which is pretty much an Overton window thing. Anyone who expresses views outside it will inevitably draw ire and attack. The fact that this can be seen in the internet swarming (a la Dennis Kozlaowski – would the moral equation on that be different if he had been supporting the KKK? If so, that’s the Overton window at work) may be new in its method but is driven by ancient instincts and behavioural patterns, no? On when exactly that trait developed in humans – or before – I can only defer to those with more knowledge, but it seems to me something that evolves relatively slowly, and can be addressed though smart propaganda and framing (propaganda, before anyone jumps on me, in its purest sense – the use of communication tools to influence opinion, devoid, in its own right, of moral standing). And then there’s the more constructed legal or regulatory methods. The two will always significantly overlap, and pass the baton between them as to which is ‘ahead’ or ‘behind’ the other. Sometimes legislation draws public opinion forward, sometimes the other way round. And sometimes they just live in a state of relatively comfortable disagreement – e.g. popular opinion in the UK would restore the death penalty but it’s a complete non-starter politically. I’m not sure there’s much practical juice to be squeezed out of trying to devise new types of innate group behavioural sanctions on their own; they require evolution on geological timescales. So that means the job is to move a basic unacceptability of vast inequality (and I agree, Peter, it is a better focus that absolute poverty) into the Overton window. Right now, it’s firmly outside. You don’t need to know all the evidence (of which there is plenty) to know instinctively that ‘we’ – collectively – may find it distasteful when confronted with extreme examples but we do pretty much find it acceptable. And that’s because we also find crazy material success captivating, and a particular type of capitalist-defined success at that. I fear that until we grapple with the underlying ideology (and again I use that in a non-pejorative sense – we all have our own) that says material wealth equates with life success which equates with virtue, we will always struggle with inequality. A nice heady mix of legislation and propaganda is the order of the day, which means working at both political and cultural levels. But there are definitely ways to do this. I know it’s almost a definition of the Overton window to say that Occupy failed, but I respectfully disagree. It planted the 1/99 meme firmly into global discourse. And that is a huge contribution that I think deserves respect and a title of success. It flips the discussion about poverty into an inequality frame – it’s no longer about which poor people are more deserving – i.. pitting groups against each other – which is the old charity framing, but about the vast and growing divide between rich and poor. A far better frame within which to debate both legislative action and the next phase of propaganda.

  10. Edward says:

    Let’s have a lazy money tax for the top 0.5% whereby they get to notionally have their “lazy” money returned (or a proportion of it) but people other than the state – the bottom 10% – get to invest it how they like and keep any profit.

  11. No need to theorize, it’s already working:
    link to pdxintelligencer.com
    link to cnn.com
    All we need is to boycott every other villian everywhere they stick their head up.

    When this occurs, it’s impossible for them to operate, take million-dollar speaking gigs, push their agendas, or sound legitimate in any capacity. Because this is true, their behavior rests solely on the complicity and lack of morality resident in the general population–it’s an exaggerated exprerssion of it. When people refuse to be complicit by cooperating in any way, their power–and the income/power disparity that goes with it–evaporates.

  12. cardiffkook says:

    “It is well known that a great majority of people would prefer to earn $50,000 in a society in which incomes vary from $10,000 to $50,000, rather than earn $100,000 in a society where the range of incomes is between $100,000 and $500,000.”

    In other words people are driven by relative status, and envy is a useful adaptive solution in our evolutionary environment. The evolutionary logic is pretty obvious (after all which person gets the best and/or most mates within a forager band?)

    The weakness with this argument applied to a non zero sum market economy is that it simply assumes the wealth. Unfortunately, wealth must be produced and created and the driving engine of this includes the fact that people are competing with each other for relative status. In other words, modern markets convert a zero sum game into one with positive externalities. People pursue status, and if incentives are arranged properly they do so by serving or producing things of values for others. This creates a positive sum environment, which is just newer terms applied to the 250 year old concept of the “invisible hand.”

    I recommend we tread carefully before dismantling or hobbling this system. Said another way, in a world where nobody can make or keep $500,000 it is a huge assumption that anybody can make $50,000 honestly either.

    The other concern I have is how all this envy is aimed at one dimension. It is aimed at wealth, which clearly and demonstrably is not a zero sum game. Why is it not aimed at education? How is it fair that some get PHDs and others only high school equivalencies? How about social skills? Beauty? Athletic skills? Intelligence? Leisure?

    If we want someone else to surrender their honestly earned income, I suggest we first set an example by surrendering our academic credentials. Any takers?

    Finally, if there is a problem with corporations not paying tax, then the blame is with regulators. They are the ones writing the rules and enforcing them. Either the rules are written poorly or not enforced.

  13. John Taves says:

    You cannot understand poverty and inequality without comprehending fundamental population issues.

    Reproduction attempts exponential growth. The force of attempted exponential growth and the force of a finite environment ensures child mortality must happen in proportion to how many babies we average and how fast we are able to expand that environment. Our reproduction has always attempted exponential growth in a finite space. That finite space has been expanded by finding more efficient techniques for extracting sustenance from the environment, but there is no excuse to assume that our attempted exponential growth did not immediately fill the additional space.

    World wide we see groups suffering horrid child mortality rates, and because we are ignorant of the fact that averaging too many babies causes child mortality, those groups are also suffering low adult life expectancy. These are the exact symptoms one would expect given that world wide we are averaging 2.5 babies, which is attempting exponential growth in a finite space.

    So, you can measure dollars, and you can talk about tax incentives and you can speculate about how ridicule might help and you can debate inequality vs absolute wealth, but if we do not limit the number of babies each is allowed to create, there is no chance of eliminating the ultimate form of poverty; child mortality. And that death will certainly be distributed unequally.