Thumbs Out

Yesterday (at time of writing) I went hitchhiking for the first time, for reasons I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that covering around 100 miles in the back seats of strangers’ cars was both a surprisingly fun and eye-opening experience, and one that has made me far more inclined to pick up a hitchhiker in future. And so, in recognition of this event and in solidarity of those with outstretched thumbs across the land, I thought I’d dedicate a post to this strangest and most inventive of transport solutions.

Hitchhiking is an American invention, and when one considers the the very nature of hitchhiking in a historical context it becomes easier to see why. For hundreds and thousands of years of human civilisation, the main method of transport (other than walking) was the horse, and since horses a) didn’t travel much faster than humans could walk most of the time and b) don’t usually have space for two, standing by the side of the road with one’s thumb out was unlikely to solicit a faster passage than using one’s own two feet. The only people capable of offering lifts would be merchants with carts, and although they doubtless would have offered lifts from time to time, it would be a rare and abnormally trusting merchant who would let an unknown stranger travel with them on what was usually a journey of several days, or at least hours at a minimum. Thus, hitchhiking in its current form could not develop until the development and widespread use of a mode of transport fast enough to allow a hitcher to travel large distances in a quite short space of time (much more than they could walk), too fast for them to approach by simply asking the driver as they trotted past, and with enough space that an empty seat was a regular occurrence. The car, in other words, and the first place where cars caught on in a big way was the USA.

America first fell in love with the car during the economic boom of the 1920s, during which cars such as the Model T Ford sold in their thousands and thousands- whilst cars were a rare luxury in Europe, in America they became a far more ubiquitous. However, this didn’t mean they were a car ‘for everyone’; ’20s America was a place of huge economic disparity*, with abject poverty being especially common amongst the black and (rapidly growing) immigrant community. This only got worse as the 1930s rolled around and America plunged into the Great Depression- huge sectors of the lower middle and upper working class collapsed into poverty and homelessness, far from any position in which they could afford a car of their own. And so, hitchhiking became increasingly common practice; America had the crucial ingredients of a society becoming increasingly built around the car yet a population not rich enough to universally own them, so the practice of essentially ‘borrowing’ transport from strangers made an awful lot of sense.

From its American origins, hitchhiking (along with widespread use of cars) spread to Europe and eventually across the whole world. However, its popularity has fluctuated heavily with both the passage of time and across continents. Hitchhiking in Britain blossomed during the post-war years among students: as the socialist reforms of the first labour government began to rejig the country’s social structure, the number of people from poorer backgrounds going to university grew. For many students, hitchhiking was the only practical mode of transport: few could afford their own car (Britain hadn’t taken social equality quite that far yet) and the train network was expensive, unreliable and impractical for many. However, from the mid-1970s onwards hitching began to slowly decline in Britain and America, although it remained common practice until the late 1980s: the introduction of the young person’s railcard made train travel a much more feasible option for many, and the increasing prosperity of the western world over these few decades made it increasingly feasible for students or their families to organise car travel on their own. Perhaps partly due to this reduction in the number of students in the hitchhiker population (and thus increasing the relative proportion of dodgy folk among their number), and definitely thanks to a couple of well-publicised murder cases around this time, public trust in hitchhikers began to steadily decline and the whole activity began to take on a decidedly shady appearance in the public eye: risky for both halves of the equation and advised against for safety reasons. As the population of students unable to afford/acquire their own transport home shrank still further, hitching almost died off completely, becoming almost solely the reserve of Eastern European migrant workers (who have a public image problem of their own that has done nothing to redress the shady public perception of hitchhiking). Elsewhere in Europe, however, the practice is more common, and it is currently beginning to enjoy a tentative renaissance (from ‘all but dead’ to merely ‘very uncommon’) in Britain as a) former hitchers have begun to bemoan the loss of such a once-beloved practice and b) students have started hitching as a charitable/competitive event.

Like so many other things, hitchhiking is by its nature along neither good nor bad- at its best it is just people helping each other out & getting some conversation in the bargain, and at its worst is plain dangerous for both parties. Whether it ends up being the former or the latter is, in the end, merely the luck of the draw regarding the practitioners on both sides of the exchange. Since so many hitchers have reported completely safe and uneventful trips, I guess, on balance, that shows we aren’t such an awful bunch after all.

*It’s worth noting that, although the poverty is infinitely less widespread, in terms of the sheer magnitude of the gap between rich and poor our society today is far more unequal than the 20s ever was.


Poverty Changes

£14,000 is quite a large amount of money. Enough for 70,000 Freddos, a decade’s worth of holidays, two new Nissan Pixo’s, several thousand potatoes or a gold standard racing pigeon. However, if you’re trying to live off just that amount in modern Britain, it quickly seems quite a lot smaller. Half of that could easily disappear on rent, whilst the average British family will spend a further £4,000 on food (significantly greater than the European average, for one reason or another). Then we must factor in tax, work-related expenses, various repair bills, a TV license, utility & heating bills, petrol money and other transport expenses, and it quickly becomes apparent that trying to live on this amount will require some careful budgeting. Still, not to worry too much though; it’s certainly possible to keep the body and soul of a medium sized family together on £14k a year, if not absolutely comfortably, and in any case 70% of British families have an annual income in excess of this amount. It might not be a vast amount to live on, but it should be about enough.

However, there’s a reason I quoted £14,000 specifically in the figure above, because I recently saw another statistic saying that if one’s income is above 14 grand a year, you are one of the top 4% richest people on planet Earth. Or, to put it another way, if you were on that income, and were then to select somebody totally at random from our species, then 24 times out of 25 you would be richer than them.

Now, this slightly shocking fact, as well as being a timely reminder as to the prevalence of poverty amongst fellow members of our species, to me raises an interesting question; if £14,000 is only just about enough to let one’s life operate properly in modern Britain, how on earth does the vast majority of the world manage to survive at all on significantly less than this? More than 70% of the Chinese population (in 2008, admittedly; the rate of Chinese poverty is decreasing at a staggering rate thanks to its booming economy) live on less than $5 a day, and 35 years ago more than 80% were considered to be in absolute poverty. How does this work? How does most of the rest of the world physically survive?

The obvious starting point is the one stating that much of it barely does. Despite the last few decades of massive improvement in the living standards and poverty levels in the world in general,  the World Bank estimates that some 20% of the world’s populace is living below the absolute poverty line of surviving on less than $1.50 per person per day, or £365 a year (down from around 45% in the early 1980s- Bob Geldof’s message has packed a powerful punch). This is the generally accepted marker for being less than what a person can physically keep body and soul together on, and having such a huge proportion of people living below this marker tends to drag down the global average. Poverty is something that the last quarter of the century has seen a definitive effort on the part of humanity to reduce, but it’s still a truly vast issue across the globe.

However, the main contributing factor to me behind how a seemingly meagre amount of money in the first world would be considered bountiful wealth in the third is simply down to how economics works. We in the west are currently enjoying the fruits of two centuries of free-market capitalism, which has fundamentally changed the way our civilisation functions. When we as a race first came up with the concept of civilisation, of pooling and exchanging skills and resources for the betterment of the collective, this was largely confined to the local community, or at least to the small-scale. Farmers provided for those living in the surrounding twenty miles or so, as did brewers, hunters, and all other such ‘small businessmen’, as they would be called today. The concept of a country provided security from invasion and legal support on a larger scale, but that was about it; any international trade was generally conducted between kings and noblemen, and was very much small scale.

However, since the days of the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution, business has got steadily bigger and bigger. It started out with international trade between the colonies, and the rich untapped resources the European imperial powers found there, moved on to the industrial scale manufacture of goods, and then the high-intensity sale of consumer products to the general population. Now we have vast multinational companies organising long, exhaustive chains of supply, manufacture and retail, and our society has become firmly rooted in this intense selling international economy. Without constantly selling vast quantities of stuff to one another, the western world as we know it simply would not exist.

This process causes many side effects, but one is of particular interest; everything becomes more expensive. To summarise very simply, the basic principle of capitalism involves workers putting in work and skill to increase the value of something; that something then gets sold, and the worker then gets some of the difference between cost of materials and cost of sale as a reward for their effort. For this to work, then one’s reward for putting in your effort must be enough to purchase the stuff needed to keep you alive; capitalism rests on the principle of our bodies being X% efficient at turning the food we eat into the energy we can use to work. If business is successful, then the workers of a company (here the term ‘workers’ covers everyone from factory floor to management) will gain money in the long term, enabling them to spend more money. This means that the market increases in size, and people can either sell more goods or start selling them for a higher price, so goods become worth more, so the people making those goods start getting more money, and so on.

The net result of this is that in an ‘expensive’ economy, everyone has a relatively high income and high expenditure, because all goods, taxes, land, utilities etc. cost quite a lot; but, for all practical purposes, this results in a remarkably similar situation to a ‘cheap’ economy, where the full force of western capitalism hasn’t quite taken hold yet- for, whilst the people residing there have less money, the stuff that is there costs less having not been through the corporation wringer. So, why would we find it tricky to live on less money than the top 4% of the world’s population? Blame the Industrial Revolution.