Casaubon's Book

So with the return of spring comes the return of Occupy, which by and large, is probably a good thing.  OWS deserves some props for drawing attention to inequity, for bringing radicalism back, and for showing a very complacent corporate and political leadership that the people still have bite in them.  Generally speaking I approve of Occupy.

One of the things I don’t approve of, however, catchy as the framing is, is the “1% vs. 99%” rhetoric.  The reason I don’t is that I think it functionally masks really deep inequities – by putting the second percentile together with the 92 percentile,  it implies a fundamental symmetry between people who are truly and deeply poor and those who are more than comfortable.

In some ways this can be good – it would be great if Occupy were organically leading those who make 160K per year (top 5%) to work with, live with and see themselves as functionally bonded to those who make less than 33K per year (bottom 50%) but I don’t see that happening.  Instead, the implication is “we’re all equally screwed by those evil 1% folk.”

Don’t get me wrong, it is a brilliant bit of marketing (because almost everyone is part of the 99%, so there are no real villains except the cartoon rich guy type), and the incredibly inequities that place so much wealth in so few hands are a real problem.  What troubles me about it is that it also actively conceals the way Americans are beneficiaries of just those inequities.

Let’s look at the 1% – on a world scale.  According to the CIA world factbook (and the IMF releases similar numbers), the top 1% of the world’s earners make 34K or more annually (per capita).  The world’s top 1% richest people have total assets (that’s everything you own) valued at a quarter of a million dollars or more.  My guess is that a not-insignificant percentage of my readers fall into the category.

48% of the world’s 1% are Americans.  If you were to reduce this to 100 people (always a useful exercise), according to World Bank Economist Branko Milanovic in his book _The Haves and the Have-Nots_ almost every single one of the people in the 1% would come from the developed world – not a single person from Africa, China, Southeast Asia except Singapore, South America except Brazil, India, Eastern Europe or Russia (obviously there are rich people there, but not enough to be statistically significant).

Now let’s be honest, this conceals a whole lot of profound inequities.  Someone living in an expensive urban housing market like New York City, San Francisco, Boston or DC on 34K is POOR – and they’ll find that out in a hundred ways every day when they try to make it – the stress of poverty is real, and trying to take care of a family on that wage in a pricey urban area is awfully tough.

On the other hand, American poverty isn’t anything like world poverty.  Poor children go to school.  They largely have running water and electricity.  They get medical care – often inadequate medical care, but they do not die in huge waves before age five due to lack of medicine or an oral rehydration syrup that costs a few pennies but is as out of reach as a trip to the moon.

A few of the poorest kids in America come and live in my house – these kids often have very little, and suffer a great deal, and it is heart-wrenching.  And yet they mostly have shoes and a reasonably varied (if unhealthy) diet. They may go hungry some of the time – but  do not suffer chronic hunger and malnutrition of the kind endemic to the Global South.  They may have inadequate clothing and shelter, but don’t live in mud huts with no clothing at all.  Orphans do not beg on the streets of Atlanta for the most part.  This is no way makes this kind of poverty ok, but it is worth illustrating the differences.

In many cases  it is not pure, irremediable poverty, but the inability of their parents to access available services and resource.  This is usually due to mental health problems, lack of education, immigrant status, disability or drug or alcohol addiction.   That children go without is appalling, of course, but not the same as those services and resources not existing.  That is, they may not get eyeglasses because Mom doesn’t know she can get a bus voucher and Medicaid to take them, and is afraid to talk to a social worker, they may run out of food because they have over-accessed emergency assistance and don’t know where else to go, but they don’t run out of food because no one out there could give them any, don’t not have glasses because an eye exam is totally unavailable.

I think those who read me regularly will get that I’m not only not indifferent to American poverty, I’m horrified by it – my point is a larger one, that those who speak against the 1% are often among them, and that ultimately the equity problem is not primarily an American one, but a world one.  It is the world as a whole that will bang up against a changing climate, the inability to keep growth going and energy depletion.  The days when we could implicitly tell ourselves the happy story that the rest of the world doesn’t mind our basic inequities are over – they do mind, and are likely to tell us so, just as Occupy protesters have.

Our increasingly tenuous environmental situation makes it clear we can’t afford the 1% – on a world scale as well as an American one.  So we will have to turn ourselves to the incredibly difficult process of keeping what is retainable for as many people as possible, and coming up with a new way of life that is vastly more equitable – one that still has many of the necessities of a decent life, but vastly fewer of its luxuries.

For most of us, we no more identify with the experience of the world’s 99% percentile than the American 1% identify with us.  Most of us, concerned with our comparatively middle class existences don’t really see ourselves as having to work with people begging on the streets of Ouagdougou, although perhaps we should.  Most of us want greater equity and fairer distribution of wealth – to the extent that we would like the American 1% to share more with us.  When the question becomes what we are prepared to share with others, it becomes more complex – but this is precisely the question.

Sharon

 

 

 

Comments

  1. #1 janine
    MN
    May 23, 2012

    The inner disparity between the haves and the have nots in the 99% has bothered me for some time. Focusing on our own country, the difference in the salaries and benefit packages of professionals and relativey high paid public servants seems vast. As an example, in our public school system teachers and administrators make a living wage. Food service workers, school bus drivers and aides often do not. Many also work for an outsourced company which does not pay adequate benefits. As we decry the wealth and power of the 1%, we also need to take a hard look at those who are struggling in out midst and address ourselves to the question of how to redress this obvious disparity.

    Of course the global scale of poverty and want almost beggars the imagination.

  2. #2 Greenpa
    Location? I like "website" much better!
    May 23, 2012

    Sharon- as usual; your facts are meticulously straight. And I totally agree with you about the differences between poverty in the US, and in the rest of the globe. I’ve worked in China- deep in the country, and in cities far from the coast. I think their realities are incomprehensible, until directly experienced.

    But; I disagree with taking Occupy to task for their rhetoric.

    It isn’t about masking any global realities; it’s about fighting THIS fight, on its own ground. I think they’re correct and effective to focus their campaign. There is a sharp limit to how much information you can transmit. And if they tried talking about the entire global picture, I think they would very quickly lose efficacy. They’re already struggling with the very short media attention span. Widening the scope would, I think, move them immediately into irrelevancy, for the vast majority of us Usacos.

  3. #3 aeon
    Germany / Burkina Faso
    May 23, 2012

    Sharon, very good point indeed: on a global scale, we can’t afford living like we do. However, scale is a complex matter. If you scale it down instead of up: in Burkina Faso, an average beggar in Ouagadougou can be considered part as part of the top 10 % of the Burkina-bé. That’s why some people there prefer going to the city instead of staying put in rural areas.

    Hence, I would argue like Greenpa: keep your things together, one step at a time.

    It’s an achievement to point out the wider perspective, but I’m not sure if this episode of protests could really gain a revolutionary momentum out of it.

    Just by the way, FYI: US and Canadian mining companies are on the verge of ‘developing’ the gold mining industry in Burkina. Burkina has officially announced it want’s to be the fourth largest supplier of gold on the African continent by the end of this decade. The gap between the 1% and den 99% in Ouaga has always been tremendous – and again, this is going to be a testing ground to the “trickle-down-effect” and “stabilizing through investment”.
    Bets are open.

  4. #4 Jen
    May 23, 2012

    Each week I spy on my amazing Vietnamese neighbors, immigrants who speak little English, trash can. I’m horrified that every stinkin’ week no matter how hard I try they beat me at how little they throw away. She has an amazing garden, that takes every bit of the small yard she has, while I sit across the road on an acre. I always come out feeling like the over consumptive American. Sometimes I feel like we all won’t relearn how to reduce until there isn’t anything or money there to buy.

  5. #5 Sharon Astyk
    May 24, 2012

    Greenpa, I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree – I’m not convinced that the 99% slogan really effectively works on this ground in the longer term either – in the very short term, yes, but as a way of getting at fundamental inequity – I don’t think so. I agree that complexity is a difficult thing to convey, but I don’t agree that that then means that there’s no need to address the wider issue of a way of life that has a future. Ultimately, attacking corporations and rich folks (who deserve to be messily devoured ;-)) can’t get us to that.

    Aeon, you are right of course that my picture lacks nuance as well.

    Sharon

  6. #6 Brian Morton
    Terre Haute, Indiana
    May 24, 2012

    I read this and my first thought was, NO WAY is my family in the global top 1%. So I did a little digging and I think your math is off or misleading in several ways, and i think it is enough to sink your main rhetorical point.

    First, the CIA/IMF thing you’re relying on must be pretty old, because even if we are talking about personal income, the top 1% globally is higher than that (and was at least as far back as 2006). Maybe the stat you give was true a decade ago, maybe. Second, this is eliding the distinction between personal income and family income, which makes a lot of difference, because especially the higher ends of the spectrum are increasingly likely to be 2 (or even more) income families.

    The global population is just past 7 billion, so 1% of that is just past 70 million. So the global 1% are the 70 million richest (income earners, or people living in families with the highest family income, depending on what exactly you mean). But even at the individual income level there are at least 40 million Americans that made over 50K in 2010. If Americans are still around 1/2 of the top 1% (as seems plausible) this means that the global 1% mark on individual income has got to be north of 50K. On the family income side, there are 60 million Americans living in families with family incomes over 88K in 2010, so the global top 1% by family income is way over that (seems to be somewhere between100K -200K).

    You say “Someone living in an expensive urban housing market like New York City, San Francisco, Boston or DC on 34K is POOR – and they’ll find that out in a hundred ways every day when they try to make it – the stress of poverty is real, and trying to take care of a family on that wage in a pricey urban area is awfully tough.” That is precisely eliding this same personal/income family income distinction. Someone making 34K in FAMILY INCOME in Boston is going to struggle, but they are also not in the top 1% globally of family incomes (I think, they aren’t even in the top 5% globally). Contrariwise, someone who is making 34K in personal income in Boston, is statistically likely to be part of a family that has 2 or more income earners, and thus likely to have quite a bit more than that to support a family with (and still probably aren’t part of the global 1%).

    Rhetorically, most of the OWS folk who SAY they are in the 99%, probably really are in the 99%, even at the global level. Oh many of them probably are in the top 5% globally, most of them are probably in the top 10% globally (as most Americans are), some may even be in the top 2% globally. But to be in the top 1% of the globe as an American, you probably have to be in the top 10-15% of all Americans. So yeah, you probably have readers in the top 1% globally, and there are probably OWS folk there too, but the vast bulk of your readers, and the vast bulk of the OWS folk (and for example MY family), are NOT in the top 1% globally, so your title is wrong. Is global inequality a big problem that is bound up with the system that OWS is trying to oppose? Sure it is, and you won’t get OWS folk disagreeing with that I suspect. Should we oppose global inequality as well as inequality in the US? Yup. Is the poverty of someone at say the global 20% mark nearly incomprehensible to most Americans who haven’t gotten to see it up close? Sure. If, by some miracle, OWS succeeds would it be tricky to figure out how much of that success to devote to fixing inequality in the US vs global inequality? Sure. Are OWS hypocrites because they “are the 1%” without realizing it if only we take a global view? Nope, or not very often. You are being unfair to try to make a point and I think it is unbecoming of you.

  7. #7 DAVID PYLYP
    Toronto, ON
    June 2, 2012

    Americas capitalizm has stolen global confidence thru greed, fraud and market manipulation.

    “Wall Street executives now know they face no “moral hazard” from peddling securities globally whose underlying values are worthless (as was the case with subprime mortgage securities) because they suffered no moral hazard when they did….They were even bailed out with public money while continuing to receive their bonuses.”

    http://www.torontosun.com/2012/05/09/crooked-capitalism

    Thankfully I am invested in Canadian Real estate and own the roof over my head. When our market adjusts I will be fine.

  8. #8 Mark Watson
    Suffolk, UK
    June 22, 2012

    Hello Sharon,

    Your post really shows up some of the downsides of generalisation. Poor people, rich people. 99%. 1%. One of the downsides is they don’t allow us to look, as you say, at how complex things really are.

    I remember going to Mexico as a language student in the 80’s from a working class UK background (i.e. not at all ‘rich’ for the UK but with access to student grants, NHS, and most of the mod-cons of 80s Britain). I knew nothing about Mexico at all.

    In my mind before I went I imagined a country full of sleepy people with sombreros dozing in front of simple houses in the hot desert sun and lots of cactuses! And mostly poor!

    I didn’t imagine the already quite large middle class and how some of the people I met were financially wealthy in a way beyond my imaginings. And that practically everyone not in the lowest classes would have sirvientes.

    I was 22. It was an extraordinary eye-opener.

    Best wishes, Mark

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