America’s 99% are rich by global standards. So what?

Photo: Paul Stein, used with a Creative Commons license. Click photo for info.

I’ll admit that it has crossed my mind: there is a small flaw in the “we are the 99%” slogan adopted by Occupy Wall Street. By global standards, most of us Americans are actually the Richie Riches of the world, even those of us living paycheck to paycheck — or unemployment check to unemployment check.

This has been the source of some criticism of the Occupy movement in the last few weeks. Some have even claimed that America’s 99% is the world’s 1%. Take, for instance, this reddit-style poster linked on The Daily Beast. Suzy Khimm of The Washington Post has tracked down some number-crunchers who showed that, accounting for purchasing power, the idea that the bottom 99% of Americans make up the world’s top 1% is not quite right, but that even the poorest Americans do occupy a privileged income decile vis-à-vis the world.

It’s an interesting and important observation. Global inequality is a serious issue, ultimately far more important to humanity than domestic American inequality. But to the extent that it’s being cited to implicitly discredit the protesters, it stinks like hamburger meat left unrefrigerated beneath a Zucotti Park tarp for a week.

For one, “we are the 99%” is a slogan for a domestic political movement, so it really shouldn’t be held to this global standard. It is a fact that the wealthiest 1% of Americans control 40% of the country’s wealth and the top 1% of income-earners take in more than 20% of the income. Those are horrendous figures (and are, in a sense, made more horrendous by the global picture — a tiny percentage of Americans control a vast amount of global wealth). Pointing out that OWS protesters would be big balling out of control if they moved to a developing country is not very useful — they live here.  It’s akin to criticizing a movement to stop air pollution in LA because Ulan Bator and Peshawar are X times worse. Does that mean Angelenos are spoiled for wanting clear air? Clearly not.

Another important point is that income, even adjusted for purchasing power, is not the sole or even most important indicator of well-being. This discussion has been gathering steam lately, as more economists point out the inadequacy of GDP (analytically similar to income) as a holistic data point. Bhutan has famously pioneered a different measure with its Gross National Happiness.

A more detailed comparison of the average American’s well-being to the world will have to wait for when I have way more time on my hands. But let me explore this anecdotally. I’ve been to a grim locale or two in my day — places that recently emerged from civil war, and some of the poorest countries in the world. But in the contest for grimness, the depressed corners of America are right up there with the shantytowns of developing countries. If you’re a poor American with a service job, you might be able to buy a used car, which is an unimaginable luxury for much of the world. That is little consolation when you live in, say, an American housing project where the threat of violence is ever near, unemployment is rampant, education options unsatisfactory, and — perhaps most importantly — the possibility of upward mobility is very small. This may be an extreme example, but I think it illustrates that subjective factors matter, as do indicators other than income.

Then there is the matter of the burden of poverty in a rich country, which is not a new subject. W.E.B. Dubois put it so succinctly in The Souls of Black Folk that I don’t think I need to elaborate: “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.”

So the 99% slogan works as a domestic statistic, and it also works as a shorthand for the experience of most Americans, who may be in the world’s top deciles of income earners, but are not necessarily among its happiest — whether you consider happiness as a nebulous term or as a collection of a bigger basket of statistics.

I don’t think most people pointing out the flaw — from a global perspective — in the 99% slogan are doing so to discredit the Occupy protesters as a bunch of whiners. But I can see the observation being marshaled for that argument. And that would be a shame, not only for the domestic movement, but for the push for greater global equality. Whatever you think of Americans, the 99% or the 1%, those protesting for greater equality here are almost surely the most likely to participate in a similar international agenda.

HT Dayo Olopade, without whose tweets and posts today I would have been unaware that this discussion had evolved so much, or read the WaPo post linked above.

One thought on “America’s 99% are rich by global standards. So what?

  1. Well the point isn’t necessarily to discredit the movement but it does give some perspective. It demonstrates that you can be in the top 1%, of the country or the world, and still be a decent caring person. There is no cutoff income where people are good or evil. Having wealth doesn’t necessarily mean you stepped on people to get it. You might work reaaly hard, have a great idea or just get lucky.

    It also shows that no matter how good you have it, you can find ways to feel sorry for yourself or, on the flipside, appreciate what you have. It’s the human condition to always feel you need more. Sure, a used Honda or 700 sq ft house might not feel like much, but to most of the rest of the world it would be considerable wealth. Why should the billionaires give their wealth away if the rest of us won’t?

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