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.