Friday, October 14, 2011

Neun und Neunzig Obdachlose

From General interwebs

That's right. The 99% are living on the crumbs of the 1%.

Look. I'm more sympathetic to the Occupiers than a lot of my peers. And the trends in US income distribution do suggest some difficult questions--most obviously, as the amount of income has obviously increased dramatically, why has the distribution of increase corresponded to pre-increase wealth?

But the thread of the protests that suggests "we the 99%" are poverty stricken while the top 1% lives in luxury is bullshit. The 99th percentile in America starts with those poor, downtrodden masses making $593,000 a year. The 80th percentile is making over a hundred thousand US dollars a year. The 60th is doing nearly $80,000, which requires an awfully funny definition of poverty.

Even the 40th percentile is making about 50,000 dollars a year. This is approximately where my family of three working adults sits, and to call us poor would be a grossly condescending insult to people here and worldwide who live in actual poverty. It's also worth noting that the inflation-adjusted income even at this percentile has more than doubled in the last sixty years, markedly increasing its prosperity without even considering the cheap ubiquity of incredibly powerful technologies, many of which couldn't be bought at any price back then.

You have to go all the way down near the 20th percentile to find people living at the federal poverty threshold (set at $22,350, which is justifiably controversial, especially given that many of those people live in the country's most costly cities).

Again, this is one thread of a more complicated protest. And quite a few people have tried to bring more nuance to the 99% meme by framing it as a matter of the super-wealthy 1% using their resources to warp the market and the government to suit their interests. And they'll get no disagreement from me on that point. But far, far more common (and more naturally implied by the meme) is the soundbitey implication that a tiny cadre of megawealthy monocled capitalists are hoarding all the country's wealth, keeping the oppressed working class fighting over their scraps in the dirt, and this simply isn't true. There's a hell of a lot of wealth to go around in the US, it's distributed in such a way as to give the majority the means to be quite comfortable by any objective standard, and our system--warts and all--has at least doubled almost everybody's prosperity over the last half-century. Some people have much bigger pieces of the pie, but the pie is so huge that there's plenty to go around regardless.

There are legitimately protestworthy problems touched on by the Occupiers. Business and government are absolutely in bed together entrenching the powerful and suppressing competition. There are individuals whose wealth is unearned (which I honestly don't care about), and there are motivated, unlazy individuals who are in poverty either by cruel chance or due to said collusion (which I care quite a bit about). It's very likely that, with a much smaller amount and higher quality of business regulation, people at almost every level would be significantly more prosperous than we are now. And while the idea that we're 99% huddled masses is a distortion to the point of lying, up to a fifth of Americans living near or below the poverty threshold is not a trivial figure.

All's I'm saying is that, as with gun rights and marriage equality and women's rights and so many other causes I agree with, people with legitimate grievances need to studiously avoid getting so swept up in selfrighteous signwaving rhetoric that they look foolish and alienate people who might otherwise be allies*. Ditch the naked retro-20s class warfare, marginalize the 99% rhetoric instead of glorifying it, and work tenaciously to focus attention on the real issues.

[* - I could probably be fairly accused of this with regard to libertarianism. Yes, I think taxation is nearly indistinguishable from theft, and that while we (probably) need some amount of it, people should be generally resistant to taxation and demand a very high threshold of need before resorting to it. But that idea is so far outside the mainstream that it tends to alienate people who would otherwise agree with me on issues that are more moderate and potentially achievable. On the other hand, I'm not occupying a public space and chanting slogans at people.]


  1. Thanks for doing the math on this!

  2. Shoot--knew I forgot something: the attribution!

    The graph is from Wikipedia:

    Whose editors compiled it from US Census Bureau data.

    All I did was look at it. ;)