I’ll start this by saying that I actually have no beef with Occupy Wall Street, despite the fact this is my second blogpost in as many days where I express criticism of the movement.
Today, I am annoyed by the We Are The 99 Per Cent slogan. Specifically, I am pissed off for statistical reasons.
The number is arbitrary. It comes some 2007 figures: that 1 per cent of Americans control 43% of financial wealth–this leaves everyone else in the 99%. This is an interesting figure and highlights a shocking wealth disparity of which many were previously unaware. And yet, the 99% cutoff is arbitrary. In fact, if one moves figures around, an even more interesting picture emerges.
The top 5% of earners in the USA control 72% of financial wealth. Just shifting focus from “we are the 99 per cent” to “we are the 95%” highlights an even more shocking disparity: almost three quarters of financial wealth is controlled by a tiny fraction. Even more interesting: bottom 80% of earners in the US control just 7% of financial wealth. That figure is thoroughly staggering: the vast majority of Americans control a completely negligible sum.
If one looks at who is in the 1%, another interesting picture emerges. Less than 14% of the top 1% are in the finance industry: it is hardly the cartel of bankers that the slogan portrays. In fact, quite a few Wall Street workers would probably find themselves in the 99%: the earning cutoff to be in the top percentile is just under $600 000, while the average salary on Wall Street is $396 000. By shifting from “we are the 99%” to 95% or 80%, this somewhat embarrassing little fact disappears.
And so I wonder why they alighted on 99% rather than 95% or 80%. These figures are still huge, and these figures still cover almost everyone. The number makes little sense to me, and a statement about distribution of wealth in the USA can be better made with different figures. Even by revising it down slightly–to the threshold for statistical significance–the statement can be made, and can be made better. I genuinely can’t see any good reason for sticking with 99%.
There are also two elephants in the room regarding how the “we are the 99%” figure is used, statistically speaking. Firstly, it neglects broader issues regarding race and gender wealth inequalities. This is a crucial issue which requires tackling head-on, and yet it is handwaved away with a broad-brush slogan, again sacrificing what could be a very important statement to make in favour of mass appeal.
The second is a vast issue. The “we are the 99%” applies to US-specific, not global inequality. If one looks at global inequality, earners of the US median wage suddenly find themselves in the top 1%. They are no longer the “moral majority”, they are part of that tiny fraction which controls most of the wealth. If Occupy Wall Street is truly part of a global movement, this issue needs to be addressed: that what is a relatively vast majority in the USA is suddenly a tiny minority of super-wealthy in the world sphere.
Ultimately, when one looks at the numbers, “we are the 99%” is a slogan, and not much more. It could make its point better by simply shifting its own arbitrary cutoff, to lose no mass appeal. Then, by thinking globally, perhaps it can make a difference.