Why I’m confused about #wearethe99

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.

__

Thanks to @unknownj and @interama for pointing out global figures, and @samdodsworth for the breakdown of the top 1%.


11 responses to “Why I’m confused about #wearethe99

  • mhairi

    ***
    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%.”
    *****

    Thats very true. And in fact someone on the dole in the UK has an income higher than 85% of the rest of the world (not taking into account housing benefit, healthcare provision and education provision that is common in Western nations). So changing the slogan to “We are the 80%” isnt really the answer.

    Its not just about income or wealth tho, its about the 99% that get continually shafted to make money for the 1%, the 0.1%, the 0.01% or indeed the 0.001%. Money is cycled round and round, some creamed off at every corner by the capitalists.

    Western nations include many mini-capitalists, BtL landlords, small shareholders, pensions holders even – they play the game and even tho they know that the cards are stacked, that its a roulette table where the only people that make the big money is the house, they’re better at it than some others and its the only game in town.

    The 99% refers to the people who lose under capitalism, some nations contain more of the 1% than others, but every country has elements of the 1% in it.

    There are still many more of us than there are of them.

  • Subjefe del Piombo (@piombo)

    Aren’t you randomly switching between wealth and income comparisons at various points here?

  • Alan (@AlanRouge)

    “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.”

    You are incorrect. The first official statement released make explicit mention of race, gender and other inequalities. The “We are the 99%” slogan is is not a manifesto.

    http://occupywallst.org/forum/first-official-release-from-occupy-wall-street/

    http://nycga.cc/2011/09/30/declaration-of-the-occupation-of-new-york-city/

    “They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.”

  • Conrad

    In America the bottom 50% hold less than 2.5% of the wealth, this is a truly atrocious and frightening statistic because in a capitalist society you can only really support a government if you have a stake in private property, which clearly the bottom 50% barely have.

    The reason of 99% is not as shocking, but it is totally encompassing which means its much harder for pundits to play divide and rule. I mean i grew up in a tiny apartment that my parents were constantly struggling to keep on to, they were both in low skill work positions and almost all my friends had parents on benefits, even i knew a few families who might make 200k a year, which could be people in the top 5%. But the top 1%? These are the people living out in giant country estates quaffing sturgeon and Champagne from the 19th century. Its use is not to be accurate but to unite. Its also a clear message quip, one you could make into a bumper sticker like the right wings “Business good, government bad” line.

    Also we are the 99% is very nice and clear to chant rather than “We are the 80% who also want to deal with ethnic and gender inequalities that pervade our sick society.” even if they believe in that too. But i don’t think i’ve ever heard a chant, personally or from my 70 year old Union activist granddad that attempted to be totally accurate and with many points for the lack of force it has.

  • David Powell

    All a bit pedantic. The 1% is symbolic more than actual. It may be extravagent but it hammers home its point.

  • american dreamer

    I want to be part of the 1%. I won’t ever be there but it’s a great goal to set for oneself. Why wallow in self pity. Get out there while you’re young and innovate. Become a capitalist and keep the dream alive!

  • Sian

    I agree with you for the most part and think that constructive criticism is essential for the development and growing strength of the movement.

    However, I too am somewhat uncomfortable with the 99% slogan, but I will accept it as just that, an easy-to-chant slogan to unite the protesters. In actual fact, this entire statistic doesn’t include the entities that are the real ones to blame for the financial crisis and associated social problems – the corporations. Corporations, though managed by humans (and yes some of these people may be of questionable morality), are not human themselves and do not ‘think’ or rationalise as humans do. They exist (generally) for the sole purpose of making profit. And so with no conscience of how that may affect human life, and with little accountability for their actions – especially the financial institutions – we now find ourselves in this mess.

    I am part of the ‘99%’ but I am also part of the 100% who is entitled to a democratic and non-corrupt Government that functions with the interests of its citizens at heart. Let’s not dismiss that there may be people within the ‘1%’ who also want corporate money and lobbying out of politics.

  • Ignoranceisbliss

    This is just splitting hairs. Are you actually expressing criticism based on a math equation?? REALLY???

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