The Occupy Wall Street (or Westlake) movement leaves me feeling deeply conflicted.
I grew up on the edges of poverty. Yet I have traveled a great distance geographically and economically since then. When I hear middle class people saying, “We’re the 99 percent,” I can’t help but feel annoyed and even angry. It feels like they’re appropriating something that belongs to me, but something that I don’t particularly want: poverty. I think the Occupiers are focused on the wrong thing, looking through the wrong end of the statistical telescope.
The Occupiers are fond of the slogan that passes for a statistic, “1 percent of the country owns 99 percent of the wealth,” or words to that effect. When I consider my own assets and income I am well within the 99 percent. But where do I stand within that 99 percent? According to the Federal Reserve’s most recent Survey of Consumer Finances, to be in the top 90 percent of income in the United States means to earn, as a household, $148,400.
To be in the top quarter of the country’s population in wealth (that’s income and assets per household), means household wealth of $393,600. It’s kind of hard to own a house, car, and appliances — especially in pricey Seattle — and not find yourself, as a household, in the top 25 percent of the wealthiest people in America.
So when the Occupiers tell me “we’re the 99 percent,” it seems misleading. Compared to a single mother with two kids earning minimum wage at two different jobs, living with no health insurance and no retirement I am disgustingly wealthy.
I have lived in poverty, and it isn’t fun. There were points as a child when I felt the dread of the checkout at the grocery store. Mom was paying with food stamps. How embarrassing! Then I read Das Kapital, and the Communist Manifesto, and I was a proud that we were poor. Either way, I prefer not being poor.
But when the Occupiers say that we should reallocate the wealth of the 1 percent, I’m skeptical. Taking a look at the recent United States Census, it shows that indeed, there are 2,728,000 Americans with wealth of $1.5 million or more, which is about 1 percent of the whole population, give or take. Those folks have, all together, more than $11 trillion in wealth. That seems like a lot of money, until one considers our country's debt currently stands at about $14 trillion.
Total health care costs in the country run about $2.3 trillion a year. Those rich people won’t miss $2.3 trillion, right? That might be true. But a close look at health expenditures shows that the vast majority of the money spent on health care is spent by people like me, or on my behalf, through my health insurance. It’s hard to argue that the top 1 percent should pay for my health care. The truth is the people who need health care don’t show up in the $2.3 trillion, because they didn’t have anything to spend on it. They just got sicker.
Other figures to note are the retirement accounts in the United States, which add up to $17.5 trillion, and the 44 percent of American households that own mutual funds that total $11.8 trillion.
If we were to take all the wealth of those Americans with the $11 trillion it would mean about $36,000 for each of the rest of us. That can certainly solve some of the short-term problems of the poorest people in our community, but then the hard questions arise. Who gets to decide what percentage the 1 percent owns? And how much is too much? And how is this redirected wealth apportioned?
Lots of liberal prognosticators mock poor Americans who don’t want to tax the rich because those poor people think that someday they too might be rich. I’m not sure a lot of people think this way. I do know that poor people don’t want to be poor. When I was poor I rarely worried about rich people. I just wanted to stop being poor.
I admire Edmund Burke, the 18th century thinker who was a champion of the American Revolution and the Glorious Revolution but very skeptical of the French Revolution. I think he’d agree that the Occupiers have a bit too much resentment for wealth and not enough appreciation for good government. Yes, wealth can corrupt government. But whose fault is that? Should we squash wealth because it influences people in power? As Burke admitted in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, “They who destroy everything certainly will remove some grievance. They who make everything new have a chance that they may establish something beneficial.”
Revolutions tend to come from the middling sort, as Marxist historian Christopher Hill called the middle class, but rarely emerge from the poorest of the poor. Those of us who have benefitted from the system that is in trouble now would do well to ask ourselves, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, what we are willing to sacrifice before we start plundering more for ourselves? Who have we put into power and why?
I would urge the most affluent of the 99 percent to consider another thing before we worry about the 1 percent: Who is poorer than us and how much are we willing to give them? Let’s worry about the many behind us in line rather than resent the person or two in front.