Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Which percent are you in?

We are the 99%, we're told.  Are we now?  Who's "we"?  And what or whom does that 99% comprise?  Well, the general idea is that there is 1% of the population (of the world, the West, the UK? - not clear) which is stupendously rich - and then there is the rest of us.  More specifically, the 1% is synonymous with those who have got rich quick as a result of the couldn't-give-a-damn, money-for-nothing culture which is the context for the current financial crisis.  The 1% are the guilty men: those whose greed has plunged the rest of us into water whose metaphorical temperature varies from tepid uncertainty to scalding penury, and who have yet to be held to account.

Well, since nearly all of us are in the 99% (in fact, 99% of us, I'd guess), it's pretty easy to demonise the 1%.  But that 99% is not a uniform block.  Sure, it contains people who are abjectly poor - from the third world, dollar-a-day multitudes whose plight intermittently attacks our collective conscience, to our own Western underclasses of the hopeless and excluded.  Yet I have to tell you that the 99% also includes people who are very, very rich.  They may not be among the "guilty men" of the current crisis; but they are largely people who have made large sums of money by selling goods and services to the rest of us at a profit (for that is what capitalism is) and perhaps not always doing so in a way that all of us would be comfortable with.  Then below them is a stratum of the slightly less rich and perhaps slightly less venial; and below them another, and another, and so on.  You take my point: between the very rich and the very poor are countless gradations of wealth/poverty and guilt (in terms of how money is made) which nonetheless together comprise the 99%.  If we're dividing ourselves up into percentages, are we seriously supposed to regard all these as a single block?  For that is what "We are the 99%" implies.

The Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) makes interesting reading.  Did you know that a salary of around 32k gets you into the top 25% of UK earners; £45k into the top 10%; £60k into the top 5%; and £120k into the top 1%?  You'll note that the top 1% threshold is well short of the £150k at which the 50p tax rate kicks in - people in that bracket are in the top 0.6% of earners.  If you are earning £21k, you earn more than around half the surveyed population (this figure rises to £26k for full-time work only).

Feeling (relatively) rich?  That may be because you are. The Wikipedia page on income in the UK begins "In terms of global poverty criteria, the UK is a wealthy country, with virtually no people living on less than £4 a day".  So if you are surprised by how well-off, statistically speaking, you are in UK terms, think how rich you are in global terms.  Well, you can find out.  Spare 30 seconds to look at http://www.givingwhatwecan.org/resources/how-rich-you-are.php and follow the instructions.

My point, as you will have discerned, is that while I might be in the 99% in Occupy parlance, I'm almost certainly in the single-figures percent in global terms. It ill behoves me to point accusingly at the current super-rich culprits of western capitalism, while forgetting that, to vast multitudes worldwide, I am to all intents and purposes one of the former.  Seen in this way, the distinction between the supposed 99% and the 1% of the current crisis is not just crass and divisive, it's also rather distasteful.  How much better to proclaim, with the bankers of London and the rubbish-dump dwellers of Lagos :"We are the 100%.  Let's act like it."


  1. Yes, I think with uncanny navigational skills, you have again scored a bullseye.

    'I am not rich like them', I say to myself as I look at the young bankers moving into our village and taking no part in community life as they pull up their drawbridges. At this stage of my life I feel no envy - I would prefer to live in Diogenes' barrel. But I admit to enjoying an upholstered, centrally-heated barrel - there are limits to my asceticism (limits some might think are quite quickly reached).

    I spent three years of my life in Calcutta, and there I was very conscious of living in great luxury compared to the street-dwellers. It would not have helped if I had joined them - all I could do was use my time to chip away at different bits of the problem in the hope of making a tiny difference.

  2. Thanks, Laura. I think it is another aspect of the "bubble" phenomenon I've mentioned before (and with which I accept I am slightly obsessed). We tend to compare ourselves with those whom we perhaps envy, rather than with a representative cross-section. I also instinctively dislike the divisiveness of the "We are the 99%"anyway.

    Love to hear more about Calcutta sometime.