The 99%

A commenter on Cubik’s Rube recently suggested a potential topic for this blog:

The Occupy movement tries to get sympathy by dividing everyone into “us” (the 99%) and “them” (the 1%)… Not saying that there aren’t huge problems with income inequality, just that pushing the 1% into an outgroup probably won’t help us think clearly about the issues.

I think he’s right. On a personal level, I have sympathies with the Occupy movement and opinions about economic inequality that lie outside the scope of this blog. A relevant question to ask here, though, is just what the supposed divide between the 99% and the 1% actually means.

The objections of the Occupy protesters who rally around the 99% banner are, broadly speaking, focused on what they see as an unjust inequality in personal wealth, between the very richest Americans and the less well-off majority. Of particular concern is the extent to which this majority are suffering higher taxes and reduced public services, on account of the reckless and financially ruinous actions of a small cadre of wealthy elites in the banking industry.

Like I say, I have a lot of sympathy with this position. But it’s important to remember that, while certain reprehensible actions may have been taken, the world’s economic problems are not the sole and complete responsibility of one solid, easily defined demographic of individuals.

In particular, the rich don’t deserve to be despised simply for being rich. The system that allows a privileged minority to rise to the top in such a way might be objectionable, and certain individuals might deserve admonishment for their actions in maintaining an unjust economic framework, and exacerbating the oppression of the poor. But earning a living that allows one to lead a life of leisure is part of the American Dream, something that many people aspire to. It can be done without being some evil fat-cat who’s cruelly exploiting the masses for his own selfish ends.

This isn’t to say that such exploitation doesn’t occur, or shouldn’t be addressed where it does. But it’s important to think carefully before placing the blame on, and subsequently nurturing an instinctive loathing for, an entire block of people you don’t know. Vilifying an outgroup is an all-too-easy way of kidding yourself that you’ve identified the root cause of a problem.

The idea of the 99% is a useful one, which originated from a pithy summation of the state of economic inequality in the USA. But that top percentile cut-off point is an arbitrary one, with no particular reason for dividing the country into two distinct camps on either side of it. It’s important to be careful of taking it too far beyond its usefulness as a gimmick, and being led into a troublesome, entirely artificial us/them stand-off.

If it sounds like I’m generally down on the Occupy movement, or don’t support their anger and the legitimate reasons for their protest, then I wish I could reassure you that this really isn’t the case. I don’t want to make it sound like I think being mean to rich people is the most egregious injustice that’s going on here. My half-baked notions about economics and politics, among other things, are discussed in more detail at Cubik’s Rube.

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