Last fall, the eruption of the Occupy Wall Street movement in protests in major cities across the U.S. and elsewhere focused attention on income inequality. At the time, I expressed my support for the cause, when it is viewed not as a power play between haves and have-nots, but as a movement of integration towards greater fairness and balance in the world’s evolving consciousness.
From Spirit’s perspective, as I noted at the time, we are all the 99% and we are all the 1%. But there’s a much wider global lens that I did not speak to, which is now being observed by writers including Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.
First things first: America’s rich are really, really rich. U.S. Census data suggest every man, woman, and child in the top 1 percent of U.S. households gets about $1,500 to live on each day, every day. By contrast, the average U.S. household is scraping by on around $55 per person per day. But the global average is about a fifth of that.
So by global standards, America’s middle class is also really, really rich. To make it into the richest 1 percent globally, all you need is an income of around $34,000, according to World Bank economist Branko Milanovic. The average family in the United States has more than three times the income of those living in poverty in America, and nearly 50 times that of the world’s poorest. Many of America’s 99 percenters, and the West’s, are really 1 percenters on a global level.
Why are so many Americans in the world’s 99th percentile of income, and much of the rest of the world poorer? Not owing to merit, continues Kenny:
Nor did the Western 99 percent “earn” most of their wealth, any more than the top 1 percent “earned” theirs. It’s the luck of where you’re born, according to the late Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon, who estimated that the benefits of living in a well-functioning economy probably account for 90 percent of individual income.
Based on the notion that there is no moral reason why some people make more than others, economist Herbert Simon argues for radical global wealth redistribution:
“On moral grounds,” he wrote, “we could argue for a flat income tax of 90 percent to return that wealth to its real owners” — i.e., everyone else in the country. That radical suggestion makes the Occupy Wall Street crowd look like a bunch of free-market libertarians.
Kenny doesn’t go so far as to back Simon’s plan, but he is definitely not giving comfort to the Occupy movement in the U.S. which feels indignant about wealth inequality when it concerns people richer than themselves, but feel nothing about their own relative wealth compared to the rest of the world. Kenny continues:
Plus, taxing the West’s obscenely rich to help a Western middle class that is merely very rich doesn’t seem like the highest of priorities, frankly. We need to deal with inequality all the way down to the bottom of the income pyramid, for everyone’s sake.
IMF research suggests that countries with high levels of inequality are far more likely to fall into financial crisis and far less likely to sustain economic growth. But this is not just about taxing the richest 1 percent to help the middle 60. It’s about taxing the middle 60 to help the bottom 20. And ensuring that rich and poor alike worldwide have access to basic health care and education, with their well-documented effects on income and productivity, will work to the benefit of the Western middle class. If Americans and Europeans want to export their way out of recession, they need rich consumers elsewhere.
So stop whining, Occupiers. It is high time for the richest 1 percent to help the rest catch up. But don’t fool yourself — if you live in the West, you probably are that 1 percent.
Read the whole thing.
To repeat, if you make more than about $34,000 a year, YOU are part of the 1%.
So now, tell me again how angry and resentful and hateful you got as you stood outside the Wall Street sign, broke the windows of banks, and hollered to the moon about the evil rich millionaires and billionaires?
Sorry, I goofed. That wasn’t you; it was somebody else. Never mind.
Income inequality deserves to be a topic high on the agenda for discussion in the U.S. and around the world, as part of a larger discussion about global economic development and the best relationship between government and private sector initiatives. People making $4,000 or $14,000 or $24,000 or $34,000 a year don’t deserve nutritious food, quality health care, and college educations any less than those of us in the top 1%.
Taking an integral perspective means trying to look at the income inequality topic sympathetically from as many different perspectives as possible, and not simply resting content with one’s own opinions and prejudices. By challenging ourselves to see the world from the view of both the 1% and the 99%, and looking at ways that we can increase the level of love and compassion all the way around, we can avoid falling into some serious mistakes.
There is reason for urgency around this. Everywhere in the world, there are people who have no clean water, no job, and no hope for a college education for their children.
World Spirituality tells us that as we find our Unique Self, we understand increasingly that there is only one True Self anywhere in existence. We are all the True Self, and being kind and just to both the 1% and the 99%, and seing through the illusions that seem to divide us, is all part of our urgent work of Self-love.