The last day or two I’ve been seeing some complaints that the chant of the Occupy Wall Street protesters that “We are the 99%” casts the net too widely, effacing all kinds of class, race, and gender distinctions. Well, yes, probably so. But I still find it cheering.
It is a fact that over the last couple of decades, much of the growth in total income in the U.S. has gone to the upper reaches of society. For example, based on Census data, between 1982 and 2010, the richest fifth of society have claimed a little over half of the increase in total personal income; the top 5%, nearly a quarter the gain. The bottom 60% of society, though, has gotten less than a quarter. And, for a number of reasons, the Census figures seriously underestimate the action at the very top. (For more, see the forthcoming LBO, now in prep.) Using data compiled by the economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty from IRS records, we can estimate that the top 1% took in a quarter of the income gain between 1982 and 2008. The bottom 90%, though, only took in 40% of the gain. (1982, by the way, is when the great bull market in stocks took off, corporate profitability began a long upsurge, and the Roaring Eighties really began.) And the further you go down the ladder within the bottom 90%, the smaller the gains.
Looked at another way, here are two graphs of average incomes, adjusted for inflation, the first from the Census data:
and this from the Piketty–Saez data (the line marked “99” means the income of those richer than 99% of society, and “0–90,” the average for the bottom 90%):
Since percentiles may be a bit abstract, here’s something more concrete: the income in 2008 at the 99th percentile was $368,238; the average for the bottom 90%, was $31,244. The disparity would be even greater if we looked at only the top 0.1%—and even greater at the top 0.01%. And if we looked at only the Forbes 400, their line would probably blow the top off your computer monitor.
Yes, so the 99% thing is an exaggeration. People at the 90th percentile have done pretty well—not as well as the 99th, but a lot better than the 80th, 50th, or 20th. With few exceptions, the further down you go, the worse you’ve done.
What’s refreshing, though, about the 99% chant is that it strives towards something like universality. For the last few decades—pretty much those in which the rich have gotten a lot richer—many of us have been obsessed with slicing society into finer and finer pieces. That’s far from a useless effort; many stories are hidden behind averages, and we’ve learned that there’s a lot of particularity behind abstractions like the “working class.” This experience has given us the chance, as Kim Moody put it in a 1996 New Left Review article, “to get the active concept of class right this time,” in contrast with the 1930s or 1960s.
So yeah, the 99% thing may be a stretch; maybe 80% is more like it, and even so there would be a lot of tensions within such a large population. (Keeping those under cover is one of the advantages of not articulating an agenda, though that blessed state can’t go on forever.) But 99% is catchy, and it can lead in very fruitful directions.