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“Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart…Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” — Steve Jobs
We statistical rabble-rousers are back. In an earlier post we talked about the distribution of wealth in this country. Now we’re ready to talk about the distributions of income. Income, remember, includes what you earn from work, and also whatever interest you get on the money you keep in the bank (not much, these days) and from stock dividends, bonds, rents, and so forth.
You probably won’t be stunned to learn that the United States has a very unequal distribution of income. But the actual figures may still shock you. In 2006, the top 1 percent of earners walked off with 21.3 percent of the nation’s income, the next 19 percent below the top took 40.1 percent, and the rest of us, the bottom 80 percent, got a crummy 38.6 percent of the nation’s income.
Economists have come up with a way of measuring income inequality, the Gini coefficient, a ratio which can vary from zero, where everybody earns the same, to 100 where one exceedingly rich person earns all the income in the country. We’re not quite half way to 100. Using that scale, South Africa has a Gini index of 65, U.S. has an index of 45 and Sweden is the lowest with 23. Remember, the goal here is to get a low score.
So, if we make a list with the country which has the most income equality at the top, and we go down the list, we have Sweden at the top with 23, Norway with 25, Austria at 26, Germany at 27, Denmark at 29, Australia 30.5, Italy 32, Canada 32.1, France 32.7 – OK, to make a sad story shorter, you have to descend past Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Egypt, India, Japan, Israel, China, Russia and Iran before you sink to the inequality of the United States.
In 2010 psychologists Dan Ariely of Duke University and Michael I. Nortonof the Harvard Business School, showed pie charts representing various levels of wealth distribution and asked people to choose the one which they thought represented distribution in the U.S. In another, they asked people to choose which society they would prefer to live in. Ninety percent or more of the 5,522 respondents — whatever their gender, age, income level, or party affiliation — thought that the American wealth distribution most resembled one in which the top 20 percent has about 60 percent of the wealth. In fact, as noted, the top 20 percent control about 85 percent of the wealth. Recently the same experiment was carried out by Paul Solman on NPR’s News Hour. No surprises. He got essentially the same results. People not only didn’t realize what an enormous share of the nation’s wealth was owned by the top 20 percent. As the psychologist Dan Ariely pointed out, what was perhaps more disturbing was that they truly had no idea that the bottom 40 percent, getting up toward half the nation, had 0.3 percent of the US wealth, or just about nothing.
But studies show that the great, great majority of our fellow citizens aren’t mean spirited bastards. Yes, they’re uninformed. And yes, they hold the comforting belief that the top 20 percent possess only somewhat more than half the wealth of the country. They can’t believe the top fifth actually controls 85 percent. It’s clear that most Americans would like to live in a country that has a more equal distribution of wealth. A country where a person born poor has a good chance to earn a decent living and to move into the middle class. That would be a country where, after a lifetime of work, you didn’t worry about an impoverished old age, a nation where you couldn’t be bankrupted by sickness, a nation where the poor don’t buy lottery tickets, knowing that the astronomical odds against their winning are no worse than their chance of earning their way out of poverty. A country like, say, one of those wicked socialist European nations our masters warn us against.
(“The Storming of the Bastille” which illustrates this post, was painted by Jean-Pierre Houël who was born in 1735 and died in 1813. He lived through exciting times — the reign of Louis XV, the French Revolution, and Napoleon’s First Empire. He traveled widely, loved to paint landscapes, and was skilled at engraving and guache, and a water colorist famed for his ability to depict light and atmospheric effects. No, we don’t expect any such scenes to occur here. But we do think that class warfare is, in fact, going on right now. At Critical Pages, we’re on the side of the angels.)
Is there class warfare in the United States. Well, no. Mobs armed with stones and Molotov cocktails aren’t running in the streets, trying to overthrow the existing order. The poor aren’t rioting, smashing windows and peeing against bank doors, demanding a greater share of the wealth of this country. The rich aren’t — well, uh, well — what do the rich do in class warfare? Come to think of it, class warfare is always portrayed as the poor assaulting the rich, demanding a re-distribution of wealth. And that’s right, isn’t it? The rich don’t attack the poor, because the poor don’t have anything that the rich want. So class warfare is always a matter of poor people — and they’re the big majority — ganging up against rich people, a small minority.
You might say that in class warfare the rich are an embattled minority, trying to hold their own against great odds. But, as we said earlier, we don’t have class warfare in this country. Indeed, you might go so far as to say we don’t have class warfare in this country because that particular war was over a long time ago when the rich won. Of course, saying things like that might be understood as in invitation to class warfare, so we shouldn’t go down that path. Anyway, let’s look at how the wealth of this country is spread up and down the different levels of society.
Economists define wealth as your assets (your cash, savings in the bank, stocks and bonds, and the things you own that are convertable to cash) minus your debts. The most recent data we have is from 2007. (We suspect that these figures have not changed for the better since then.) As of 2007, the top 1 percent of households owned 34.6 percent of all privately held wealth, and the next 19 percent had 50.5 percent, which means that the top 20 percent of households owned 85 percent.
Or, to put it another way, the bottom 80 percent of all households, that’s four-fifths of all households in the United States, share 15 percent of the wealth. And as you go down the economic ladder, things get worse. The bottom 40 percent of US households control 0.3 percent — that’s zero point three — which is, essentially nothing. That’s the bottom 40 percent. That’s a pretty big share of all the households in the US having no wealth to speak of.
By the way, most of the wealth that the bottom 80 percent own comes from the value of their home. If you look at purely financial wealth — total wealth minus the value of the home — the bottom 80 percent have only 7 percent of the nation’s wealth.
When it comes to financial wealth, the top 10 percent have 80 percent to 90 percent of stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and over 75 percent of non-home real estate. Some people – those class warfare types! – argue that when a group controls that much of the income producing capacity of a country, they essentially control the country.
These figures come from G. William Domhoff, of the Sociology Department at the University of California at Santa Cruz. They draw in large part on the work of the economist Edward Wolff. We plan to post more on this subject, but with restraint, understanding that you can stand only so much bad news before turning sour. Intrepid readers who want to pursue this further on their own can make a good start at Domhoff’s website.
(The illustration for this post is “Liberty Leading the People,” a robust Romantic work by Eugene Delacroix. It celebrates not the French Revolution of 1789-1794, but the July Revolution of 1830 that toppled Charles X of France. It’s a grand vision of Liberty flanked by the bourgeois in his top hat and cravat, his firearm at the ready, and the youthful worker with his pistols, two levels of society joining to overthrow the stupidly backward regime of Charles X. If class warfare breaks out in the United States, we doubt it will be commemorated in a painting displaying a handsome bare-breasted woman leading the people.)
“The chains of marriage are so heavy that it takes two to carry them, and sometimes three,” said Alexandre Dumas. Jo Page, essayist and fiction writer, has been thinking about monogomy and infidelity as understood by Don Savage, a writer with a view rather like that noted by Dumas. Here’s Jo’s reflection on these tangled subjects:
Mark Oppenheimer’s piece, “Married, with Infidelities,” in the July 25 edition of The New York Times Magazine, was a timely and thoughtful exploration of Dan Savage’s take on how marriages can be strengthened and extended through an honest—key word—judicious practice of non-monogamy. Put simply, Dan Savage, though ceding the advantages monogamy provides to couples—sexual and emotional safety, paternity assurances—advocates what he believes is a more realistic sexual ethic that prizes honesty, flexibility and forgiveness over absolute monogamy.
Paraphrasing Savage, Oppenheimer writes, “We can’t help our urges, and we should not lie to our partners about them. In some marriages, talking honestly about our needs will forestall or obviate affairs; in other marriages, the conversation may lead to an affair, but with permission. In both cases, honesty is the best policy. . . . Such straight talk about the difficulty of monogamy, Savage argues, is simply good sense. People who are eager to cheat need to be honest with their partners, but people who think they would never cheat need honesty even more.”
Oppenheimer’s piece goes on to explore the marital arrangement that Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, have, which Savage describes as “monogamish,” meaning that there have been occasional, but openly discussed infidelities (which strikes me as a wrong and value-laden word if these are not to be perceived as lapses in faithfulness).
As logically insightful as Savage’s views may be, such consensual openness may not involve genuine consent at all. Oppenheimer cites Janis Abrahms Spring, a psychologist and whose book, After The Affair, is about couples badly damaged by infidelity.
“The problem is that with many of these couples, one partner wants it, and the other says yes because she’s afraid that he will leave her,” says Spring.
And indeed, Savage concedes that monogamy is the right choice for many couples. Oppenheimer describes himself as a “straight, monogamous, married male,” but he also appears to support a fluid, honest, open-ness in marriage if that’s what couples negotiate.
It’s hard not to admire Dan Savage for his work, both as a columnist, author and brainchild of the It Gets Better series. But in a much less publicized, though I think more thoughtful piece that appeared in The Washington Monthly in the March/April issue, Benjamin J. Dueholm, finds some of Savage’s logic troubling. (more…)
Sixteen states plus Washington, D.C., now permit the use of medical marijuana. Federal law doesn’t recognize medical marijuana, and the blue-nose mean-minded Bush administration made life difficult for certain doctors, patients and marijuana dispensaries. State law still doesn’t beat federal law, but the Obama administration has said it won’t prosecute people who use the drug if it’s prescribed by a physician, nor will the feds attempt to close down the marijuana dispensaries. Maybe you thought that California had a lot of marijuana dispensaries; you’re right, it does. But Colorado stands out by having more marijuana outlets than it has Starbucks coffee shops.
Our attention was caught by the names of some of the Colorado dispensaries as well as what they have to offer. The Ganja Gourmet claims to be “America’s First Medical Marijuana Restaurant-Dispensary!” And we believe it’s a reasonable claim. The Herbal Cure doesn’t offer gourmet dining but does provide massage therapy as well as the weed. Then there’s Denver Relief which describes itself as “a wellness and medical marijuana center dedicated to assisting people with making positive and natural changes in their lives.” If that’s too fancy an enterprise for you, there’s the simpler and more direct Discount Medical Marijuana. And we can’t forget Lotus Medical, a name which joins the antiseptic “medical” to Alfred Tennyson’s “The Lotus Eaters,” his extraordinarily lush poem about a land “In which it seemed always afternoon.”
“All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.
Full-faced above the valley stood the moon;
And, like a downward smoke, the slender stream
Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.”
Tennyson was drawing on that passage in the Odyssey where a few men from Odysseus’s crew go ashore on an island where the inhabitants eat the narcotic lotus and spend their lives in dreamy passivity. In fact, a couple of Odysseus’s men who eat the lotus succumb and give up all thought of returning home.
It certainly isn’t cool to read Alfred Tennyson today but, you know, the man had a way with words. You’re right, you won’t get high reading a Victorian poet, unless you can read and smoke at the same time. (It’s not that difficult.) If you’re curious about the poem you can read it here. It’s really lush.