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The best text we can find in regard to the Thanksgiving season is this perhaps familiar one written by Governor William Bradford in his history, Of Plimouth Plantation. The Puritans, or Pilgrims as they’re often called, had a very hard time after reaching these shores. Bradford’s wife Dorothy died while the Mayflower was at anchor in Provincetown Harbor, and by the end of the first winter half the colonists had perished. It was a season of death. William Bradford’s account, though written simply and intended merely as a record, reaches a spare beauty, the same beauty that we find in the Puritans’ plain, sparsely furnished meeting houses and churches. Here is an excerpt describing their plight as they set foot in this land. The spelling follows the original.
But hear I cannot but stay and make a pause, and stand half amased at this poore peoples presente condition; and so I thinke will the reader too, when he well considera the same. Being thus passed ye vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation (as may be remembred by yt which wente before), they had now no freinds to wellcome them, nor inns to entertaine or refresh their weatherbeaten bodys, no houses or much less townes to repaire too, to seeke for succoure. It is recorded in scripture as a mercie to ye apostle & his shipwraked company, yt the barbarians shewed them no smale kindnes in refreshing them, but these savage barbarians, when they mette with them (as after will appeare) were readier to fill their sids full of arrows then otherwise. And for ye season it was winter, and they that know ye winters of yt cuntrie know them to be sharp & violent, & subjecte to cruell & feirce stormes, deangerous to travill to known places, much more to serch an unknown coast. Besids, what could they see but a hidious & desolate wildernes, full of wild beasts & willd men? and what multituds ther might be of them they knew not. Nether could they, as it were, goe up to ye tope of Pisgah, to vew from this willdernes a more goodly cuntrie to feed their hops; for which way soever they turnd their eys (save upward to ye heavens) they could have litle solace or content in respecte of any outward objects. For sumer being done, all things stand upon them with a wetherbeaten face; and ye whole countrie, full of woods & thickets, represented a wild & savage heiw. If they looked behind them, ther was ye mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a maine barr & goulfe to seperate them from all ye civill parts of ye world.
The painting of the Mayflower that we’ve posted above is an imaginative work by the 19th century painter William Halsall. The painting is evocative, but wholly inaccurate. The Mayflower was a frighteningly small ship about half the size of the grand vessel portrayed here. To get a sense of how small it was, you might visit Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts and go aboard the replica of the Mayflower that rides at anchor there. The image below is the opening page of William Bradford’s Of Plimouth Plantation as written by is own hand. Once you gain familiarity with the old script, its spelling and its scribal patterns (“ye” is written with the e placed above the y, and the letters I and J are written alike) you’ll be able to read Plimouth Plantation And first of the occasion and inducements thereunto; the which that I may truly unfould, I must begine at the very roote and rise of the same. The which I shall endevor to manefest in a plaine stile, with singuler regard unto the simple trueth in all things, at least as near as my slender judgmente can attaine the same.
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.)