Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Ninety-Nine Percent

This generation's Civil Rights movement is Occupy Wall Street.  Initially, the protesters lacked specific demands, but the Occupiers do have real complaints--the chasm between rich and poor--taking their slogan from the fact that 1% of the population now controls 40% of the nation's wealth.

To imagine what that means, picture a vast parade of U.S. citizens marching toward a goal post representing the American Dream.  Now suppose that each person's height correlates to their net worth.  An individual of average height (say 5' 8")  would have $38,000 in savings because that's the median net wealth in this country.  Half the population owns more, half less.   

The parade begins January 1 and a whole year is required for all 312 million of us to file past the goal line  Only for the first three months, we don't see anybody marching because a quarter of all Americans don't own anything.  They're in debt.  They owe on student loans or their mortgages are underwater.  These citizens have negative worth, thus negative height.  In our parade, they are invisible, underground, as they often are in real life, like the homeless.

But come spring, there's a rustling in the soil and soon heads begin to poke above the surface of the ground.  But it's a race of little people, the kind in Gulliver'sTravels.  After the initial surprise, we notice something else.  Most of these Lilliputians are women.  Many are black or Hispanic, mothers with children even smaller than their tiny parents.  Because the average net worth for black women in this country is just five dollars, these multitudes will be less than 1/100 of an inch tall.  You could hold a whole village in the palm of your hand!  That is, if you're an average sized person.

But perhaps you're not of normal height.  Maybe you own more than $38,000.  If you're a professional or information worker, could be part of the top 20%, the upper middle class that controls 50% of the nation's wealth.  You're 25 or even 50 feet tall.  Your turn to march doesn't come until late October.  But you're still part of the 99%.

It's not until December 29 that we finally glimpse the 1%, individuals with assets of $9 million or more.  Then the long line of citizens who have slowly been increasing in height suddenly spikes vertically.  They're tall as the Empire State Building. Then, tall as mountains, heads above the clouds.  And what about the Forbes 400, the 400 people who now own more than the poorest 150 million combined?  In our parade, these gargantuan hedge fund managers and CEOs start appearing just 40 seconds before midnight, and since you need a net worth of at least $1.3 billion to qualify for Forbes, each would be at least 38 miles tall, approaching low earth orbit. 

And giants like Warren Buffet, a thousand miles tall, pay taxes at a lower rate than the rest of us.  That's part of the reason the Occupiers are mad.  They're fed up with a Congress that can find trillions for foreign wars and bank bailouts, but says we have to cut Medicare and Social Security, trim benefits for firefighters and teachers and raise tuition at public universities because there's no money for higher education.  They angry when they see society's greatest rewards lavished not on  those who work for a living, but on con artists who make their money selling exploding securities to pension funds and then placing side bets that the seniors get burned. 

Our poverty rate today is higher than it was in 1968 when Dr. King first conceived his Poor People's March.  That was to be an encampment, too, thousands converging on Washington to erect a shanty of tarps and tents to demand an "economic bill of rights."  King's occupation failed.  He himself was assassinated while visiting Memphis to support striking garbage workers, but his entire operation had begun to founder as he turned his energy from ending Jim Crow to economic justice. 

What use is it to win the right to sit at a lunch counter, King asked, if you can't afford a hamburger?  Occupiers raise similar questions.  What good is it to be able to vote, if you can't afford to buy a politician?

Liberty and equality have always stood in tension in America.  And it was King's last hope to bring greater equity to the scales of democracy.  This is also the Occupy movement's goal. Powerful forces are arrayed against them.  Nothing will change without struggle.  But who can doubt that change is needed?  As you contemplate that  long parade of Americans marching toward the goal of a better life, some hundreds of miles tall and others a fraction of an inch in height, you understand why the little people have begun to rise.  

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