That Top 1% Thing
That Top 1% Thing
October 24, 2011
I’m a big fan of the Occupy Wall Street movement. And what I like most about it is the ambiguity of their demands. There’s a deep honesty to that. It is okay to say the system is broken while also saying you don’t know how to fix it. I’d feel uncomfortable if the protesters had specific demands. I don’t want my economic policy coming from “guy in tent.”
But I worry that the media needs specificity in order pit pundits against each other. It’s no fun having two people agree that unemployment is too high. You need one pundit to recommend a specific solution so the other can say he’s crazy. Ideally, you also need a villain for your story. That’s the standard media model.
So I’ve been watching in horror as the media tries to transmogrify the honest ambiguity of the Occupy Wall Street movement into a sort of tortured logic with convenient villains. Everyone starts with the same facts:
- Some CEOs are overpaid
- Some banks take advantage of the system (while others fail)
- Some billionaires pay a lower tax rate than other people
- Some CEOs, some bankers, and all billionaires are part of the top 1%
- The top 1% are getting richer while the 99% are getting poorer
- Unemployment rates are obscene.
- Corporate profits are up.
From that set of facts, the illogical conclusion I’m starting to see is that the top 1% are stealing the nation’s wealth. Villains! But how many people in the top 1% are engaged in some sort of evil? Is it 1% of the 1%? That’s my best guess. I know a lot of people in the top 1%, and all they do is go to work. They hardly ever perpetrate evil. But they do create jobs for the 99%.
One problem with the top 1% simplification is that people who have college degrees aren’t experiencing high unemployment. So it would be equally fair – and by that I mean equally illogical – to conclude that highly educated people are stealing the nation’s wealth from less educated people. That’s a bumper sticker you won’t see.
I would also be willing to bet that the average math skills of the people who are doing well in this economy are better than the average math skills of the people who are suffering. In other words, the Occupy Wall Street protesters are probably comprised of more psychology majors than engineering majors. But no one is suggesting that people who are good at math are stealing the nation’s wealth from people who are not. That’s not a catchy slogan.
Some people believe the problem with our economy is that social programs are sucking all of the money out of the system. If you have that view, you might conclude that the poor, the sick, and the elderly are stealing from everyone else. But that doesn’t look good on a protest sign.
And what the hell does it mean to steal the national wealth anyway? If my flower shop does well, but your donuts shop doesn’t, did I steal some national wealth from you? It might look that way on paper, but it doesn’t tell you anything about what’s going on.
The most objective explanation of our problem is that the economy is changing faster than humans can adapt. We have more high-end jobs and fewer unskilled opportunities. That’s not anyone’s fault. And obviously we have a smattering of rich crooks and rich people taking advantage of the system. That has to be addressed, but it’s not the underlying problem.
Some say the government is the problem. But I think it is more accurate to say the government is failing to offer a solution. And that’s because the government has also evolved more slowly than the world in general. It’s an anchor on the economy. What we need is a form of government that is more nimble, and designed from scratch to support the economy.
And for that we need a constitutional convention. The genius of our constitution is that it has a big red button labeled “evolve.” We just need to push it.