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We Are the 1 %

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November 11, 2011 – The “Occupy” protests are now nearly two months old. Although there is no single voice of the movement and thus no clearly articulated goal, the most widely held aim of the protestors around the country seems to be the implementation of a so-called “Robin Hood Tax,” which, though evoking exciting images of Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner or Cary Elwes (depending upon one’s generation and taste) is actually nothing more than a tax on the wealthiest 1% of American society for the benefit of the other 99%. The wealthy minority in this country, it is felt (perhaps justifiably) have been exploiting the downtrodden majority. It is time to turn the tables. It is time for the exploiters to become the exploited. The mantra of the protestors reflects the perceived divide between rich and poor – “We are the 99%” and (presumably) the 1% had better consider themselves on notice. To this end, protestors have been “occupying” cities around the country, from New York to Washington to San Francisco. Even my own little town of Martinsville, Virginia has had its own modest Occupy protest, though admittedly without any of the economic outrage or emotional urgency of the originals.

It is perhaps the birthright of American democracy to be urgent and outraged over such economic disparity as currently exists in this country. It is even appropriate that, if such a disparity exists, action should be taken (though it could be argued that it would be much more efficient if the time and energy spent on this particular action were instead invested in actual work, thereby lessening the disparity). But a pertinent fact remains, largely unrecognized by the protestors and the protested alike: namely that the very numbers that are used to illustrate the economic disparity in America are the same numbers as illustrate the same disparity between America and the rest of the world.

The vast majority of Americans are in the top 1% of the world in terms of income. According to the United States Census Bureau, the median household income of U.S. families in 2009 was just over $50,000. That means that the average American is richer than 99% of the world’s population. Even those who make as little as $10,000 per year are wealthier than 84% of the people on this planet. Perspective is a wonderful thing.

These facts in no way mitigate the injustice of situations within this country where opportunities have been denied, individuals defrauded or national wealth improperly used. They do however remind us to count our blessings and think twice before we begin complaining about our financial state. Even the poorest of us live like kings in comparison to the poor in most of the rest of the world.

Perhaps it would better befit our situation as the richest 1% of the world to start to consider ways in which we can be proactive about redistributing the wealth we’ve been given. How much money do we really need? How much money can we give away? How much longer can we justify living lives of relative luxury, ignoring the fact that 26,000 children will die today from hunger? How long will it be before the real 99% are standing at our door, demanding an accounting?

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