The U.S. middle class is incredibly wealthy by international standards. A recent, thoughtful article, appearing in the March/April Foreign Policy, by Charles Kenny, is the kind that inevitably evokes hostile comments. Follow my link, and you’ll have the sheer enjoyment of how nay-sayers position their ideas. You can count on the comments coming out at the level of “it’s my money, and I earned it.” That’s as one-sided as the Bolshevik ideas coming out of the Russian revolution in 1917. That’s not to say that both extremes don’t have a point (though only partially so) and are/were a response to their context.
Still, as Charles Kenny argues, American inequality is out of control. My eldest and myself have been in and out of the 1% for years, so we have had something to lose in taxing the wealthy. Still, any sense of maturity demands honesty in the situation. So here are Kenny’s stats: America’s rich are really, really rich. Census data suggests that every man, woman and child in the top 1% of US households “gets about $1,500 to live on each day, every day. By contrast, the average US household is scraping by on around $55 per person per day. But the global average is about of fifth of that.”
That’s Kenny’s context. His argument is built on current data. According to the World Bank economist, Branko Milanovic, you need to make $34,000 to be a member of the world’s onepercenters. Furthermore, as the late Nobel Prize-winning economist, Herb Simon says: “it’s the luck of where you’re born.” Simon estimated that the benefits of living in a well-functioning economy “probably account for 90% of individual income.”
Furthermore, political scientists Vincent Mahler, David Jesuit and Piotr Paradowski examined the benefits—from pensions to child welfare payments—that taxpayers rich and poor in Europe and the US receive. While they were at it, they should have looked at all the bennies that corporate America receives. And that doesn’t account for a range of state subsidies like colleges and universities that we all receive.
The most intriguing conclusion by Kenny, is that “countries with high levels of inequality are far more likely to fall into financial crisis and far less likely to sustain economic growth.” Of course, this is going to mean that the richest as well as the middle class are all going to have to be taxed. Whining is certainly not relevant for either the 1% or the middle 60% of America’s taxpayers.
So when you hear all this baloney about “I made mine and nobody helped me out,” what should you say? Well, remember that facts, statistics, logic and reasoning don’t work with committed tribal members. The best way to shake the argument is with emotional appeals. I usually roll my eyes, laugh out loud, and say something to the effect of, “you can’t possibly believe that.” And then you either turn away from the stupid conversation or change the subject.
That process—a classic put-down--is well-documented in my own toolkit. I’ve found, that given the subject, about 20 to 25% of those same folk will want to talk intelligently about the issue sometime later. But they bring it up and they ask the questions. So you’d better have your facts straight, or be comfortable saying you’d like to pull the data together for them. The other 75% or so are a lost cause—at least for now. They write the hostile comments on blogs that challenge their ideas with good data.