One Percent of One
By this point you’ve probably already heard the most popular, latest eye-catching bit of agitprop trivia on economic inequality in America. In case you haven’t I’ll share what I think (could be wrong) was its original source. From Berkeley’s Sylvia Allegretto:
The triennial Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) is one of the best sources for data on wealth in the U.S. And, of course the Forbes 400 estimates the worth of the wealthiest amongst us—all 400 wouldn’t be captured in the SCF. If we look at both the SCF and the Forbes 400 we can glean some interesting insights.
In 2007 (the most recent SCF) the cumulative wealth of the Forbes 400 was $1.54 trillion or roughly the same amount of wealth held by the entire bottom fifty percent of American families. This is a stunning statistic to be sure.
Upon closer inspection, the Forbes list reveals that six Waltons—all children (one daughter-in-law) of Sam or James “Bud” Walton the founders of Wal-Mart—were on the list. The combined worth of the Walton six was $69.7 billion in 2007—which equated to the total wealth of the entire bottom thirty percent!
Having six people hold an amount of wealth equivalent to that of roughly 90 million is nearly unbelievable. But if you’re paying attention to the news, and recent American political economy more generally, it’s not the kind of morsel you haven’t come across before (granted, probably in a less absurdly maximalist form). Even if it’s not unbelievable, however, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve decided that the Walton Six Phenomenon is something at once more problematic and potentially more important: it’s unfathomable.
How could anyone honestly say that the reality of six equalling 90 million isn’t, at best, a total abstraction. Numbers like this remind of the famous, maybe apocryphal, quote — WARNING: I’m probably about to break some corollary to Godwin’s Law — usually attributed to Stalin: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” There’s a lot of tragedy unfolding in America on a daily basis due to poverty and iniquity, but the Walton Six Phenomenon is just one hell of a statistic. It’s so unfathomable, in fact, that at least one commenter questions it for no other reason than its incomprehensibility:
I’m just as appalled by the stunning income gaps in the U.S. as any of you. But these numbers almost seem too extreme. The bottom 30% of Americans in 2011 is about 100 million people. That means that if they have the wealth of the Waltons, it would translate into $930 for each of these people. I guess that’s possible, assuming a lot of people in the bottom thirty percent have a negative net worth because of debts, but I have a hard time visualizing it.
But I don’t think this is all fascinating and important simply because it’s, like, far out and stuff. I think this matters because it speaks to the fundamental and potentially fatal flaw in the admittedly enormously successful one percent rhetoric of the Occupy Movement. As more than a few people have noted — most notably Krugman — and as the Walton story makes plain, the gap in power and wealth between the 99 and the one percent doesn’t actually tell the story. It’s the gap between the .1 percent and the rest that matters. And when the conversation shifts from being about one percent toward being about .1 percent, I’m not so sure that the “class war” explication actually makes much sense.
Sure, the .1 percent could still be readily understood as a class. But I think there’s something more intuitively appealing in calling this subset of the population a faction, an oligarchy, an aristocracy, or (my favorite) a kleptocracy. Focusing peoples’ attention to just how insanely concentrated wealth in the United States has become will mean even more to many than the one percent narrative. The one percent narrative is one about class struggle; but it’s one in which the malefactors of great wealth are still kind of fuzzily defined, and their deleterious affect on the country is easier to chalk up to impersonal, almost pre-determined forces.
The .1 percent story? That’s about a ridiculously small group of people amassing and demanding truly obscene amounts of wealth. One learns about this and thinks of post-Yeltsin Russia, contemporary Saudi Arabia, or Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. If people knew the true nature of the problem — if it were made plain that comparisons of America to so-called Banana Republics are perhaps overly uncharitable to the latter — then things would really start to get interesting.