Upfront Disclaimer: This is not a short post.
Perhaps it goes without saying that I (like more or less everyone else) have had the Occupy Everywhere movement on my mind. I’m grateful for the courage many members of the ninety-nine percent have shown in their willingness to share what we so often don’t talk about in public. I am encouraged by the members of the one percent who understand that by and large their circumstances are the result of some work but also a great deal of luck. I am inspired that a movement can still emerge in this country without partisan politics and without hierarchical leadership. I am proud to witness concerned and concerted action when so many feel they lack agency and recourse as individuals. I am appalled when nonviolent assembly against real and significant economic injustice can be met with the organized deterrence of a (pseudo?-)police state. I am (somewhat selfishly) reinvigorated by the implications of a movement reliant and predicated on the availability and appropriation of space. I am hopeful the occupiers and those of us who stand with them will be heard.
While there is much that I could sit here and rant about w/r/t the Occupy movement, it seems like a perfect opportunity for two specific and related topics: (1) the continuation of my ongoing discussion of the degradation on a crucial freedom in this country and (2) the repetition of what many who have worked with me have heard about the utility of measures of distribution.
On the first: In the United States, we have nominal and cliche rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It seems ridiculous to explain how the last in that trifecta is today just a bait-and-switch April Fool’s prank played on most Americans. The so-called pursuit of happiness (and the American Dream it embodies) is a farce these days as structural barriers to entry can and do prevent its attainment from birth for many. As a means toward understanding that prank, we can focus on the concept of liberty. "Freedom" in its many incarnations is the ultimate American trope and rallying cry. Concepts of freedom and liberty allow for American individualism, American capitalism, and the American Bill of Rights. But today -- in a time when corporations are afforded the rights and freedoms of citizens, in a time when financialization structures are often impenetrable and opaque so as to prevent their oversight and use by average citizens, in a time when the freedom to lobby is more recognized than the rights of constituents for legitimately representative representation, in a time when the opportunities presented by the best education are only available to those who already have access to those opportunities as indicated by their ability to afford tuition -- today, one of the most impactful freedoms in the United States is financial freedom.
Even with a household income well over national or area medians, the costs incurred to reach that level are often insurmountable, and the promises made by banks that could not fail regarding markets that could collapse have left too many without the financial freedom to choose the life they want, to define their happiness, or even to stay afloat above their debt. Financial freedom is that which allows a meaningful life, beyond mere survival, in this country. And therein lies both the problem and the reason why the Occupy movement is absolutely a fully “American” (down to the core clichés implied by words like “American”) act. The Occupiers are acting to protect against the outright, systemic, and structural infringement on not only a fundamental functioning freedom but on their right toward the attainment of that freedom.
Figure 1: Gini Index in the United States, 1967-2005 (data source: US Census Bureau)
On the second: We see the effects of degraded financial freedoms in this country in each of the testimonials from the 99 percent. And that they are named "the 99 percent" is no accident. American wealth is concentrated. Full stop. Further, to pretend it is not and/or to pretend that it is the result of a functioning first-world economy and society are both beyond naive but rather willfully mistaken. To pretend that the United States is economically and equitably thriving and to pretend that we might maintain some position as a global exemplar of the social and economic equity that comes with our brand of capitalist democracy are beyond mistaken but rather willful denial.
The Gini Index is a measure of income inequality determined, briefly, by the difference between the actual distribution of income and a theoretically equal distribution of income within a given place at a given time. In a nutshell, it works like this: If everyone has the same income, the coefficient (index score) is zero. If, instead, one person has all income and everyone else has none, then the coefficient is one. In essence, the larger the Gini Index score for a given place, the more income is concentrated or unevenly distributed.
When we talk about income in quantified terms, we tend to discuss things like Median Household Income, Per Capita Income, the Poverty Rate, the Percentage of Families Living in Poverty, the Percentage of Children Living in Poverty, Area Median Income (AMI) adjusted for family size, Eighty Percent of AMI, Sixty Percent of AMI, Adjusted Gross Income, and Wages Earned versus Salary Income. When characterizing the income level of a given population, the median averages and summary percentages only begin to tell the story. As is the case with all descriptive statistics, it's generally understood that those values alone are insufficient to describe a dataset. We need distribution information (e.g., minimum value, maximum value, and standard deviation) to contextualize that average. Toward that end, the Gini Index is one of many useful statistics calculated and reported by different agencies using different measures of income (maybemore on that at a later date). To be clear, a Gini score does not offer information about total wealth -- only how the income portion of that wealth is distributed throughout a population. An evenly poor country will have the same score as a comparably evenly wealthy country.
I'd like to posit that the Occupy movement can be summarized in both the actuality of Figure 1 (above) and its effects. The US Gini Index has been steadily rising over the last several decades (since the US Census Bureau began calculating it) and seems not to be stopping any time soon. It is in no way a coincidence that over those decades we've watched wealth concentrate and the middle class disappear. The sentiment that "the rich get richer while the poor get poorer" can be, more or less, quantified in a Gini score.
Slightly more than 0.45 doesn't seem awful, right? Perhaps not, but for a little context and comparison, I offer this:
Figure 2: Gini Index of Various Countries during different years. (data source: US CIA World Fact Book)
This comparison includes all the countries for which the CIA offers Gini data between 0.40 and 0.50. That's it. The only other G8 country within this range is Russia. Where are the other G8s? Answering questions like that means things will start to get embarrassing: Americans must begin to realize that our national wealth and financial system along with the quality of life they imply are not globally up to par.
The G8 Nations and their Gini Scores, according to the CIA:
- Canada: 0.321 (2005)
- France: 0.327 (2008)
- Germany: 0.270 (2006)
- Italy: 0.320 (2006)
- Japan: 0.376 (2008)
- Russia: 0.422 (2009)
- United Kingdom: 0.340 (2005)
- United States of America: 0.450 (2007)
According to the US Census Bureau, the US's Gini index score in 2010 was 0.469, which puts us squarely even with Equador. In fact, only three other G20 nations (Russia, Argentina, and China) have a Gini score within the range shown on Figure 2.
What am I getting at? While I admit the dangerously broad-brush language I'm about to use here, those among us who let blind national pride obscur our perception of the effects of our policies on our way of life may soon need to accept the notion that this Home of the Free is not the freest place on the planet. The American Dream is largely founded on the promise of financial freedom. Today, opportunity comes at a cost that most of us can't afford, and that problem can be inferred from the Gini Index. The condition wherein the already wealthy continue to accumulate wealth while the have-nots slip into having even less is not only characterized by this statistic, but exacerbated by the reality it describes. The thing is not that the have-nots lack access to opportunity; it is that access is offered with an interest rate, and Americans will purchase their opportunity on credit in the hopes of chasing that Dream unaware that they'll be shackled with debt they will not be able to repay.
We watch our population grow, our gross domestic product, our stock markets. For decades we've watched these numbers grow and felt confident in our prosperity in global comparison. Sadly, we've neglected several other indicators -- those that have been steadily aligning the US with much of the developing world. And in a year when citizens around the world have protested for their freedoms, it is no wonder that protest has come here.