Monday, December 5, 2011

We are the 100%

He-man with flying troll
I recently got involved in a discussion on facebook about the percentage of income tax paid in the US by the richest 1%. This was the very first exchange I have participated in on the topic of the American tax system, and I have to admit that my contribution was somewhat childish, not to say troll-like (in my opening parry, I accused one of my friends of “capitalist he-man posturing”). Feeling remorseful about this, I have decided to attempt to redeem myself here, with some musings which may still appear na├»ve to some, but have at least benefited from a little more time to mature.

Apparently the wealthiest 1% in the US pay about 40% of all annual income tax collected in that country. This figure has increased since tax rates for the richest Americans were reduced under Bush; this means that although very rich Americans now pay a smaller proportion of their income as tax, their share of total income has increased so much that have ended up paying a larger proportion of the national tax bill – the reduction in their tax rates may have helped to achieve this result. So while the figure of 40% might initially seem to suggest that the richest Americans contribute an impressively large share of tax, on reflection, it is a stark indication of how extremely unequal the distribution of wealth in that country has become.

It could be seen as a very short explanation of the situation that has provoked, and sustained, the Occupy movement. But it can also be seen as a succinct summary of a mindset that the Occupy movement has created.

Without the existence and persistence of the Occupy movement figures like this would not currently be circulating on the internet. The rhetoric of Occupy has somewhat arbitrarily divided the US population into two camps: the wealthiest 1% and the other 99%. This is designed to give the movement credibility – it is not speaking on behalf of a small, marginalized group, but is voicing the concerns of an overwhelming majority, the 99%.

An unfortunate side-effect of this strategy is to make those cordoned off as the 1% seem embattled and accused, held exclusively responsible for problems created by the society as a whole. This has motivated some to come up with statistics or slogans to defend this group, aiming to point out that the super rich do contribute to society (in many cases this is precisely how they’ve gotten so rich), and don’t typically spend large swathes of their time sitting around scheming about how to rip its fabric apart.

As the brief discussion of US income tax shows, this tactic backfires when it involves a denial of the problem. The inequalities are extreme. So are some of the rips and tears in American society - and the anger and sense of insecurity they incite.

(A quick digression: last week Tom and I saw the Cohen Bros film, Burn before Reading. It’s a great example of intelligent American humour – humour underpinned and abruptly interrupted by rage. But Americans have no monopoly on inequality, insecurity, or ax-wielding maniacs. Consider what’s happening right now at the University of Sydney.)

OWS Ladies' Choir
But to get back to the main topic: a remarkable thing about the Occupy movement is that although it is a protest movement, it is not dominated by anger. Rather, it can be seen as an antidote to the anger that often seems to be tightly coiled just under the surface of contemporary social life. It is resolutely non-violent, and committed to inclusive, creative, frequently humorous and truly democratic forms of communication. Just one example: a musician friend of mine who lives in NY, Greta Gertler, has contributed by forming a choir that regularly sings four part harmonies in Zuccotti Park in Brooklyn. It's called the OWS (Occupy Wall Street) Ladies’ Choir. In spite of the name, I understand that female gender is not a prerequisite for membership. Protest may have been high-pitched before, but never has it been so mellifluous (here is one of the songs they sing).

So is there a way of challenging the divisive element in the 99% versus 1% slogan that doesn’t deny the problems, or lead to even more divisive discussions? Thanks to Bhante Sujato, I recently came across a counter-slogan, devised by Zen peacemaker Ari Setsudo Pliskin, that fits this bill perfectly. Instead of “We are the 99%” he advocates: “We are the 100%.”

Imagine if the rich and poor in America and elsewhere came together to defend democracy, and let lucid arguments rather than money determine the outcome of political struggles, for the benefit of society (and the planet) as a whole. You may say I'm a dreamer... But the concerns of the Occupy movement affect us all.

A gracious gadfly on the rump of the state


Peter said...

"We are the 100 %" - What a wonderful slogan ! I guess part of the problem with the "1%" is their detachment (actual or perceived) from the rest of us, a detachment presumably only increased by the polarisation of current protest "We are the 100 %" invites "them" to join "us" in common action for the good of all. I like this very much.

Jason Grossman said...


Anonymous said...

Don't believe this outrageous crap about the rich paying 37% of the taxes in America and the poor paying none. It's a trick. A spin on statistics to make it seem as if the rich are overtaxed. They aren't. But they damn well should be. We're in this mess because of them.

Be careful when you hear or read anything regarding the PERCENTAGE of OVERALL FEDERAL INCOME taxes paid by any particular group, it's a terribly misleading statistic. The rich pay a larger PERCENTAGE of OVERALL FEDERAL INCOME taxes now than 10 years ago because they have a larger PERCENTAGE of OVERALL INCOME in America now than 10 years ago. That statistic regarding 37% of Federal Income Taxes is one of the most misleading in the history of propaganda.

When you account for all FEDERAL, STATE, and LOCAL taxes and fees, the lowest quintile in America (20%) actually pays about the same rate (as a percentage of income) as the top quintile. The difference is within 5 percent.

When you account for all FEDERAL, STATE, and LOCAL taxes and fees, the middle class actually pay about the same rate (as a percentage of income) as the rich. The difference is within 5 percent. It shouldn't be that way. The rich should pay a MUCH higher rate simply because they are horribly over-paid. We aren't. They own 43% of all financial wealth in America. We share the rest. But it gets even more disgusting. The devil is in the details.

Corporate profits have been partially subsidized with federal, state, and local revenue. This benefit has been hoarded at the top. Business managers make up the largest group of one percent club pigs. Plus 1/2 of the market is owned by the top 1%. Their record territory dividends have been partially subsidized by federal, state, and local revenue. The benefits have not been shared proportionally with the little guy. The lopsided division of growth across quintiles proves it.

The highest percentile has grown more than 10 times faster than the middle percentile over the last 30 years. This is true EVEN AFTER taxes. When you account for inflation and the actual cost of living (tied to record high profits in energy, finance, and healthcare), the middle class have actually lost relative buying power while the top 1% have drastically increased their income and bottom line wealth.

In 1976 (when their taxes were much higher), the top one percent reaped 9 percent of all private income and held less than 20 percent of all private wealth in America. Now, they reap 24 percent of all private income and hold over 40 percent of all private wealth. Meanwhile, the lower majority (those who are still employed) are working more hours and have less to show for it.

Just to make it crystal clear: The rich do not pay 37% of all taxes. They never have. They pay roughly 37% of all FEDERAL INCOME TAXES which account for less than 1/2 of total government revenue. The rest is drawn from a number of sources and across income levels. The rich harp on this 'Federal Income Tax' statistic because it leads people to believe that they pay 37% of ALL taxes. They don't. Their share as a group represents just over their share of income. The difference is within 5 percent. In fact, the 2nd percentile actually pays a slightly higher rate on average than the top percentile.

If the rich want to pay a lower share of the taxes in America, then they should get themselves a lower share of the income in America. In other words, don't be so rich to begin with. After all, this obscene concentration of wealth actually CAUSES economic instability. It CAUSES poverty. It will CAUSE the next Great Depression.

No more excuses.


Jason again said...