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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Column: The global 99

Thanks to the Occupy Wall Street movement, we have all heard about the wealth inequality in the United States among the top 1 percent and the 99 percent. This powerful statistic has caught on in the media and taken the country by storm. Statistics are a valuable tool for conveying information in a particular manner. But be careful, because the most important word in that last sentence was “tool.”

The vast majority of statistics are created with a purpose in mind. Statistics are used by all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons. Contrary to the popular joke, no, 73.47 percent of all statistics aren’t made up, but they can be misleading if you don’t know how to pay attention.

For example, along with about 400 other students at Davis, I am one of the roughly 3 percent from out of state. (Yeah, we have to pay significantly higher tuition and wait for 10 minutes while the bouncers at de Vere’s play their version of 20 Questions, but when being harangued at the Quad to sign some petition we can say we aren’t registered California voters and get left alone, so I call it a wash).

Being from Seattle, I’m frequently asked about all the rain. Seattle has the reputation of a sad, depressing place that’s never sunny. But is it? Seattle receives over 150 days of rain a year. In November, usually the rainiest month for most cities, Seattle receives more rain than any other major U.S city. So I guess all the stereotypes are true, right?

Well, what if I told you that by annual rainfall, Seattle doesn’t even crack the top 10? With about 38 inches annually, we barely break the top 50, coming in at 44th. The actual rainiest city in America varies between Mobile (Alabama), New Orleans and a few cities in Florida, usually receiving around 65 inches of rain a year distributed over 60 days. From June to September, Seattle doesn’t even beat the average U.S. city in amount of rain.

By seeing different sets of statistics, even though they’re both true, one can be led to completely separate conclusions. Let’s return to the 99 percent. You’ve probably heard that the richest 1 percent of Americans owns about 40 percent of the wealth in America. This is pretty alarming. On the flip side, the bottom 80 percent of Americans own only about 7 percent of the wealth. This national income inequality is certainly a major concern, but is there an even bigger problem to focus on?

Well, if you don’t extend your gaze to the rest of the world, you’ll never know. But now let’s remember that America is only one of just under 200 sovereign countries in the world. If we decide those other 6.5+ billion people are worth mentioning, things start to look a bit better for even the poor of America. Take a second and try to guess what percentage of people in the United States doesn’t fall in the top 50 percent globally. We do have some pretty poor people here, right? So what do you think? Five? Ten? Twenty? No idea? Perhaps this will help. In 2008, it was estimated that the cutoff to be in the top 50 percent in global income was $2,138. So how many Americans pull in less than that? About 2 percent.

In fact, the poorest 10 percent in America would be among the richest 30 percent globally. In 2010, the poverty line for someone living in the United States was just under $11,000. Globally this would put someone in the top 15 percent. If you make triple the poverty level, $33,000, you would be in the global 1 percent. In today’s world, over 1 billion people live on less than $1 a day. If you want to experience real poverty, you’re going to need to leave America.

So what exactly am I getting at here? Well, if you haven’t noticed, we live in an age of information. There are many benefits to this, but some downsides as well. With so much information out there, it’s possible for almost anyone to cherry-pick evidence to back up whatever point they want. Political elites are especially guilty of this. So it’s important to keep an open mind.

Try to recognize what you aren’t being told and don’t just focus on what you are. And know that as Americans, even the worst-off among us have it pretty good. So next time you listen to an argument about what the 1 percent of Americans should be doing for the other 99 percent, stop and remember that, as Americans, we are almost all a part of the global 1 percent.

If you want DANNY BRAWER to convince you to move to Seattle so you can join him in cheering on the Sonics, let him know at dabrawer@ucdavis.edu.

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