Bernie Sanders is catching fire – and he’s doing it largely on the strength of an economic message that highlights the growing disparity between the wealthy and the rest of the country. His language – with frequent references to America’s “billionaire class” and the wealthiest “one percent” – drips with the sort of populism that has met with greater and greater enthusiasm in the years since the Great Recession.
Both slogans capture something important about today’s political climate: the growing sense that our economy and politics are hostage to the interests of the very wealthy, and the fear that America’s economic gains aren’t distributed equitably. Neither can be a surprise to anyone paying attention to elections and protest movements over the last eight years.
And yet, there’s something deeply curious about them. Let’s start with the claim that America has a billionaire class. To be sure, Americans are familiar with the outsized influence that billionaires exert over the political process. Men like Warren Buffet, George Soros, Sheldon Adelson, and David Koch – to say nothing of Donald Trump – have become important political benefactors, especially in the world created by Citizens United. And yet, it might surprise readers to learn that, according to Forbes, there are only 536 Americans with a net wealth of over $1 billion.
That’s less of a class and more of a cabal. Put differently, if we assume that Forbes’ count is accurate, then there is one billionaire for every voting member of Congress, with one left over to entertain the White House. You could fit every American billionaire into one jumbo jet.
It’s interesting to compare that to the other descriptor that Mr. Sanders uses, the one percent: we would need nearly 6,000 times as many billionaires as we currently have in the United States in order for that number to represent one percent of the country. Simply put, the one percent and the billionaire class refer to remarkably different slices of society.
Thomas Picketty, in his tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century, points out that the degree of wealth concentration is actually understated by looking just at the top ten, five, or one percent. The inequality within those subsets of the population sometimes dwarves the inequality between that same subset – when taken as a group – and the rest of the country. It’s a provocative thought, just as it’s provocative to think that Bernie Sanders’ rhetoric might actually be understated.
Another thing to consider is that the moniker ‘one percent’ can be viewed from more than one perspective. Without a doubt, ‘one percent’ is shorthand for ‘outlandishly rich’. The point Mr. Sanders is making is that it is immoral to enjoy that much disproportionate wealth while your fellow citizens face serious need. Mr. Sanders is unabashedly a proponent of redistribution.
So how much does it actually take to be in the top one percent of income earners? The answer, according to economist Branko Milanovićc, is $34,000. That is, as long as you want to know whether you’re in the top one percent of global income earners.
Calculating income distribution at a global level is a daunting task, requiring that researchers make the best of incomplete data and adjust for local prices and exchange rates. Giving What We Can uses a different methodology than Milanovićc, but reaches similar conclusions: an American family of four earning just at the poverty line is in the top fifth of global earners. An American family earning the national median, is in the top tenth. A single person earning $53,000 is in the global one percent. As always, the effects of inequality are increased if we consider wealth in addition to income in our analysis.
It’s difficult to know what conclusions to draw from these numbers, other than to remark on the fact that the world is an interesting place. From a global perspective, Bernie Sanders is running a campaign premised on the notion of redistributing money from the world’s ultra rich to the world’s very rich. Meanwhile, more than 2 two billion people live off less than $2 a day, even as a majority of Americans want the amount of money spent on foreign aid reduced.
Supporters of Mr. Sanders like to rail against the very rich and cloak themselves in a mantle of moral righteousness, they should look again at the numbers.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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