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Altered Consciousness: Making sense of the 1 percent

Published: January 26, 2012
Section: Opinions


By now, news of the Occupy movement has left the headlines and most of its encampments have been cleared out. What I view as the movement’s clearest impact was its introduction of the 99 percent versus 1 percent dichotomy to our political discourse.

 

Although it was difficult to decipher a clear message from the somewhat inchoate occupiers, it seems to me that the 99-1 contrast refers to the following: There has been a large increase in income inequality in America. At the top of the income pyramid are, for all intents and purposes, selfish, exploitative capitalists and plutocrats that caused the recession and are corrupting the economic and political system in the United States. They stand in contrast to the generally hard-working, decent and honest folks in the middle and lower classes.

 

Since the Occupy movement ended (or at least came to a halt), this theme of inequality has become a staple of the debate in Washington, D.C. Supposedly the Democrats and President Obama are in agreement with it and hope to use such a message to build support in their efforts to soak the rich. In contrast, the evil Republicans—particularly one prominent former Massachusetts governor—represent the wicked one percenters.

 

I find the 99-1 contrast to be problematic.

 

First, it implies that wealth is essentially zero-sum, that there is a limited amount of financial resources available in our country. To the occupiers, it seems that the members of the 1 percent are only able to make their fortunes at the expense of everyone else. Economic growth, however, betters opportunities for people of all income levels and what is one person’s gain is not necessarily another person’s loss.

 

Instead, I would argue that, when Wall Street—which emblemizes the 1 percent group—does well and is making profits, everyone ultimately benefits. A dynamic and thriving economy requires a healthy and robust financial sector and banking system. Very simply, businesses require easy access to credit and need to raise capital to hire people and create jobs, among other things. This is not to say that the banks do not produce excesses, or that they should not be regulated or taxed. The occupiers and their supporters, however, should keep these basic facts in mind instead of incessantly demonizing financial institutions.

 

Second, the 99-1 dichotomy is divisive. One would infer from it that someone’s level of income is also indicative of his or her character, morals and patriotism. People who have worked hard all their lives to become financially successful are suddenly regarded as greedy and cruel. Americans become divided along class lines and are judged by their wealth instead of who they are as individuals. I don’t believe the United States, which is unique in part due to a lack of explicit class consciousness, would be better off with this kind of mentality being prevalent among its citizens.

 

The final implication of the 99-1 contrast is that wealth needs to be evenly distributed among all citizens and that economic policies should be directed toward guaranteeing an equality of income, in which everyone earns closer to the same amount of money. I don’t necessarily think that a modestly progressive income tax, such as the one we have now, is an awful thing. But in extremis, heavy government intervention to produce this type of equality would generate incentives that ultimately make everyone worse off, to which anyone who has lived in a communist society can attest. Instead, equality of opportunity, in which everyone has access to the same resources, such as education, that can lead them to become successful, is a more sensible goal.

 

I would advocate then that we center our political discourse on ways to enhance opportunities for everyone, despite their income levels, and not vilify people who do manage to reach the top of the income ladder.