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Would It Surprise You To Learn That You're the 1 Per Cent?

05/12/2014 05:29 EDT | Updated 07/12/2014 05:59 EDT

When people talk about the "1%", I think they think that they are talking about a specific group of individuals, who have been and remain in that category over time.

When they say "We are the 99%" I think they think that that's a static category, designating a group of people who persist as members over their lifetime.

Would people be so upset if it turned out that the individuals who made up the 1% were different people over time? That those who are in the 1% spend most of their lives in the 99%, and will go back to being 99%ers after a few years of being 1%ers?

I'm not sure. I am sure that if those categories represented a permanent group of specific individuals, we would be justified in lamenting the state of the economy.

But at any rate, if you're someone who worries a great deal about the 1 and 99 %ers, would you be as worried if the following were true?:

Suppose just over one-in-ten (or 12%) would be in the 1% for at least a year of their lives.

Suppose further, to expand our view a bit, that just over one-in-three (or 39%) would hit top 5%, just over one-in-two (or 56%) would hit top 10%, and two-in-three (or 73%) would hit top 20%, each for at least a year of their lives.

And now suppose that less than one-in-150 (or a mere 0.6%) remained in the top 1% for 10 consecutive years.

If all of that were true -- if the income distribution were that fluid -- would you still be so upset?

You might be thinking that this is an unrealistic hypothetical, the kind of thought experiment philosophers get dumped on for being so out-of-tune with the hard facts on the ground. What good is it to imagine income mobility like that, when we all know that the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer? We all know that wages have stagnated, that poverty is more persistent than before, and so on.

It turns out that what you know, just ain't so.

The rich have gotten richer, but the poor have gotten richer too. Wages have not stagnated. The decline of the middle class that you might have heard about is not due to people earning less and so becoming lower class. The middle class has shrunk because more of us are earning an upper class income.

So those are not good reasons to avoid the question. To repeat, then, would you be so upset if the income distribution were so fluid?

If not, then don't be so upset any longer. Because that's not hypothetical, it's a description of the income distribution over time in the U.S. The numbers for Canada are probably similar, although we should wait for a study before saying anything definitive.

Before people get to say that they are the 99%, we should ask them, McCarthyism-style, if they ever were, or ever will be, members of the 1%. It would be more accurate for them to yell, "We are the 88%!" -- those who are persistently and not merely temporarily 99%ers.

But even those of us who might more accurately yell "we are the 88%" aren't really that either.

The people who are in the bottom 5% of the American income distribution are richer than 68% of people in the entire world. And that's taking into account cost of living -- the numbers are composed of international dollars adjusted for equal purchasing power. In India alone, about a quarter of that population lives on $1 a day. There are 1.24 billion people who live in India. The number of people living on a $1 a day there is almost equal to the entire population of the United States.

Maybe it makes sense to focus just on what's going on inside Canada and the U.S., and to pretend, for purposes of measuring wealth and incomes, that the rest of the world doesn't exist.

But I'm not sure why we should do that. I'm not sure what justifies such a restriction on our comparison pool. Doesn't it strike you as arbitrary? Like restricting your focus on two neighbourhoods -- say the Westmount area of Montreal and the Bridal Path area of Toronto -- when there's the rest of Canada to think about?

For people in India, I bet they think the heated discussion about top 1%ers and 99%ers in Canada and the U.S. is a great big joke. The very same kind of joke that we would laugh about if the Tremblays in the Westmount area of Montreal were to bitterly complain about the Jones' living in the Bridal Path area of Toronto. Sure, the Tremblays with their average $8 million net worth have half what the Jones' and their $16 million net worth have, but it would take a comic to suggest we should lament and despair about the Tremblays' attempts to keep up with the Jones'.

But it's not a joke. Or, maybe, the people who occupied Bay Street and Wall Street didn't get it.

Us Canadian 99%ers are not just rich, which we are. By global standards, we're filthy, stinking rich. It takes roughly an annual net income of $41,600 to be in the global 1%.

If that's you, then take a deep breath, find a mirror, and repeat these words, "I am the 1%."

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