Reflecting on the Occupy Wall Street Protests and the we are the 99% campaign, Matt Yglesias thinks that the top 10% of American’s represent a more salient target that the top 1%. The top 10% of Americans have certainly done well in the last 30 years of America’s age of inequality but I think it would be wrong to specifically target them.
Not only for ease of capturing a universalist rhetoric, but because the top 10% of wage earners aren’t necessarily incredibly wealthy. Here’s the chart Matt uses from Menzie Chinn’s Lost Decades charts:
The top 10% have certainly done significantly better than the bottom half of the income scale, but they haven’t reached anything like the dizzy heights of the top 1%. Inequality at the top is even more steep that inequality in the bottom 90%. Look at this graph from The New York Times to see what I mean.
I think it is easy to confuse income and wealth. Someone can be wealthy and not earn very much, and they can be poor and have just landed a lucrative job. In large part this is a wash, wealthy people tend to earn a lot and people who are not wealthy tend to earn meagre wages.
Social mobility is definitely stunted, both in the US and here in the UK, but people do tend to earn more the wealthier they are. So targeting the top 10% isn’t just about hitting the rich, it is also about hitting normal people in the 50s who have merely reached the top of their game.
When discussing who to campaign against you have to take into account part of a person’s identity will be defined by how much they earn over their lifetime, not how much they are earning at a particular moment.
So on one level it makes sense to target the wealthy top 10%, but not if it means taxing someone approaching retirement who will only earn that sort of wage for a few years. So that is why targeting the top 10% will fall down rhetorically, because a lot of those who will be targeted will be normal working class people who have just reached the top of their career ladder, a few years before stepping off.
The top 1% are less likely to be your average worker done well and are more likely to be plutocrats, financiers and those who have poisoned modern politics. That is where your red meat for riling protesters lies. Don’t target a District Manager for a Marks and Spencers, target Fred Goodwin and his flying chimp lackeys.