In 1977 I spent beautiful spring afternoons in an overheated classroom with a view of a trash compactor in MIT’s nondescript Building 12 snoozing through Urban Sociology, the last of my Humanities requirements and perhaps the most boring course ever conceived. I learned only two things in that class. First, that I dislike social science, which possesses neither the elegant rigor of pure science nor humanities’ grace. Second, that ’revolution cannot occur in a country where 70% of the people are content’, as the professor quoted one fine day. Apparently, at least 70% of Americans in 1977 were satisfied with their lives and I must have been one of them. Secure that we would not plummet into revolution any time soon, I dozed through the remainder of the semester.
That comforting statistic helped me to sleep soundly for over thirty years. Then, around the time my ironic friend Larry informed me that, ‘70% of all statistics are true’, I started having doubts. I realized that progress is not always forward. After all, the world turned retrograde for hundreds of years during the Dark Ages, the Belle Époque ended with the most gruesome war to end all wars (until the next one), and Afghanistan circa 1950 was a progressive country while Afghanistan circa 2013 is a tragedy. Could it be possible that despite all of our resources, wealth, and opportunity the United States could devolve into a country ripe for revolution? Could the 1980’s mantra Greed is Good subvert into the 2020 mantra that Greed destroys US?
This morning I watched Wealth Inequality in America, a six minute video that left me reeling. Not only are less than 70% of Americans content, significantly more than 70% of Americans are loosing their race on the economic treadmill while a tiny proportion of our citizens grow wealthy beyond imagining: http://economy.money.cnn.com/2013/03/08/wealth-video/. Watching the video unspool our wealth inequality in six minutes is like watching an acorn balloon into a towering oak through time lapse photography, except that this seed could germinate revolution.
We Americans love our revolution, but the United States is not a place prone to upheaval. In the last two hundred years Mexico has had five revolutions; Haiti has had too many to count. We staged our single battle against Mother England, won, and established a stable and relatively equitable government. As revolutions go, ours was an outlier. Rebels are rarely wealthier than their oppressor, though eighteenth century Americans were better off than their English cousins. Revolutionaries are usually poor, but even more often revolution is triggered not by poverty per se, but discontent fomented by an inequitable economic pie.
Back in 1977, when 70% of Americans were content, revolution was unthinkable. But how low does that percentage have to drop before bellyaching turns into action, civil disobedience, and insurrection? I am not aware of a metric that maps the spiral towards revolution, but I discovered the Gini coefficient, a measure of income equity, which has a likely correlation. Gini coefficients range from 0.00 (perfect equity) to 1.00 (total inequity). The CIA tracks every nation’s Gini coefficient because countries with high Gini’s are more prone to civil unrest, totalitarian regimes or both. In the 2009 Gini view of the world, the map is blush in Scandinavia, where the Gini is as low as 0.25, it grows beige across Europe, Canada and India, tan across Russia, orange for the United States, Mexico, and China, where our Gini is about 0.45, red for Brazil, and Congo, maroon for Columbia, Bolivia and Haiti, and blood red for South Africa, whose Gini of 0.70 is the highest in the world.
Gini is not a measure of wealth; it is a measure of fair. And the United States has colored itself solidly among the nations of the world whose income is distributed unfairly, the countries most prone to either iron-clad rule or revolution.
I get numb by the numbers broadcast about national debt, bailouts, and the Gross National Product. But the simple calculation of dividing the $54 trillion United States GNP by the 315 million people who live here illustrates that each citizen’s proportionate share of our country’s wealth is $170,000. Few of us have that much income, but because the one percenters have so much more flowing their way, the vast majority of us have less.
The United States will not have a revolution soon; it is not among our current strategies for affecting change. But if we keep moving in the direction we are, with increasing inequality and increasing discontent, our culturally accepted methods of influencing government and economic policy will fail, and the people who experience inequality – which is virtually all of us – will turn to other means to achieve equity. I hope it does not come to that. Let’s use our democratic processes to translate the will of the people rather than the will of lobbyists or corporations, to make the United States a land of greater equality rather than a land of greater instability. We are blessed to be so rich. Let us use that blessing to become more just, compassionate, and fair.
The Gini Index for 2009