Occupy this: if you’re living here, you’re already one of the ‘one per cent’

Posted on October 20, 2011 in Equality Policy Context

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OttawaCitizen.com – news
October 18, 2011.   By Michael Den Tandt, Postmedia News

“We are the 99 per cent,” the protesters chant, eyes aflame with reformist zeal. It’s a compelling slogan, well-suited to the times and to the social-media soup in which we are increasingly immersed.

The wrinkle: It’s not true. North America and Europe, geographic epicentres of the Occupy Wall Street movement, are the fattest of fat cats, globally speaking. For any North American, least of all a Canadian, to claim economic kinship with the globally disadvantaged is silly. Mention that to an Indian. Mention it to a Chinese. Cry me a river, will be the likely response. Followed by a wry chuckle, or perhaps an expletive.

The Occupy movement, we’re told, is truly global, welded together by global social media. Everywhere the protesters repeat this statistic: one per cent of the world’s people own 40 per cent of the world’s wealth. The remaining 99 per cent must scrape by on the remainder. The usual suspects — greedy business leaders, backside-covering CEOs, pinstriped, blue-suited, squeaky-shoed bankers — are collectively to blame.

The data cited by the protesters can be found in a groundbreaking analysis carried out by an international team of economists in 2005-2006. The study of household wealth distribution among 229 countries (using the year 2000 as a baseline) was the largest ever of its kind. It was carried out by the Helsinki-based World Institute for Development Economics Research, under the auspices of the United Nations University.

The team of authors — led by a Canadian, University of Western Ontario economist James Davies — found that adults in North America, Western Europe and a few Asian countries, most notably Japan, together possess almost all the world’s household wealth (a measure of total assets, including real estate, investments and all other property, net of any debt.), about 88 per cent. Everyone else, the majority of the world’s people, share the remaining 12 per cent.

Drilling in, the numbers are striking. For example: North America accounts for only 6.1 per cent of the world’s adult population. But North Americans (again, as of the year 2000) held 34.4 per cent of the world’s household wealth. Europeans, with a much larger share of population, 14.9 per cent, held 29.6 per cent of the wealth. And rich Asia-Pacific nations, just five per cent of the global population, accounted for 24.1 per cent of household wealth.

Canada on its own remains a bit player, with only 0.6 per cent of the world’s adult population. But our share of global household wealth is, no surprise, disproportionate, at nearly two per cent.

Broken down differently, the data shows that the United States accounts for 25 per cent of the world’s wealthiest 10 per cent. Japan accounts for 20 per cent, Germany eight, Italy seven, Britain six, France four, Spain four, and Canada two per cent. Taiwan, Australia, the Netherlands, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Switzerland together account for an additional 12 per cent. The rest of the world together, comprising the balance of 213 countries, is home to just 13 per cent of the world’s wealthiest people.

In other words, recession or no, we still have it plenty good. North Americans have little cause for complaint in a global context. Based on the UN data, bragging rights for the disenfranchised belong to the Chinese, Indians and Africans. Not to us. Not to anyone protesting on Bay Street, or in St. James Park, or anywhere in Western Europe, for that matter.

For although China is home to 22.8 per cent of the world’s adults, the Chinese collectively hold less than three per cent of the world’s wealth (though that has no doubt grown since 2000). The Indians, with 15.4 per cent of the global population, have just 0.9 per cent of global household wealth. And Africa, with 10.2 per cent of the world’s adults, is home to only one per cent of the planet’s wealth.

The irony? The financial districts of Beijing, Mumbai and Nairobi, last time I checked, aren’t teeming with people yearning for the downfall of capitalism. Indeed, an attempt to launch Occupy Mumbai this week fizzled and died. That’s because, to most Indians, capitalism means investment and the possibility of a better job.

In an era of debt retrenchment, Canadians have good reason to fear declining living standards — but only compared to ourselves, and only in the context of a golden age of prosperity, perhaps just now waning, unlike anything the world has ever seen.

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