… the Occupiers’ new slogan: Feed the poor! Tax the veterinarians!

Posted on June 6, 2012 in Equality Debates

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NationalPost.com – FullComment
Jun 6, 2012.   Matt Gurney

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have prepared a report examining who exactly constitutes the much-discussed 1% in Canada. The term refers to the top 1% of income earners in the country, who activists in the Occupy movement (and those of like mind) contend are unfairly accumulating too much of society’s wealth, to the detriment of everyone else. And the study did find some support for that theory — the top 1% of Canadian income earners are pulling in 14% of the total earnings of the country. Their average income is $450,000 a year, compared to an average of $36,000 for everyone else. And the study also found worrying signs that sharp recessions, like the one we just endured, are driving the trend toward increased inequality, not necessarily by favouring the 1%, but by eroding the employment opportunities for the middle- and lower-classes.

That would certainly seem to lend credence to some of what the Occupiers were saying. But the study also looked closely into who qualifies for the Canadian 1%. They are overwhelmingly male, generally over the age of 35 and spread across multiple economic sectors. While the average wage of someone in the 1%, as said above, is $450,000, the minimum wage required to enter it is a surprisingly low $230,000 a year. That’s a lot of money, but not huge money. And those making it aren’t the stock brokers and financial executives you’d expect. Indeed, for every banker on the list, you’ll find a dentist or veterinarian.

And that is interesting. Becoming a medical doctor, a veterinarian or a dentist isn’t exactly easy — there are years of schooling, costly education bills and obviously a lot of hard work. But these are certainly accessible careers that anyone can aspire to. Not all of us have the brains or frankly the interest to find success in these fields, but they’re hardly a professional elite that sees more and more power concentrated in fewer, potentially corrupt, hands (the popular stereotype of the financial-sector plutocrat). Indeed, as our population grows (and our pet population along with), there is a constant demand for more doctors, vets and dentists. Their success isn’t about inheriting family wealth, lucky breaks or a broken economic model that rewards using accumulated capital to generate unproductive, and unsustainable, profits just by moving money around. It’s about polishing teeth and spaying cats.

None of that speaks to the underlying criticisms of the increasing concentration of wealth, nor does it disprove what the Occupiers were saying. Our society is absolutely seeing friction along economic, and generational, lines. My friend Barbara Kay made the point beautifully last week when she recounted an awkward encounter between herself and a Gen-Y waiter, pointing out that while the younger generation has legitimate gripes, the older generation has all the economic and political firepower. “If this were a real war, millennials wouldn’t have a prayer,” she wrote. “Oldies’ greatest fear — realistically — is outliving their money … They won’t cede their entitlements willingly.”

She’s likely right about the outcome of any such contest, but the fact that we’re even talking about the prospect is unpleasant, and bodes poorly for our society’s future. While the Canadian Occupy movement was too disorganized to be effective and seemed at times to operate in a reality-free bubble of whimsy and wouldn’t-it-be-nice economics, I maintain that they were worth listening to if only as a symptom of a greater issue within our society. They might not have had the answer — which is to say, none of their bazillion answers would have worked — but their mere existence was illuminating. As anyone who actually spent some time at an Occupy site, particularly at the beginning before the movement became its own worst enemy, could attest, it wasn’t just the standard hippy protest movement. It was bigger than that.

But it suffered from a problem laid bare by the UBC report, and arguably one being mirrored by the Quebec student protests. While there was an ideological hardcore there who protest inequality on general principles, many of the Occupiers (and I’d wager students clogging Montreal’s avenues) aren’t so much interested in inequality as they are in making sure they get their unequal share of the wealth. In tough economic times, where youth are bearing a disproportionate burden of the continuing consequences of the 2008 crisis, they have reason to be alarmed that their educations and job hopes may prove worthless, and that a job that pays in the mid-thirties may be all they can hope for. So it’s easy for them to freak out at the 1% and demand they pay more … probably not realizing how relatively easy it is to become one of those resented, distant elites. Forget the upper floors of bank-owned skyscrapers. You’ll find them in your local strip mall, urging you to floss.

Setting out to become a high-powered investor isn’t something one can just decide to do. Same with CEOs. You need certain inherent skills for that. Not to denigrate our medical professionals, who are of course highly skilled, but entering medicine or dentistry isn’t quite so impossible. Good grades, hard work and determination will give you a fair shot. The Occupiers and student protesters of today, demanding that the rich pay more or that education be free, may well in large part get their way. And if they benefit from it now and go on to enjoy some success later, they may easily find themselves picking up the tab for everyone. Tax the rich might not sound like such a good idea once people realize how low the bar for that really is.

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