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Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Root Cause of "Occupy Wall Street"

The idea of a finances-based revolution is not new. It actually happening is also not new.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is the beginning of such a revolution in this country.
If we, the people, are lucky it will end with policy change within our existing legal structure; if we are not lucky it will either end with no change or with a complete governmental collapse. Either of these outcomes has potential to be far more beneficial to the majority of people but carries greater likelihood and potential for far worse outcomes.

To understand this movement one must first understand that there are three main components to wealth: wealth itself, rate of increasing wealth and the rate of change of the rate of wealth increase (for mathematicians: these are obviously connected through calculus as the rate of increasing wealth is an integral of wealth itself and the rate of change of the increase in wealth is an integral of that).

If you take any ONE of these factors for an individual at any given point in time you have a very small picture of their financial health. If you take any ONE of them over a span of time you have a much clearer picture of the trend of their financial health. When you add all three factors, over a period of time, you get a solid picture of the financial health of the subject. But what will that picture MEAN? Nothing. Wealth is an abstract concept and, because it is abstract, it means nothing unless you have a frame of reference. Therefore one needs to match the same data sets within the same time period to other subjects for any of the data to have actual MEANING. The larger the data set the greater the potential meaning.
Now that there is an understanding on what this data means there can be a presentation on the data that has driven the people to occupy the symbolic center of banking within the US and protest the way that the bottom 99% of people have had their financial lives drained.

Without doing an exhaustive review of many difference sources it is difficult to get a full picture of any of these data sets and, even then, many of the sources appear to be in conflict with each other. This is because wealth is an abstract concept that is open to some interpretation AND people are reluctant to fully divulge their financial information. The end result is that only a general picture can be built across the full population.

In all four categories below I was interesting in links with data charts and graphs far more than links with large blocks of text. I admit that I did almost no reading unless I found data on the charts that conflicted with my current understanding of the greater picture.

1. Wealth in the US
Estimates range on this but generally all show approximately half of the financial wealth of the USA being owned and controlled by the top 1% of the population.

Here is the google search I used:

Here are a few links I looked at:

2. Growth in Wealth in the US
The pattern here becomes clearer. Growth of wealth is increasing in all sectors of the USA, but the rate of that growth is not equal. The top 1% have their wealth growth growing faster than any other. To put the growth of wealth into perspective one could cross-reference the cost increase for living in each of the salary ranges listed to see how limited the growth actually is for several ranges.

Here is the google search I used:

And here are some articles that I looked at that were useful:

3. Change in the Rate of Growth in Wealth in the US
This is the most disturbing of the figures for it shows how quickly the growth rate is changing in favor of exterminating the wealth of the poorest 9% of the population. The faster this is the faster the existing middle class will be destroyed and the harder it will be to build a healthy financial future for anyone who is not born into one.

Here is the google search I used:

All of the relevant links for this data point have already been shared above.

4. Current Snapshot of Wealth Distribution in the US Versus Other Countries
There are lots of ways to examine distribution of wealth. When one examines the per-capita wealth of a nation one will get a figure that usually does not represent the average person in that country. Distribution of wealth within that country as compared to the distribution of wealth in other countries coupled with the per-capita figure show a better picture. For example, a country where the top 1% own 75% of the wealth of the country will misrepresent the per-capita more than a nation where the top 1% control only 25% of the wealth. The more out of balance the internal distribution, the more the per-capita figure is out of alignment with the average person in the country.
There are not very many ways to compare this quickly and concisely.
Here are some links to graphs that demonstrate CEO pay versus that of the average worker:

Here are some additional links for reference:

It is important to note that some of the figures on wealth divergence are very similar to those seen just before the Great Depression. In a time where all of the wealth is locked up in the hands of a small number they purchase what they need, supplying jobs to only the suppliers of those goods. If no one else has any money to purchase goods or services then no one can hire anyone to provide those services (e.g. and earn money to purchase those services). The economy is a lot like streets in a city in this regard; as long as everyone keeps moving everything works well but when things stop moving gridlock occurs and no one can move anything.

These four data components demonstrate that the wealthiest people in the US have altered the wealth-accumulation patterns in their own favor at an ever-increasing rate. There is a finite amount of wealth (the economy runs not on the volume of wealth but rather on the movement of that volume) which will grow, but it grows at a rate that is much smaller than the rate of monetary movement. The end result is that as the wealthiest people leverage the markets to grow their wealth more rapidly they are, in essence, stealing the potential to do so away from the people who need the monetary growth the most. This process is flattening the middle class from both ends and will, eventually, wear it down until it no longer exists. If you are reading this you are probably a part of the middle class. Most everyone you know is probably a part of the middle class. Think about how difficult it is for you to get ahead financially. Think about what $100 / month invested into low-yield savings account would do for you if you could leave it there for 30 years. Now think about a slightly higher-yield account of some sort and how that would benefit you in 30 years. If you were able to bring home an additional $100 / month (after taxes) and then you took the initiative to save it think about how much money that would be when you retire. Now think about the factors that are preventing you from either saving that money now or preventing your employer from paying it to you. Now look at the pay-divergence chart above. Where do you think that extra $100 per month that you could be saving has gone? And that $100 / month that I could be saving? and that $100 / month that all of your friends and acquaintances and family members could be saving?

I do think it is important to note that the current US wealth distribution closely mirrors that of the overall world wealth distribution. But, as pointed out above, that is not the complete picture. How fast each group is gaining wealth in comparison to the other groups is more important than that current snapshop. What is more important than the current rate of change is the change in that rate. The US market is changing in favor of the wealthiest 1% gaining an ever-increasing share at an ever-increasing pace. At the current rate, if nothing changes, the US wealth distribution will not mirror that of the world for very long; it will continue to aggregate its wealth into the top 1% until it is able to affect the worldwide average instead of being a point on the spectrum.

I am not a communist. I am not a socialist. I think Capitalism is the system that has proven, time and again, to be the best at managing market forces. The problem with it is that it also breeds greed. And greed is what allows us ALL to become stupid with money and to allow situations to occur where 99% of a population are put into a financial depression because the other 1% want more and more for themselves and are willing to take it from anyone. Capitalism, unrestrained is as bad as any other means of managing an economy. Bloated government interfering with the economy is no better than a complete lack of controls.

The real conundrum is how can we fix what we have now in such a way as to provide the proper governmental controls to prevent the 99% from being "robbed blind" by the 1% while still allowing the market to work smoothly to meet demands where possible? I think that the only answer there is to have smart people in government. Smart people who want to make things better for everyone rather than people who want the power and respect of being a Senator or Congressperson. Smart people who will work toward fixes rather than fighting along party lines just to prevent the other party from getting a good idea credited to them first......

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