Rolling the Dice

As noted Monday, in the U.S. today, the top 20% most wealthy citizens own 84% of the wealth and the top 1% own 50%.

Is that sustainable?

I wouldn’t think so, but the “have-nots” haven’t taken to the streets yet and serious crime is down in most major metropolitan areas. And curiously, quite a few of the eighty percenters are opposed to increasing the taxes of the top twenty percenters. In fact, I’m guessing a lot of the TEA Party is made up of bottom eighty percenters.

Maybe they see themselves joining the top twenty percenters sometime soon. Recent research would suggest they’re delusional because social mobility is extremely low in the U.S. right now, even lower than in most other developed countries in Western Europe. Our perception of our country as a bastion of social mobility is not even close to reality.

Maybe the top twenty percenters have cast some sort of Nancy Grace, sports, reality-television based spell on the bottom eighty percenters that keep them from asking questions about equality of opportunity let alone agitating for a saner redistribution of wealth. Just keep watching Survivor Nicaragua, Monday Night football, and wondering whether Lindsey Lohan is in or out of jail and don’t worry about our proportion of wealth.

How else can you explain a situation where four people say to sixteen, we’ll take 8.4 of every 10 units of housing, health care, vacations, dining out, cars, insurance, savings, etc. and the sixteen of you figure out how to divide up the remaining 1.6 units.

How long can this go on? What eventual ripple effects can we anticipate from this growing gap between the “haves” and “have-nots”?

What’s Your SSQ?

Social science quotient.

Probably not as high as it could or should be because we’re shaped by Ron and Don.

The “Ron and Don Show”  is a popular Seattle-area radio program on 97.3 FM that I occasionally tune into during NPR fundraising campaigns and sports talk commercial breaks.

Their success isn’t accidental, it rests on great names, radio voices, personalities, energy, chemistry, and pacing, all topped off with a laser-like programming focus on whichever individual is deemed most interesting each particular day: the barefoot bandit from Whidbey Island, the Bellevue City Council person who got mauled by a black bear, the police officer charged with deadly force, the college student that committed suicide.

Ron and Don hammer away at each individual’s story for hours on end and we eat it up because we always have been and always will be suckers for detailed stories well told. Even better when the stories are somewhat sordid and make us feel better about our lives.

But we’re out of touch with the effect of the Ron and Don-like media shining its spotlight so continuously and narrowly on individuals.

The cumulative effect is we’re utterly unable to think sociologically about pervasive patterns and themes among groups. Put differently, we can’t take stories of individuals and extrapolate about what they do and don’t represent in terms of larger social scientific trends.

We’re intellectual weaklings.

Here’s two non-Ron and Don stories from last week that I offer as a social science quotient quiz. Determine your “SSQ” by using a scale of 1 to 10. Assign yourself a “1” if these findings completely surprise you, a “10” if you were already familiar with the studies and the findings, and “2’s” through “9’s” for points in between.

Story one is available here. An excerpt:

Harvard and Duke Biz school professors Michael Norton and Dan Ariely asked over 5,000 Americans about US wealth distribution and how it should look if things could be changed.

“Respondents vastly underestimated the actual level of wealth inequality in the United States, believing that the wealthiest quintile (20 percent) held about 59 percent of the wealth when the actual number is closer to 84 percent.” Studies show current US wealth inequality is near record highs, with the top one percent of Americans estimated to hold around 50 percent of the nation’s wealth.

Story two—available at Slate.com.

The U.S. imprisons more people in absolute numbers and per capita than any other country on earth. With 5 percent of the world population, the U.S. hosts upward of 20 percent of its prisoners. The country’s incarceration rate has roughly quintupled since the early 1970s. In 1980, one in 10 black high-school dropouts were incarcerated. By 2008, that number was 37 percent.

For extra credit, submit your score via the comment section.

If our scores are low, as I presume they will be, it’s not Ron’s and Don’s fault. They don’t have a dog in the “individual versus collective thinking” fight I’m outlining. All they care about is that more listeners tune into them than NPR and sports talk. And their winning formula elevates the individual at the expense of social scientific understanding because we tune in and don’t demand any more from them.