There is an interesting interview with Richard Wilkinson on ted.com about the damage to society that is caused by excessive inequality . The conclusion is interesting, it seems that one part of the solution is to send the message that excessive greed is anti-social. The demonstrations against the greedy 1% seem likely to do some good in this regard. He also has a TED talk about this in which he shows that even the rich don’t benefit from great inequality . If nothing else the links between great inequality and high rates of mental illness and murder should convince people that they don’t want to live in such a society.
Some of the radio news reports have claimed that some of the people in OWS camps in Australia are somehow unworthy because they have smart-phones and digital cameras. They seem to believe that people have to demonstrate great poverty to have standing to complain. The problem here is that owning a mobile phone is essential to getting employment in many industries, so the vast majority of people who are old enough to work but not near retirement age just have to own a mobile phone. Once you have decided to use a phone if you are going to use it a lot (which you probably will if living in a tent in a public place) then being on a contract usually makes economic sense. As the cheapest contracts include a “free” Android phone that means almost everyone who is old enough to be allowed out alone at night and young enough to be willing to sleep rough for a cause will have such a phone.
A related complaint is about people owning good cameras. One reason for this is the fact that the huge number of cameras deters the police from using excessive force – that’s a good justification for spending money on a good camera. But then a good camera doesn’t cost much nowadays, the specs on $100 cameras are quite impressive and a camera that costs $400 new will have features that are useful for professional photographers – and cameras are even cheaper on ebay.
In Australia social security payments for a single person who is out of work are as much as $486.80 per fortnight . Therefore someone who is living on social security could buy a great camera if they saved up two weeks of social security payments or buy a similar camera on ebay for one week’s worth of payments.
When at a protest the widespread use of cameras is essential for protection against police brutality. It’s worth saving up for a camera.
But really they are missing the point, OWS is about representing ~99% of the population. Even people on the average income are suffering because of the greed of the rich.
Is Australia such a Great Place?
There have been claims that Australia is such a great place that OWS protests are not needed, supposedly we have a very egalitarian society. The ABS data shows that the level of inequality as expressed by numbers isn’t that great when restricted to just income if you restrict the analysis to the top 20% . The mean gross household income per week is $340 for the lowest quintile and $2,380 for the highest quintile giving a ratio of 1:7.0. But when you look at total household net worth it’s $27,400 vs $1,720,700 – a ratio of 1:62.8! The ratio for the richest 1% would surely be a lot greater but a quick search of abs.gov.au didn’t turn up any statistics on them. Also Richard Wilkinson’s analysis puts Australia quite close to the US.
If the people who are in the top 1% earned their money, paid taxes, and didn’t pervert the political process then there wouldn’t be any OWS protests. The corruption in the political process and rent seeking by corporations isn’t as bad here as it is in the US, but it’s bad enough that we need some serious changes. Emily Manuel wrote an interesting article for Tiger Beatdown about the need for an Occupy movement in Australia . Her description of the political problems in Australia is quite clear. But I wasn’t convinced by her analysis which suggested that Australia is different from the US in any significant way.
Really Comparing Income
To properly compare income it doesn’t make sense to compare a ratio of money earned, or disposable income which is often misleading due to disagreements about what is considered disposable. It’s really about which of the things that you want to do can be achieved on your income. One possible way of comparing it is based on Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. The poorest 20% of households in Australia have a gross income of $340 per week. The ABS shows that the average of private rental prices in the 8 capital cities (where most of the population lives) is $218 per week . Obviously the poorest households can’t afford an average rent unless you have lots of people packed in one house. No matter how you look at the numbers it’s going to be difficult for low income people to pay for rent and food. That puts them on the bottom level of Maslow’s higherarchy.
It seems to me that the benefits of increased income diminish and it becomes more of a contest to be richer than other people. Owning an old car is a significant benefit over having no car. Owning a new car has some real benefits over an old car. Luxury cars usually have safety features before they are introduced to cheaper cars, but apart from that the benefit of owning a luxury car is small. Owning multiple Rolls-Royces doesn’t seem to provide any real benefit, someone who would want to do that would probably be better served by hiring a good psychologist.
In a comment Brendan Scott cited The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen. That’s a great point, and I’ll have to read that book! I still maintain that owning two Rolls Royces is a symptom of psychological problems, people who can sort out such problems won’t feel the need to try and prove that they have more money than others.
Charles Stross has an interesting article about wealth disparity etc . Being a sci-fi author he also explores what life might be like after Drexler boxes satisfy most of our current materiel needs.
The Age has an informative article by Suzy Freeman-Greene contrasting the OWS protests in Melbourne which were broken up by police to the Catholic anti-abortion protests that have been going on for more than 20 years . It seems that corporations aren’t the only large organisations that are pwning democracy!
-  http://blog.ted.com/2011/10/26/we-quite-suddenly-realized-that-what-we-were-looking-at-was-a-general-pattern-qa-with-richard-wilkinson/
-  http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_wilkinson.html
-  http://www.centrelink.gov.au/internet/internet.nsf/payments/newstart_rates.htm
-  http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/0/4EABC33B47FEE100CA25773700169C75?opendocument
-  http://tigerbeatdown.com/2011/10/25/why-do-we-need-an-occupy-australia/
-  http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/1301.0Chapter10052009-10
-  http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2011/10/a-cultural-experiment.html
-  http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/some-occupy-to-protest-others-to-hamper-harangue-and-hurt-20111111-1nbn4.html