We’re all the 1%, but we’re no Scott Bakula

Did anyone ever notice that Sam Beckett avoiding leaping into African people?

Writing in Foreign Policy, Charles Kenny points out that, when you consider the global income distribution, middle-class Americans are actually part of the global 1%.

So by global standards, America’s middle class is also really, really rich. To make it into the richest 1 percent globally, all you need is an income of around $34,000, according to World Bank economist Branko Milanovic. The average family in the United States has more than three times the income of those living in poverty in America, and nearly 50 times that of the world’s poorest. Many of America’s 99 percenters, and the West’s, are really 1 percenters on a global level.

His point is sound – it’s one that has been made repeatedly by development gurus in response to the Occupy Wall Street protests. He goes on to make the case that we not only need more redistribution from the middle-class within countries, but across them as well. I’m sympathetic to this argument – `local’ inequality surely pales in comparison to the injustice of global inequality, the latter being associated with millions of people still stuck in absolute poverty.

Yet it’s clear from his writing in general that, when considering public policy, Kenny gives the welfare of people within and outside of the US equal weight. This is typical of those involved in international development – we wouldn’t be in this field if we cared only for our own (although maybe that statement is a little self-serving).

These preferences are consistent with John Rawls’s veil of ignorance (discussed earlier here), the argument that policy should be set before we know what position in society we will assume, a bit like Scott Bakula/Sam Beckett in Quantum Leap. For example, we might feel differently about US immigration policy if we thought there was a chance we might be born in Haiti. Kenny touches upon this briefly while discussing Herbert Simon:

Nor did the Western 99 percent “earn” most of their wealth, any more than the top 1 percent “earned” theirs. It’s the luck of where you’re born, according to the late Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon, who estimated that the benefits of living in a well-functioning economy probably account for 90 percent of individual income.

While I completely agree with this line of thinking – welfare weights shouldn’t be nation-specific, I think it’s a problematic way to convince others to embrace policies which are already unpopular, like taxing the middle class or easing restrictions on immigration.

Why? I think that most people just don’t feel the same way:  average levels of altruism for foreigners are certain to be lower than for other citizens, so we should be wary of making arguments which are too dependent on non-discrimination. People still see citizenship as part of a social contract – we’re all in this boat together, even if we were randomly assigned to it. Those that ended up in leaky boats are not our immediate concern (again, not the way I feel).

There are no simple solutions to the challenge of getting people to broaden their concept of the `boat’ to include other nationals, although one could argue that the international Occupy protests, for all their faults, have actually helped in this regard.