To be in the top one percent of earners in the United States, an individual must make a gross income of $421,926. That is quite the sum, and an individual mired down in the lower quintiles will of course feel some degree of envy at the lifestyle of such persons. But this is a rather narrow scale with which to weigh the relative wealth of two individuals. If we are concerned with absolute inequalities, why stop the analysis at the borders of the United States?
On a global scale, you are almost certainly in the one percent. Pretty much every citizen of the United States is in the one percent. If you make a little over $30,000 a year, you are a part of that same group you may have recently denigrated as out of touch, greedy, or hoarding the wealth that could do more good in someone else’s (presumably your) pocket. In fact, we are so much of an outlier on the world stage in the United States that the average high school student in the America, who works 15 hours a week for minimum wage, is in the top 20% of income earners in the world. This is the relative equivalent of earning over $100,000 a year, if the area of study is confined to the United States. Stop for a second to take that in. Every single teenager with a part-time job is to the rest of the world, in terms of relative income, what a second-year associate at a law firm in a large metropolitan area is to us in the United States.
And we are not just dramatically wealthier than the vast majority of the planet, we are also far richer than our past selves. Americans used to spend 65% of their waking hours to afford essentials like food and shelter. Today, it is only 25%. A little over half our time is spent on leisure, and all but the most destitute among the poor in the US have flat screen TVs, refrigerators, air-conditioning, and cell phones.
This is emphatically NOT to say that the poor of America are living large, but is meant merely to emphasize the incredible fortune of those of us lucky enough to be born in the United States. And that is just what it is, right? Luck? That is certainly the argument behind the Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” idea that so many who favor radical redistribution of income within the borders of the nation cling to in support of their moral foundations.
If before you were born your proverbial self were informed that it was to be randomly assigned an identity among the whole of humanity, chances are you will not be as wealthy, healthy, or well-educated as you are in the United States. Median household income across the world is $9,733 , approximately three times lower than the poverty level in the US for a family of four, which ranges between $25,000 and $30,000, depending on the geographic location of the household. Furthermore, as of September of 2017, median household income was $57,617 in the United States — almost six times greater than median income worldwide.
The “one percent” in the United States earn eight times the income of the median household, but simply looking at ratios categorically fails to adequately measure the relative differences in wealth and income. Average incomes in the United States yield lifestyles only dreamt of for much of the world population — not in that we have much more of the same stuff they have, but in that we have all the essentials and then a huge remainder to do with as we please. Whereas — while the absolute difference between Jeff Bezos and you in terms of total dollars and multiples of wealth may be greater than the same measure as applied to you and the average citizen from the rest of the world — it is wholly inappropriate to say that Jeff Bezos is better off relative to you than you are relative to the average world citizen. This is simply untrue.
The moral of the story: you probably shouldn’t covet other people’s stuff, especially not without first fully appreciating that, under your own view of the world, taking some of your money and giving it to the average citizen of Bangladesh would do objectively more good for that person than would your life be made better by taking some of Warren Buffet’s money as your own.
This may at first seem to contradict the early statement that teenagers making minimum wage and working part-time in the United States are in the top 20% of wage earners in the world. It does not. This is because the $9,733 figure applies to households, not individual wage earners. For much of the world, households have three or four (or even more) wage earners combining take home pay to makeup their “household income.”