At a gut level, people know the 99%-1% distinction is flawed

by Ryan Streeter on December 16, 2011. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

When I hear from readers of my regular Indianapolis Star column, the comments are usually negative. Often respectful, as this is the heartland after all. But yesterday’s column has brought most positive responses. Something about the flawed 99%-1% distinction and the reality – which everyone sees around them – that there are rich and poor alike who either earn their success or game the system struck a chord.

Here is the section that people seemed to identify with:

America isn’t a land divided by the 99 percent and the 1 percent. It’s a land divided by those who earn their success day after day and those who don’t. This class distinction has nothing to do with how rich or poor you are. It has everything to do with what kind of person you are.

Who doesn’t earn their success? Here are some examples:

Most lottery winners. Someone who earns barely above the minimum wage shouldn’t be gambling. When he wins, his success has nothing to do with merit.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac executives who gambled on subprime mortgages because of a taxpayer-backed advantage. They represent all too-big-to-fail constituencies. Their success — connected as it is to Washington — is divorced from merit.

The teacher who enjoys a security she knows the parents of her students don’t enjoy. When success is divorced from merit in the classroom, we all lose.

The chief executive who drives a public company into the ground and receives a multimillion-dollar severance package. Everyone knows that’s just plain wrong.

The young woman who knows that having a baby out of wedlock brings with it a host of government-benefits. There’s not much merit in feeding your child with taxpayers’ money.

The son of a multimillionaire who lives off his dad’s wealth. Spoiled rich kids are among the biggest wastes of money in America these days: They consume vast sums and produce little. Some of them have even been found amid Occupy Wall Street protesters. Their parents do America a great disservice by severing the tie between success and merit.

Earned success has nothing to do with where you land on the income scale.

Imagine if the NFL paid the biggest salaries to people based on seniority or a player lottery. Brett Favre would play until he was 70 years old, and Peyton Manning could be earning Curtis Painter’s salary and vice versa. Professional football would be a joke. No one would watch it.

For the record, I have a special affection for Curtis Painter, who is a homegrown Hoosier who had a really tough job this year. But the point I made stands…

  • Larry

    you make some good points but you conveniently leave out a lot of things that are inconsistent with your notion of who the 99% are. How about the maid in the hotel who works a lot harder and does a better more consistent job than a lot of CEOs. She makes minimum wage and he makes millions

    • Graham Nystrom

      Not to state that CEO’s are paid appropriately, but to compare the two are not equal. The maid is responsible for simple tasks of cleaning hotel rooms. Her responsibilities should she fail them, do not affect much. In contrast, an executive is supposed to be in the position of managing a large amount of funds, people, and operations. Their intricate knowledge of those operations and a good understanding of human nature are supposed to keep the company profitable and increase growth. Now, do most CEO’s fall into this generalization? No, I’d argue not. However, comparing the level of physical work to the amount of responsibility one is supposed to have does not work.

      That is why when a CEO screws up, they need to be liable, just like if a maid were to not do her job shed find herself unemployed.

  • Ron C. de Weijze

    Paying with earned money is not the same as paying with earned attention.