Tuesday, January 3, 2012

One Percent in Medieval Europe

One percent and the rest 99 percent have been in the news often lately but it is still hard for one group to image the lifestyle of the other.  What would we say of the 1% population in the US?  What do they own?  What do they do?  Investors/gamblers?  Entertainers?  Athletes?  I could never image what they do in their own time.  The divide was too wide to see across.

However, I got a glimpse of those one percent in medieval France.  Reading "A Distant Mirror - The Calamitous 14th Century" by Barbara W. Tuchman, I encountered a paragraph describing the group people on top of the economical/social ladder:
Not all nobles were grands seigneurs like the Coucys[1].  A bachelor knight, possessor of one manor and a bony nag, shared the same cult but not the interests of a territorial lord.  The total ranks of the nobility in France numbered about 200,000 persons in 40,000 to 50,000 families who represented something over one percent of the population.
The total population of the US today is 312,795,638 (U.S. Census Bureau estimate, 3 January 2012).  Therefore, the 1% of the US population is about 312,800 and if we used the same household size as used by Tuchman, we had 62,560 to 78,200 household in the top 1%.

However, I was not comfortable with that estimate because the household number was decidedly smaller nowadays.  In order to be more accurate, I did more search online and compiled some information here:

CNN Money said that "there were just under 1.4 million households that qualified for entry. They earned nearly 17% of the nation's income and paid roughly 37% of its income tax.  Collectively, their adjusted gross income was $1.3 trillion. And while $343,927 was the minimum AGI to be included, on average, Top 1-percenters made $960,000."

Washington Post had such analysis:
Taken literally, the top 1 percent of American households had a minimum income of $516,633 in 2010 — a figure that includes wages, government transfers and money from capital gains, dividends and other investment income.

That number is down from peak of $646,195 in 2007, before the economic crisis hit, all adjusted to 2011 dollars, according to calculations by the Tax Policy Center. By contrast, the bottom 60 percent earned a maximum of $59,154 in 2010, the bottom 40 percent earned a max of $33,870, while the bottom 20 percent earned just $16,961 at maximum. As Annie Lowrey points out, that gap has grown wider over time: “The top 1 percent of households took a bigger share of overall income in 2007 than they did at any time since 1928.” (And in New York City, it’s even more skewed: the top 1 percent have an average of $3.7 million in income.)

When you look at the disparity in net worth, things look even more skewed. Wealthier Americans have assets — in home equity, stocks and other investments — that generally outstrip their cash income. Average wealth of the top 1 percent was almost $14 million in 2009, according to a 2011 report from the Economic Policy Institute. That’s down from a peak of $19.2 million in 2007.

By contrast, the poorest households were experiencing declines in net worth even before the recession hit. In 2007, the bottom 20 percent of households had an average (negative!) net worth of –$13,800 in 2007, which fell further to –$27,200 in 2009. Altogether, “average wealth of the bottom 80 percent was just $62,900 in 2009 — a dropoff of $40,900 from 2007,” EPI writes. That means the wealthiest 1 percent held an average of 225 times the wealth of the average median household in 2009 — a ratio that was 125 in 1962.
In this advance e- or i- age, the people who sit at the bottom of social and economical ladder may not look and work like dumb beasts literally as in the Middle Age, but their miseries are not dissimilar to those in the medieval time.

The misery of those poor people in the Dark Age were exacerbated by the nobles who disregarded their "social contract".  According to Tuchman in her book, "the object of the noble's function, in theory, was not fighting for fighting's sake, but defense of the two other estates and the maintenance of justice and order.  He was supposed to protect the people from oppression, to combat tyranny, and to cultivate virtue - that is, the higher qualities of humanity of which the mud-stained ignorant peasant was considered incapable by his contemporaries in Christianity, if not by its founder."

I am not championing the absolute wealth equality.  Rather, I want to point out that the rich have many social obligations as those nobles in the medieval time.  They need to care for and protest the poor, to defend civil liberty and oppose political and religious persecution and promote art and literature, etc.  Our one-percenters have failed rather terribly just as the latter-day knights and the nobles.  And we know what happened to them eventually when their greed became utterly uncontainable.

Image source: Wikipedia, courtesy of CJ DUB 

[1] Coucy was in the forefront of action, tied as he was to both France and England. Coucy was a French noble, but he married Isabella, the eldest daughter of Edward III of England. - Wikipedia


  1. While the statistics of wealth distribution are clear, I think it goes a little far to claim that the 1% have failed to do their duty. Obviously, some of them are very greedy (after all, someone made the existing tax structure happen), but not all of them. You have to remember that Warren Buffett suggested a tax hike on the super rich (including himself) and the majority of millionaires agreed with him. Many of the very rich contribute a lot of money to the arts, education, humanitarian efforts, etc. Could they do more? Probably. But they are definitely doing more than nothing.

  2. I concede that it is too broad to say all the members of the 1% failed their duty but it is fair to say that as a class, that 1% has indeed failed to live up to their collective duty. Your comment reminded me of a previous entry I blogged: Nobility of the Bailliage of Blois, George Soros and Wen Jiabao, in which I did acknowledge the failure and the consequent tragedy of some entitled members of the ruling class. Let's hope that history won't repeat.