|David Brown is a language consultant and journalist, regularly covering stories in Africa, Asia & the Middle East. He has lived in Finland for 10 years.|
Living here in Finland, it sometimes seems that the world’s protests pass us by. We don’t often see cars set on fire in Kuopio, or shop windows smashed in and looted in Joensuu. But the Occupy Wall Street protests have extended here, albeit to a modest extent, and have asked questions about Finnish society some might prefer were not asked.
But given this protest movement began in America and is largely concerned with American issues, let’s look at America first.
Consider this – the 400 wealthiest Americans have more wealth than the 150 million poorest Americans. In other words, the 400 wealthiest Americans own 1.37 trillion US dollars – a little over the amount owned by the lower half of the US population.
If we expand our net to the Top 20 per cent of Americans, we find that they hold 85 per cent of all of the privately held wealth in America.
And things have gotten worse, considerably so. In 1983, the bottom 80 per cent of Americans controlled 18.7 per cent of the country’s total wealth. In 1995 it was 16.1 per cent. Today it is only 15 per cent.
The median household in the US has lost a staggering 36 per cent of its marketable wealth in the past four years alone – largely because of the crash in housing prices. If you thought this would affect the wealthy more, you’d be wrong. The Top 1 per cent has lost only 11 per cent of their wealth, and there are already signs of this recovering.
And if you thought taxation would balance this out, you’d be wrong again. Because income from shares and inheritances are taxed at much lower rates than salaries, the super rich in the US actually pay less tax as a total percentage of their income than the wealthy people below them.
There is no real, objective measure as to how much of the wealth of a country the wealthiest 10 per cent should own. Obviously it varies from place to place, and from year to year. But using a figure called the Gini Co-Efficient, we can measure the relative distribution in wealth. Sweden has an extremely low Gini Index, meaning most Swedes own a share of the wealth pie. Of the major economies in the world, Brazil has the high Gini Index, followed by Mexico, China and the US. In all four countries we see the same pattern, where ownership of land, businesses, shares and cash is increasingly shifted into the hands of a small handful of families.
Which brings us to Finland. Finland has a Gini Index of 26.8, up from 25.6 in 1991. This puts Finland at about the same level as Canada, Belgium or Italy; above Norway and Sweden, but separated by a vast gulf from the likes of China or the US. The top Finnish executives might earn 4.5 million euros per year – in the US a similar position might pay 20 million dollars.
Although things are not so bad, they are getting worse. Executive salaries here are rising out of proportion to those of ordinary people, and our purchasing power is falling. The gap between rich and poor is growing, and relatively quickly.
It might not be time to occupy your local bank branch just yet – but it is time for us to think seriously about what kind of society we do not want to live in.