Does America’s 99 percent represent the top 1 percent on Earth?

at 12:41 PM ET, 10/12/2011

Some critics of the 99 percenters argue that they are still better off than 99 percent of the world’s population. “In America, you are the 99%, but in the rest of the world, you are still the 1%,” reads one image that’s been making the rounds, juxtaposing the protesters with starving African children. Occupy Wall Street’s logic, by extension, should mean that the entire United States should redistribute its wealth globally. But is the 99 percent in the United States so well off compared with the rest of the world?

As it turns out, the bottom 99 percent of the United States doesn’t make the top 1 percent of household incomes worldwide — but it comes surprisingly close. Branko Milanovic, lead economist for the World Bank research group, sent me this comparative analysis based on household income or consumption surveys worldwide, adjusted for purchasing power differences. Those at the 34th percentile of income in the United States are at the 90th percentile globally, and those at the 50th percentile in the United States are at the 93rd percentile globally. Even the very poorest Americans — those at the 2nd percentile of income in the United States — are at the 62nd percentile globally.

Technically speaking, only a small minority of Americans are in the top 1 percent globally: Just those at the 92nd percentile and above are part of the richest 1 percent on earth. But many others come pretty close. All Americans at the 82nd percentile and higher are in the top 2 percent globally, for instance. So although critics aren’t exactly right about the privileged 99 percent in this country, their general point seems to hold.

Milanovic points out that the data are adjusted based on relative price levels in different countries — what’s known as purchasing power parity — to adjust for cost of living and currency values in different countries. “Without that adjustment, Americans would be even more highly placed,” he says. For more of Milanovic’s findings, detailed in his latest book, “The Haves and the Have-Nots,” look here.

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