Last year, we replaced our TV. We didn’t get anything fancy – a smallish, flat screen TV. We didn’t need another TV. We already had one. But it was boxy and simply didn’t work in our living room. A reasonable purchase, right? Or does the fact that we had money to spend on a new TV mean that we have too much at our disposal? That we should have given that money to people that really needed it?
There are astonishing income disparities in the United States and between the United States and the world as a whole. According to Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez, in 2007 the top decile of American earners made 49.7 percent of total wages, a level that's "higher than any other year since 1917 and even surpasses 1928, the peak of stock market bubble in the 'roaring' 1920s."* Most of us within the Carleton community probably do not think of ourselves as rich. When we think of rich people, we think of the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, LeBron James or Oprah Winfrey. And there’s no doubt that these people really are very rich. We are not like Gates, James or Winfrey. We are, however, people who upgrade their TVs to better suit their living rooms, or to be able to watch the NFL in HD.
Now take a moment to consider your income in relation to the rest of the world (or, if you don’t have an income yet, what you see yourself earning in 10 years). Suppose your gross annual income is $40 000 in your first job after college. According to this site, you will be amongst the richest 1% of people in the world and earn more than 36 times the median world income. Even if you gave 10% of your income to charity or other causes you deem worthy, you would still have earnings in the top 1.3% of the world, earning 33 times more than the median world income.
In light of these figures, doesn’t it make sense to say that we are indeed rich? And does it also suggest that we may have too much money if giving away 10% of our income barely affects our standing in the world? Do we have an obligation to give away some of our wealth? By some standards, we are not rich. But by others, we are very rich. And so we want to know:
How rich is too rich?
(Engaging in ethical reflection is its own reward. But so is the $20 gift certificate to the Carleton bookstore we will randomly give to one lucky commenter. So join in!)
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