The economist Edward N Wolff, of New York University, has pointed out that, as of 2007, the top 1% of households in America owned 34.6% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% had 50.5% of the wealth. This means that just 20% of the people owned 85% of the wealth, leaving only 15% for the bottom 80% of the people. No one who is interested in an equitable society can fail to be irked by this unfairness.
But the unfairness is, unfortunately, not unexpected. What the protesters are fighting (consciously or unconsciously) is the 80/20 rule – variously called Pareto’s principle, Zipf’s law, the long tail or Benford’s law, depending on what you are studying – a staple in scientific, economic and business textbooks, the go-to idea to show how the frequency of a set of natural events is not always what you might recognise as, well, natural.
The maths underlying the 80/20 rule, known as the power law distribution, is found in many natural systems over which no single human has much influence. Its concentration of the extremes seems built into the fabric of complex systems that depend on numerous factors that continually change over time.