Philanthropy, Resources

This Isn’t Santa’s Parade

We have a hard time getting our minds around relative poverty and wealth. Here’s one helpful idea. Dutch economist Jan Pen imagined a parade in which all of humanity walks past in order of wealth, from least wealthy to most. The parade lasts one hour and people’s heights are also determined by their wealth. (I first came across this is The Numbers Game by Blastland and Dilnot, which taught me more about statistics than any math course I ever took). Here’s a Canadian take on what this would look like:

Mere statistics about inequality can suck the real-life drama out of the story. So Dutch statistician Jan Pen came up with a more vivid way to illustrate inequality, by presenting the national distribution of income as a one-hour parade in which everyone in the country marches and everyone’s size is determined by his or her income. The bigger the income, the taller the marcher. Here’s what Canada’s parade looks like For the first six minutes, the marchers are so small, it’s hard to see them. With average family incomes of about $10,000, they stand only about one foot tall. The marchers get gradually taller. When we reach the midpoint of the parade, they measure about 5 foot, 6 inches, with an income of $55,000 – the median Canadian family income. After that, the marchers continue to increase gradually in height until the last few minutes, when they shoot up dramatically to heights of 16, 17, 18 feet and more. By the last few seconds, we see some extraordinary giants, such as John Hunkin, chairman of CIBC, with an income of $13.8 million, measuring almost 1,380 feet high, and auto parts magnate Frank Stronach, father of Belinda, with an income of $53.5 million, measuring just over a mile high! But this parade only measures inequality of income. The more meaningful measure is inequality of wealth – that is, financial assets. So here’s the same parade of Canadians, but this time with their height measured in wealth, not income. This time, the parade has been going for about 10 minutes before we even realize it’s begun – because those at the front aren’t just tiny, they’re actually underground. (They own nothing of value and are net debtors). At about 20 minutes, we see people the size of dwarfs, until the midpoint of the parade, where marchers stand 5 foot 6 inches, with net wealth of $81,000. The rest of this parade progresses much like the income parade, until the end, when we encounter even more colossal giants. With less than one-tenth of a second to go, some of Canada’s wealthiest men stride past. There’s Ted Rogers, with assets of $1.7 billion, standing 21 miles high, and Galen Weston, with assets of $9.7 billion, stretching up a full 121 miles. Finally, bringing up the rear, is Canada’s richest man, Ken Thomson, with $21.6 billion – towering a breathtaking 272 miles above us.
And that’s just Canada; the global parade would be exponentially more dramatic. What can we do?