Egyptian Revolution and the Gini Coefficient: A Social Scientist Turned ToTer Breaks It Down

Posted on by Benjamin Chabot-Hanowell (Brash Equilibrium)
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In the wake of massive protest, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said last Tuesday that he will not seek re-election. Psych! Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Tahrir Square this Thursday to listen to what they thought would be President Mubarak's resignation speech. Instead, they got trolled harder than that guy who posted an innocent ad for a jogging partner, to which this guy responded.

Talk about a letdown. Compare the disappointed crowd of a hundred thousand to the massive heap of Egyptians who gathered in the square last week in hopes that Hosni would get the message. A clever redditor contrasted the overwhelming Tahrir Square throng to the tame crowd surrounding the staged toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad after the US's 2003 military campaign. Check this out:

Be glad all those people aren't zombies.
Be glad all those people up top aren't zombies.

On BBC's Have Your Say last Tuesday, an Egyptian commenter argued that huge income inequality has spurred the protests, which have already gone viral in the Middle East. Given the huge gap between rich and poor in the region, no wonder people are so angry, the argument went.

The comment reminded me of a Monday-night ThinkProgress article from columnist Pat Garofalo. Garofalo cites the CIA World Factbook's statistics on income inequality in several nations, including the United States, Egypt and Tunisia. According to those statistics, income inequality in the U.S. is at least as high as it is in the two Middle Eastern countries, and probably higher.

Not this Garofalo.
Not this Garofalo, Gen X-ers.

Wait. WTF? Income inequality is at least as high or higher in the U.S. than in Egypt and Tunisia, and millions of people aren't marching in the streets demanding the ouster of the presiding government (LaRouchians and Tea Party members aside)? Is this just further proof of American apathy, presumably linked to American stupidity?

I like to joke about how stupid my fellow citizens are as much as the next guy. In this case, however, I'll put my foot down and put on my social scientist hat.

Benjamin Chabot-Hanowell is one studly man.
The author, after putting on his social scientist hat. Yes, those are Alberto Vargas pin-ups behind him.

I'll let the cat out of the bag: In my other life, I'm an anthropologist who studies the emergence and maintenance of social inequality in the absence of ignorance and coercion. In plain English: I study why people accept the short end of the stick even when they aren't stupid and don't have a gun to their head. Or at least I will study that until my colleagues and would-be employers find out I write fart jokes, 5 reasons you should cross your legs like a lady (even if you're a dude), and zombie-related top 11 lists in my spare time. (Here's proof of my other life.)

Benjamin Chabot-Hanowell, Grand Master Crux Europa.
The author in his study, flipping you off while crossing his legs Euro-style.

Now that we're being transparent, we'll deconstruct the idea that, since income inequality in the U.S. is high, we should be on the streets throwing Moloktov cocktails (okay, peacefully demonstrating) instead of sitting in a coffee shop, writing this snarky article.

The measurement of income inequality Garofalo referenced is the Gini index. I'm so good that I will construct my argument while simultaneously educating you about the Gini index and telling fart jokes (actually, jokes about pumpkin pie).

1.) The Gini index measures how much the distribution of income in a population departs from the distribution you would expect if we lived in a socialist utopia where everyone had equal income and remembered to wear their Malthusian Belts during the daily orgy.

"Okay, we're with you so far, buddy!"

O, brave new world, that hath such drivel in it.
The World State, where the Gini index is 0 and the girls are easy.

2.) The Gini index ranges from 0 to 1. (Or from 0 to 100 if you multiply by 100. Or, for the matter, from 0 to e if you multiply it by Euler's number.)

"Still with you, Brash! (Kinda.)"

3.) The higher the Gini index, the higher the income inequality.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Gini index in 2009 was almost 47. I found two figures from different years showing Egypt's Gini is somewhere near 34. The highest Gini index in the CIA World Factbook is Namibia in 2003, almost 71. So we don't have the highest income inequality, but we're no Sweden! (Sweden's Gini: 23)

Sweden. Anti-capitalism capital of the world.
Ikea. The lack of innovation that anti-capitalist socialist-Nazism hath wrought!

Anyway, now things get interesting.

4.) The Gini index is scale-free. That means two different economies can have the same Gini index, even if one economy is the size of, say, the U.S. (about 14 million million dollars in 2010, and that's not a typo), but the other is the size of, say, me circa 1989 (I was five, and made one dollar).

The author, when he was a Ghostbuster.
Back then, the author made most of his money as a freelance Ghostbuster.

Let's put this in perspective. Imagine you have a choice between a good-sized piece of a normal-sized pie (about 12" wide) and a tiny sliver of a pie that's nearly half the width of a football field. That's about the scale of the U.S. economy compared to the Egyptian economy. I don't know about you, but I'll take the tiny sliver of the ginormous pie. Then again, I really like pie.

Ginormous pumpkin pie!
This huge pie is not even half the size of the behemoth I'm talking about. Mmmmmmmmmm.

The lesson? Because the Egyptian economy is so small compared to the U.S. economy, their slightly lower income inequality doesn't matter. You can be flat broke in the U.S., completely obese, and own an iPhone, for God's sake. But if you're lowest on the Egyptian totem pole, you might not get to eat every day.

4.) Lastly, the Gini index tells you about income inequality. It tells you nothing about inequality in opportunity to use that income to better your station in life. Don't get me wrong, upward social mobility in the U.S. is much less likely than the American Dream would like us to believe. That said, perhaps differences in upward mobility may also account for the outrage Egyptians are expressing toward their aging leader.

The American Dream
The American Dream, deferred.

I guess the real question is: Why have Egyptians tolerated this for decades? And how much longer will they be forced to do so? But that's a Hosni of a different color.

Which would you prefer: good-sized piece of a normal-sized pie, or tiny sliver of a freakin' GINORMOUS pie?

4554 views & 12 votes

Debate It! 6

nice write up buddy, but I gotta say ultimately, I prefer neither. I think that something more akin to a Resource Based Economy, which the good folks over at the zeitgeist movement are advocating for is the best case scenario. There doesn't have to be any income inequality at all in an economy of abundance. Hell, there doesn't even have to be money or any form of currency for that matter. All we have to do is allocate resources intelligently and make the switch to renewable energy resources like solar which is extremely abundant. With the way technology is going, with namely AI, machine automation, and molecular manufacturing, I think we'll get there relatively quickly and the corrupt capitalist status quo will become obsolete.

Posted By kidgill2000,

I hope so kidgill. I hope so. I doubt inequality will ever go away. And I doubt technologically does much but exacerbate it. But who knows.

If the world did turn out that way, I ask you a question: would you wan to live in a world where, no matter how hard you worked, you got the same out of it as someone else who didn't work half as hard?

I am not saying inequality in life chances is causes by inequality in effort. By no means. It is mainly caused by the fact that wealth is heritable, and defensible. Still...I wonder if I'd want to live in a world where everyone was paid equally.

Posted By Brash Equilibrium,

Commies afoot on ToT!

Posted By Karla,

Fuckin typo

Posted By Brash Equilibrium,

Karla: Commies are a foot?

Posted By Brash Equilibrium,


EPIC ad troll! You, sir, are a true (American?) hero.

Posted By Brash Equilibrium,

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